"Burning Down My Masters' House": The Fabulist

Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times., by Jayson Blair, Millennium Press, 298 pp. $24.95

Should you believe anything written by a serial liar? This question will occur to many readers of Jayson Blair's memoir, "Burning Down My Masters' House," which chronicles his four-year run as a reporter at The New York Times. For a liar, Blair begins his book in honest fashion, conceding what a 14,000-word Times report from May 11, 2003, documented: "I told more than my share of lies and became as adept as anyone at getting away with it unquestioned and unscathed."

Blair, who is 27, admits to having plagiarized other reporters' articles (though he never comes clean about the extent); to adding fraudulent datelines to pieces, indicating that he'd reported from distant cities when in fact he'd never left his Brooklyn apartment; to mining the Times computerized photo bank from his laptop computer at home, and folding visual details into his stories to create the illusion he had witnessed events firsthand. He acknowledges that as Times editors caught on, he considered constructing a phony paper trail of notes and other evidence to extend the con. Finally, his inventory of lies and schemes exhausted, Blair writes of resigning from the newspaper, contemplating suicide and checking himself into a psychiatric hospital.

These candid opening pages indicate a willingness on Blair's part to explain why he committed these and other ethical transgressions, which raked The Times's reputation and sparked the newsroom uprising that culminated in the resignations of the executive editor, Howell Raines, and the managing editor, Gerald Boyd. But contrition is a dish served not at all in this memoir. From the heights of confession, Blair rappels down Mount Excuse, blaming everybody but himself for his offenses. He continually cites his manic-depressive illness to explain his behavior. For instance, he claims to have composed the Times story that got him busted--a Page 1 piece about the mother of an Iraq war fatality, which plagiarized The San Antonio Express-News--over a blackout weekend in his apartment that he can barely recall.

Other villains appear, disappear and reappear like changing weather. Blair accuses the hypercompetitive Times newsroom culture of driving him to the edge. He describes some of his Times colleagues as corrupt hacks and fabricators and asks, in so many words, is he much worse than they are? But the only Times reporter whose ethics Blair directly criticizes is Rick Bragg, the former Times star who was disciplined by the paper for claiming a solo dateline he didn't deserve. (So much for burning his masters' house down.) Blair would have you believe that covering rape cases and reporting from the World Trade Center inferno traumatized him, and that his excessive use of Johnnie Walker Black and cocaine was self-medication. On at least two craven occasions in his book, he loots the suicides and sudden deaths of Times employees to argue that the strain of working at The Times is enough to make anyone kill himself--or plagiarize, fictionalize and lie, I suppose.

Other times, the source of Blair's troubles is found in whatever heartless Times editor he thinks is riding him, usually Jonathan Landman, then the metropolitan editor, who wrote in an e-mail message to newsroom bosses a year before the scandal broke, suggesting that Blair take some time off to deal with his problems: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." And on a few occasions, Blair, an African-American, plays the race card to account for his tenuous hold on his Times job and his emotional swings, but only halfheartedly. Far from solving the Jayson Blair enigma, this sloppy, padded and dishonest work only adds to his growing word count of lies. Such an insult probably won't faze Blair, who knows his limitations. He writes of his work at The Times, "There was no doubt that at moments I could be sloppy, but it seemed that it was more than made up for by the fact that there were good editors on the copy desk and I was a speed demon."

Born in 1976 and raised by middle-class parents, Blair gravitated to journalism in high school and was "discovered" at the University of Maryland, where he became editor of the school newspaper in his sophomore year. He freelanced for The Washington Post, interned at The Boston Globe and parlayed a 1998 summer internship at The New York Times into a reporter-trainee slot and eventually permanent employment at the paper. Although Blair wrote more than 600 articles at The Times, he never communicates much in the way of great satisfaction in a piece well done or a scoop scored. His real enthusiasms seem to be barhopping, Scotch swilling, partying, cocaine scoring and snorting, joy riding the streets of New York City in the Times company car, and playing the toadying, push-and-shove high-risk game of office politics.

Now, Times editors may have tortured the young Blair. The pressures of New York City life may have driven him mad. And The Times may be the shadiest publication this side of Weekly World News. But whatever demons--or neurotransmitters--caused Blair to lie, filch and scheme, he didn't acquire them at The Times. It appears that Blair has always been a thief, something "Burning Down My Masters' House" neglects to mention. After The Times uncovered Blair's deceptions, The Boston Globe reviewed his work there and found numerous examples of journalistic perfidy. Blair concocted news sources. He stole quotations from other newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He invented quotations and stuck them into the mouths of real people, and appears to have made up a source out of whole cloth. And according to his former student journalist colleagues, Blair appears to have plagiarized The Associated Press in the school paper at the University of Maryland.

Two questions that remain: Why does Blair lie? And why didn't The Times or Globe catch him earlier? Because Blair spends most of "Burning Down My Masters' House" reclining on the shrink's couch seeking our sympathy, it's fair to psychoanalyze him from afar. Citing this shoddily written and filibustering book as evidence, one could argue that Blair barely had the talent to work as a cub reporter on a small-town daily, let alone a major newspaper. Those who can't, steal and fabricate. And the best explanation of why he lies and continues to dissemble is also provided in this book: he seems most alive in the book when he's walking the ethical tightrope and hoodwinking somebody. Every con man loves his con, and few are as lucky as Blair to enshrine their version in book form.

Why didn't Blair's editors notice his crimes earlier? As one editor who has been conned by a fraud (ask me about it sometime), I can testify that there are only so many questions and doubts an editor can raise to a writer before he must either trust and publish, or spike and fire. Nobody can work for very long under the assumption that his colleagues and employees are kamikaze con artists like Jayson Blair. What Blair shares with other recent journalistic scam artists--The New Republic's Stephen Glass and the lesser-known Christopher Newton of The Associated Press, who invented quotations and sources in at least 40 stories--is a sharp understanding of the journalistic formula. All three writers knew enough to outline the picture their editors wanted to see, even if they couldn't produce the final, publishable portrait. (Indeed, when Blair gloats about cracking the journalistic code he does so to heap disdain on everyday journalism.)

Whether Blair got away with it because he was a clever cheat, or because The Times patronizes African-American employees, or because Gerald Boyd and Howell Raines were guilty black and white liberals, or because the newspaper became too invested in Blair's recovery from drugs and alcohol, is beyond the scope of this review. The Times is a flawed, human institution that deserves every brick tossed at it except this one. Jayson Blair is a confessed con man, and "Burning Down My Masters' House" is just another installment in his ongoing con.

Correction: A review in the Book Review last Sunday about "Burning Down My Masters' House," by the former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair, referred imprecisely to his comments about Rick Bragg, another former Times reporter. Although the book is critical of reporters who depend on the work of uncredited part-time contributors, it never "directly criticizes" Mr. Bragg. The review also misstated the period in which Mr. Blair wrote an article, which he acknowledges having plagiarized from another newspaper, about the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq. It was during the week, not "over a blackout weekend."

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