April 07, 2004,
Who'd buy a Jayson Blair book? Nobody, judging by the sales figures for Burning Down My Masters' House, his sloppy memoir of life at the New York Times. Yet House has been reviewed all over the place, probably garnering as many notices (all negative) as actual sales.
So why do journalists keep washing their hands of Blair, writing reviews that are more like exercises in journalistic hygiene than actual critiques? Because getting irritated over Blair is a perfect outlet for hand-wringing journalists, a group easily made indignant. And Blair provides a deserving target.
House is perhaps one of the least-read, most-reviled books ever published, having sold a laughably poor 2,000 or so copies in its first nine days of publication, out of an announced first printing of 250,000. That's despite a publicity push that landed Blair on Dateline NBC, Larry King Live, and The O'Reilly Factor.
Objectively speaking, House is pretty lousy, full of ugly sentences like "One learns from their environs, particularly when it comes to the priorities." There are sloppy edits and inelegant metaphors galore, such as "the bucket of water he was carrying for me was filled with lies" and "scraping the chalkboard within my skull."
The first section is dominated by Blair's mental-health problems, the mania that enabled him to work to the point where even the Times hard-driving editors suggested he step back. It will surprise no one that Blair took Ritalin as a child. At the Times he practiced self-medication, alternating between cocaine highs and alcohol lows. Yet by the end, the energy dissipated into deception and disgrace, leaving this wreck of a book. For his sake, let's hope he stays clean and his book advance doesn't vanish up his nose, the way his career has.
The book's tone is startlingly uneven; Blair alternates between fawning encomiums to friends and assertive petulance, as when he condemns his colleagues for celebrating the paper's 2001 Pulitzer Prizes: "I wondered whether they ignored the blood on those Pulitzers as they danced the night away." One can condemn then-executive editor Howell Raines for prize-sniffing after the biggest tragedy on American soil without also slamming the often-heroic journalism Times reporters achieved under duress.
There is surprisingly little here on conservative bugbear Raines, whose 21-month tenure was marked by ultra-caffeinated liberal advocacy, though Raines later came under fire for coddling Blair in the name of "diversity." Raines's relative absence further limits this book's interest to Times-haters.
There's far more on managing editor Gerald Boyd. Boyd, who is black, comes off as a laconic, dour man whom Blair resents for not helping him enough (he claims Boyd "devoured careers of blacks"). Blair tells an apparent whopper about the death of Boyd's mother, claiming she "died following a long struggle with drugs." In an angry response in the Detroit Free Press, Boyd noted his mother died at the age of 29, after a lifelong battle with sickle-cell anemia.
Sometimes Blair's chutzpah is simply stunning: "I wasn't going to fight for a job at a newspaper that had disappointed my idealism, for a newspaper that I had allowed to take something very precious from me." The Times wrecked Blair's idealism? It's enough to make one sympathetic toward the Times.
Blair is curiously preoccupied with the Times's coverage of various ethnic groups, devoting an entire chapter to the paper's often-testy relationship with Brooklyn's Hasidic Jews. It's almost as if Blair is trying to drag as many minority groups as possible into the frame with him, to bask in the reflected light of those who have suffered racial and ethnic injustice. More likely, however, it's mere padding. House is full of clumsy asides Blair's inexpert ramblings on black-white relations and due process often resemble the dregs of a reporter's notebook.
All too rarely, Blair's reportorial flair shines through, as during the sniper case, his first and last journalistic break. Yet Blair more typically wastes his keen eye on his main passion: blow. "I pulled out one of the thin, flexible cards that the New York City subway system began issuing in 1999. A perfect tool for cutting lines. Flexible, thin. And coke did not stick to it."
Also obvious is his Clintonian urge to please, telling whatever audience he's in front of precisely what it came to hear. Blair told a Harlem audience he'd "be like Moses if you want me to be" when encouraged to speak out on racial issues, according to journalist Daniel Forbes of DrugWar.com.
Sometimes the mockery is just too easy, as when Blair says "apologizing for things I was not responsible for has never been my cup of tea." Of course, he's not so hot at apologizing for things he is responsible for, either. The mea culpas scattered throughout House are invariably equipped with trapdoors addictions, work pressure, depression, and discrimination are to blame as well as Jayson himself. Blair makes an offensive comparison when talking of the 9/11 terrorists: "Anger as a byproduct of hurt and fear was not a foreign concept to me." Even in the midst of an American tragedy, it's all about him.
Blair's New York City panorama is occasionally interesting as amateur travelogue (he gets around a lot in the Times's company car), but his New York stories are irrelevant to his fabrications. A true peek inside the machinations of the Times would at least have held interest for media junkies, but Blair is only interested in personalities mainly the foibles and addictions of his colleagues, people who, at their worst, are almost as self-absorbed as Blair.
Blair's story is thus a tragedy, albeit a minor one. After all, Blair was just a reporter, and the New York Times is (though its acolytes may disagree) just a newspaper. And as his anemic sales figures testify, Blair the ex-journalist and egotist is on the way to the most condign punishment of all: utter obscurity.
Clay Waters is director of "Times Watch," a project of the Media Research Center.