12 March update: A few days ago, I received a faxed copy of the New York Times’ book review of Jayson’s “Burning Down My Masters’ House”, due to be published this Sunday, 14 April 2004.
Since this is a highly anticipated review - the paper discussing the value of a book whose entire contents are a personal affront to it - it clearly has some news value. I shouldn’t really have a copy of it. But from what I can make out it was sent to me by someone who had a legitimate reason to possess it.
So the question is: what to do with it? It seemed only fair to ask The New York Times. Fortunately, I didn’t have to pick up a phone and ask the “Gray Lady” because it had already answered the question in a 27 February article on the very same matter titled “Ex-Reporter For The Times Tells in Book Of Deceptions”.
In that article, The Times revealed that it knew about the review embargo placed on the book but it had received the book from a legitimate source (Amazon) - although somewhat in error - and as such was not required to hold back on reviewing its contents.
It seems only fair to apply the same rules to the New York Times’ official review of Jayson Blair’s book.
Since The Times also saw fit to make its article a critical attack on the book, in which it gave away the main details of the book but allowed ample room to put its own opinion across, I shall endeavour to follow its template.
It is important to point out immediately that as much a part of any book review as the words is the author, who must be carefully chosen, especially with high-profile reviews. It is, clearly, of great importance to have someone who has some knowledge of or has followed closely the material contained within the book. But it is a sad fact that knowledge does not always lend itself to eloquence. It is usually better to ask someone that can enthuse the reader to write a review than one that might well provide more valuable insights (but whose insights may never be read).
Likewise, it is often the case that a reviewer with strong views makes for a more entertaining read, even though it may come at the expense of clarity or reason. Lastly, as with most things in newspapers, it is most important that the reviewer argues from the same standpoint as the paper itself.
The New York Times therefore made an excellent choice in Jack Shafer, the editor at large of online magazine Slate. Shafer writes regularly and boisterously about the media and in the course of his scattergun criticism of US news outlets has occasionally struck The Times itself. He also - no doubt proudly, but with little surprise - holds the prestigious top spot on a Google search of “Jayson Blair” with his article “The Jayson Blair Project: How did he bamboozle the New York Times?”
In this article (printed three days before The Times’ first came clean with its massive front-page piece on the Blair saga on 11 May 2003) and in a subsequent article five days later, Shafer took great issue with Blair and gave a robust defence of The Times and its executive editor Howell Raines.
Despite all the water that has passed under the bridge since then, despite all the subsequent facts, figures, dates and commentary - including a vicious article by Shafer (vicious is what he does) turning on Raines and prodding him to resign - Shafer hasn’t changed his mind one jot from the article produced a week after Jayson Blair had resigned, nearly a year ago.
In fact, it’s almost as if Shafer was asked to rewrite his first article but add in some details about the book that Jayson Blair had written.
“What can you say about a trusted professional who makes stuff up and publishes it as fact?” began the original bamboozle story. This has been updated and sharpened over the course of 10 months to: “Should you believe anything written by a serial liar?” in the first line of his New York Times book review of “Burning Down My Masters’ House”.
Shafer knows that if you are about to embark on a screeching tirade, you’d better start off reasonable and get the facts in early while you still have time. So we have him stating Blair begins “in honest fashion”, and quoting Blair’s admission: “I told more than my share of lies and became as adept as anyone at getting away with it unquestioned and unscathed”.
And then a brief rundown of the tale: Blair had added fraudulent datelines to articles, used The Times picture desk to cover his tracks, plagiarised other reporters’ articles. Blair’s resigning from the newspaper, considering killing himself and checking himself in a psychiatric hospital. The resignations of Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd.
But barely into the third paragraph and Shafer is already throwing punches. “Contrition is a dish served not at all in this memoir,” he jabs, “From the heights of confession, Blair rappels down Mount Excuse, blaming everybody but himself for his offenses.” He continues: “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?”
Shafer’s answer is, of course, Yes, far worse. Skirting over the historical examples that Blair gives of Times reporters that did more damage than him - Walter Duranty who ignored starving of millions in Ukraine; Herbert Matthews managed not to see Fidel Castro’s torture and murder and described him as an “agrarian reformer”; The Times’ shocking failure to cover Hitler’s Holocaust - Shafer claims Blair only has a dig at Rick Bragg, fired for faking a dateline, and with this misinformation in tow mocks him: “So much for burning his masters’ house down.”
Blair’s various attempts to excuse himself from his actions will stick in many people’s throats but perhaps just as disagreeable is Shafer writing off the emotions Blair must have felt covering rape cases and reporting from the World Trade Center in September 2001.
Shafer turns psychiatrist and dismisses Blair’s manic-depression. He mocks Blair arguing that his whisky and cocaine intake were a form of self-medication, despite the fact that such behaviour is widely acknowledged by the medical profession, of which Shafer is not a member. But he is already looking through blood-tinted spectacles: “On at least two craven occasions in his book, [Blair] 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.”
Jonathan Landman’s now famous email that stated: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” (written as a weaker “...for the Times, right now” in Blair’s book) is used by Shafer as a defence of The Times, oddly enough. “Blair’s troubles is found in whatever heartless Times editor he thinks is riding him,” Shafer writes, using the email to suggest Landman was concerned about Jayson’s well-being and state of mind.
But it is just as possible, as Blair asserts, that Landman didn’t like him and was out to get him because his opinion had been disregarded when Blair was hired. Even if you take Shafer’s take on it, why wasn’t Landman listened to? What kind of newspaper ignores a blunt warning from one of its senior editors?
The problem is that Shafer refuses to see the issue in anything but black and white. Jayson Blair is clearly black, so that leaves The Times blameless.
Every review written so far of Blair’s book - and the vast majority of the coverage surrounding the entire affair - has done its best to ignore the race issue altogether. Shafer gives it no more than a glancing look: “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 works only adds to his growing word count of lies. Such an insult probably won’t faze Blair, who knows his limitations.”
Blair’s achievements in the early part of his life are made to fit in with this vicious shredding. So Blair may have been editor of the university paper in his second year, have freelanced for The Washington Post, interned at The Boston Globe and New York Times but this is irrelevant because, according to Shafer, “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”.
Instead: “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.”
Surely The Times can’t be completely blameless? Shafer jeers: “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.”
There’s your answer. Blair was mad, bad and forced on an unsuspecting New York Times that couldn’t have done anything about it even if it had wanted to. To make this point clear, Shafer reveals that Blair’s previous articles at The Boston Globe, Washington Post and even the University of Maryland have subsequently been questioned - he stole quotes there too. It neatly fits into the argument but sadly those transgressions were so minor that the logic doesn’t work.
With any effort to review the contents of the book long-forgotten, Shafer continues updating his original Slate article. “Two questions that remain: Why does Blair lie? And why didn’t The Times or Globe catch him earlier?”
Having dismissed Blair’s attempts to explain his own behaviour with a sweep of the hand, Shafer has a crack himself. But not before spitting out more venom: “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 is walking the ethical tightrope and hoodwinking somebody. Every con man loves his con, and few are lucky as Blair to enshrine their version in book form.”
Incredibly, Shafer, in the midst of his blinkered, haphazard rambling over the rocky ground of the Jayson Blair affair, stumbles over a nugget of truth. Blair is a little psychotic. He does have a distorted reality in which he sees himself as superior to anyone else and he is at his happiest when that reality most closely mirrors what is really going on. If he is conning someone, he must be more than they are. And the bigger the con, the wider the lie, the more right he is.
Sadly, Shafer is running out of space and is keen to tell us about himself so this brief insight is swiftly dropped. “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.”
Shafer is referring to an article on “monkeyfishing” that he pushed a writer into elaborating and then failed to see the lies. When the lies were exposed, the magazine leapt to their defence (viciously). Ironically it was The New York Times that finally forced an apology out of Slate with an article titled “Tortured Tale Of Journalism And Monkeys”.
The truth is clear: If Shafer can be tricked, anyone can be tricked. Except the Blair saga wasn’t just one article in an online magazine - it was hundreds of articles over four years, many of which appeared on the front page and which covered some of the most important stories of the day. The stories were condemned by the police, by grieving relatives, by reporters on other titles, by senior editors on The Times itself. Yet, this young man, who was known to have had serious drink and drug problems was protected and even prospered.
Can it only really be because, as Shafer claims, he had “a sharp understanding of the journalistic formula”? Or is it more than that? Shafer knows he has to ask the question, but he opts for the politician’s way out: “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 paper became had invested in Blair’s recovery from drugs and alcohol, is beyond the scope of this review.”
The scope of this review, certainly.
Apparently satisfied and worn out from his ranting, Shafer, prepares to put down the pen: “The Times is a flawed, human institution that deserves every brick tossed at it except this one,” he closes. “Jayson Blair is a confessed con-man, and ‘Burning Down My Masters’ House’ is just another instalment in his ongoing con.”
Blairs’ book is very far from a masterpiece. It is often thoughtless, lazy, surprisingly vapid, self-knowing and not terribly clever or engaging but it does deserve a better response from the organisation that its author dealt a huge body blow.
The New York Times says it wants to restore its reputation as an objective, intelligent and reliable source of information. This book review has done it no favours.
1 Jun 2004: A belated update on the ongoing NYT woes