7 December update: Well, it's full speed ahead for Jayson Blair's attempt to make something out of his ignominy. It seems that he has learnt nothing from his experiences and feels controversy is the only way to achieve his ends. Sadly, he may yet be proved right.
Amazon.com has just starting taking advance orders for his book - due March 2004 - and its webpage has made the cover of the book visible for the first time. Any hope that Jayson may have reflected in earnest about his downfall and have something interesting to say has, sadly, been blown out the water.
The cover worringly echoes the symbolism of the title - Burning Down My Master's House. Namely that Blair is planning to play the race card significantly. The title in itself was reason to worry - it clearly refers to slavery and revolt. Black Jamaican slaves way back in the 1800s would occasionally rise up and turn against their white masters. "House slaves" - living in an unpleasant state of superiority over worker slaves - would help put out fires on their master's residence in a somewhat perverted attempt to retain their status.
The title - suggesting that he was a slave that retaliated from within - is clever and, we vainly hoped, a sign that Blair was going to make an incisive comment on the state of race relations in modern-day America. You have to remember that Blair was taken on thanks to the questionable policy of pro-discrimination. Race also, undoubtedly, played a significant part in his retention at the New York Times - the missed warning signs, the poor supervision afforded to a young reporter who appeared to be scooping the rest of the US press, the previous evidence that he had a tendency to create his version of events.
But the cover, pictured here, is a transparent recall to Wanted slave posters of the1800s. The large, bulky and unsophisticated font of the title stems from a different and earlier era of mass printing. It is clear what Blair intends: to make his own deceit, poor professionalism and sloppy morals a matter of race rather than what it is - an individual's failings.
Sadly, with a nation that retains a most incredible inability to discuss race on a rational level - the United States - it may prove to be a smart commerical move (the suggestion that there would be Rodney King-style riots if OJ Simpson was found guilty spring to mind). It seems inevitable that the media will fill itself with righteous indignation. While the best response would be to ignore this inflammatory effort or perhaps to mock such unsophisticated needling - it seems depressingly likely that in a modern media that thrives off promoting tension, Blair will receive the attention he clearly craves.
And, as we all know, attention leads to sales. It's a smart, if morally bankrupt, stance to take. It is also an indication that Blair has not learnt the right lessons from his experience. No one should forget that the whole Jayson Blair affair offered a huge opportunity for a wide, intelligent and mutually beneficial discussion over race. Blair has apparently failed to realise his one big chance at greatness.
Of course, it could also all fall down about his ears. It only takes one black leader to condemn the blatant profiteering of a dark period of history and the hoped-for slanging match that would see Blair's sins forgiven and he turned into a (deeply flawed) black champion, would flip itself upside down. We can only hope that such restraint and wisdom lies within those in a position to capture a public voice.
There is another very slim possibility - that what we have heard from the book so far has been simple PR to build sales and Blair may actually attempt to tackle the race issue in a mature and insightful manner. But all the evidence - especially if reports of the book proposal are to be believed - suggests this is an optimist's fantasy. It looks as though this shameful episode is going to get even worse.
It may also help if we are discussing the age-old issue of slavery in the United States, to post here a picture of a real slave wanted poster from the 1850s. Even the most cursory glance will reveal that what existed then and what Jayson Blair - who has led a very comfortable life, free from repression - has dealt with are two different worlds. For anyone at all to draw a link between the two is to not only to be willfully ignorant but also to disparage and mock the key event in United States history - its civil war.
1 Jun 2004: A belated update on the ongoing NYT woes