Review: ‘Burning Down My Masters’ House’

Less than a year has passed since New York Times reporter and serial fabricator Jayson Blair's public flame-out became a newsroom conflagration that brought down the paper's two top editors. Blair's memoir, a gossipy tale of self-immolation, by turns rueful and spiteful, isn't likely to earn any sympathy from his erstwhile colleagues.

Less than a year has passed since New York Times reporter and serial fabricator Jayson Blair’s public flame-out became a newsroom conflagration that brought down the paper’s two top editors, Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd. Blair’s memoir, a gossipy tale of self-immolation, by turns rueful and spiteful, isn’t likely to earn any sympathy from his erstwhile colleagues. But you can be sure they’ll read it with morbid fascination.

He still holds the Times accountable for the debacle. But Blair also blames his own $500-a-week cocaine habit and an undiagnosed case of manic-depression.

“I was already on the local train to self-destruction,” he writes. “The Times just helped me transfer to the express train.”

Some journos understandably wish Blair would just go away. To them, he’s the Osama bin Laden of West 43rd Street, responsible not just for planting a black eye on the Gray Lady, but for poisoning the public’s perception of the newspaper trade.

Blair’s reign of error was particularly painful for the Times, but the fallout quickly spread beyond its borders, creating a stifling atmosphere of paranoia at other papers and putting a magnifying glass around the workaday errors of reporters everywhere. Last month, Sacramento Bee ombudsman and former Times assistant metro editor Tony Marcano exhorted fellow journos to ignore the book, and cancel their Showtime subscriptions if the cabler airs the Blair biopic reportedly now in development.

Blair’s slippery relationship to the truth is no small inconvenience for what purports to be a nonfiction book, and it puts his reader on treacherous ground. How are we to know which details are real and which, if any, are exaggerated? Maybe Blair should have written this book with a co-author. That way, there’d be another writer to substantiate his reporting.

Chapter One begins on a contrite note. “I lied and I lied — and then I lied some more,” Blair writes. Other mea culpas are scattered sporadically through the book. He doesn’t blame Raines and Boyd for his crack-up. “I owe them a million apologies,” he writes.

Blair says he was sober for a year before he began fabricating stories. But lying was clearly another form of addiction, and he provides some context for the psychopathology behind it. Blair checked himself into Silver Hill Hospital in Connecticut for a week immediately after resigning from the Times. As the scandal broke, and reporters frantically tried to reach Blair on the hospital pay phones, he undertook a heavy regimen of mood-stabilizing drugs and AA meetings.

But Blair appears less comfortable with introspection than he does reporting external events — especially those that cast an unflattering light on the Times. He describes the newsroom as a vast, impersonal bureaucracy, whose 24/7 news cycles were deeply alienating to its junior reporters. There was little supervision of Blair, even as he was bouncing off the walls, borrowing a company car for days at a time, charging huge bar tabs at Robert Emmet’s, a Time Square pub that served as the unofficial commisary for lower-echelon Times reporters. “Life was turning into a big party on the corporate dime,” he writes.

Blair bridles at the 14,000-word Times story published May 11, which documented his rash of fabrications and called the episode “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.” In response, he catalogues other Times misdeeds. He devotes a chapter to the papers’s feeble coverage of the Holocaust. Elsewhere, he dispenses blind gossip — “The editor of mine who got his mistress pregnant with twins, the reporter who plagiarized a story on plagiarism, another who got away with inventing a character our of whole cloth, and the correspondent who was caught by the Secret Service having sex with a White House press aide in the bathroom of Air Force One.”

The title of this book is a slavery reference that appears designed to suggest that it’s the angry screed of a writer railroaded by racism in the newsroom. (Note to New Millenium Press: It’s not too late to change the title for the paperback edition; why not, if Al Franken doesn’t object, “Lies and the Lying Liar Who Told Them”?)

Race is just one of Blair’s themes, but he offers plenty of evidence of casual racism. He describes articles about African-Americans that resemble safaris from alien cultures. He calls himself “a pawn in a racial game,” pinched between the lofty expectations of the paper’s affirmative action policies and the sharp rebukes of Metro editor John Landman, who Blair says, was adamantly opposed to compromising editorial standards in the name of diversity. Landman actually emerges as one of the more sensible editors here: in April, 2002, he wrote to two newsroom colleagues, “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times right now”; his warning went unheeded.

Never has a former insider presented so deeply unromantic a portrait of the New York Times. Blair’s book is a surreal counterpart to Arthur Gelb’s recent “City Room,” a magisterial account of Times history, and a generation of reporters who viewed their work for the paper as a higher calling.

Blair says he hopes that readers “teetering on the brink of self-destruction” will learn something from his story, and “pull back before it’s too late.” One can hope that the book also serves as a cautionary tale for other news organizations, to help them spot another time bomb like Blair before it goes off, and before the damage it does to their newsroom — and the news trade in general — becomes irreparable.

Burning Down My Masters' House

288 pgs.; $24.95; New Millennium Audio


by Jayson Blair
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