Jayson Blair: 'I lied.' Reader: 'No kidding.'
Jayson Blair is feeling generous. Ten months after he resigned from The New York Times following revelations of extensive plagiarism, fabricated interviews, and false datelines that led to the resignation of the Times's two top editors, Mr. Blair's new book "Burning Down My Masters' House" tells his side of the story.
"I lied and I lied - and then I lied some more," Blair acknowledges. But he is eager to share the credit for his transgressions with scores of others at The Times.
By Blair's account, he was grappling with an undiagnosed mental illness (manic depression) and using cocaine and alcohol to manage his moods. For three years, the junior reporter generated volumes of (legitimate) stories. During his fourth year, Blair says he stopped drinking and using drugs, which he says made his illness more pronounced. At the height of his paranoia, he says, he was unable to leave his apartment. So from there, he wrote stories full of details based on photographs, phone interviews, other news stories, and his own imagination, while telling editors he was on the road.
The stories in question were not exactly easy to miss. They included reports on the Washington-area snipers and the family of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, among others.
In light of his professed psychiatric problems, it's hard not to feel a small measure of sympathy. If Blair's account had stuck to his personal story and culpability, he might at least have thinned the cloud of ignominy that lingers over his name.
Instead, he spends much of the book weaving a tale of reporting in the big city. He tells of covering murders in Central Park, going to late-night parties, schmoozing with top officials, and billing barroom binges to his employer. Many times it seems as if Blair forgets that his is not, in fact, a hero's story.
Meanwhile, he seems to justify many of his transgressions by blaming the culture at the Times. This is where his case grows paper thin. Blair suggests he was the victim of a reaction against affirmative action, incompetent editors, lax journalistic standards, and unfair assignments.
"Many cub reporters get decent assignments to help propel them," he says of being transferred to the unsexy business desk. "But I was obviously not among the chosen, an outsider, for whatever reason - my personality, my lack of faith from the higher-ups, or race." (Blair was forced to be an intern for 18 months before promotion to a staff job many journalists would give their right arm for. Such harassment!)
This is not to say that the Times is above criticism - few papers are. Blair's scandal drew scrutiny to the paper's policy of not crediting freelance contributors, and caused the Times and other papers to tighten policies regarding the use of anonymous sources.
It's hard to know the extent to which race factored into Blair's career. He feels it biased editors against him. But former executive editor Howell Raines, who resigned because of the scandal, told employees that as a white man from the South, he gave Blair more chances than he deserved out of guilt.
Blair offers this account of his rise and fall in hopes of finding redemption, or at least a second chance. But noticeably absent from his story is remorse toward the grieving families he wrote about but never interviewed. For a someone seeking a redemption, an apology would be a good place to start.
• Julie Finnin Day is a former Monitor staffer and a freelancer in Portland, Ore.