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Q&A: Jayson Blair
As part of the media blitz surrounding his new book, Burning Down My Masters' House, disgraced New York Timesman Jayson Blair answers mb's questions about his downfall, its coverage, and what's next.- March 9, 2004
What is there left to say about Jayson Blair? After Katie Couric, after Howard Kurtz and even Editor & Publisher, after 288 pages of Burning Down My Masters' House, after Seth Mnookin and Sridhar Pappu, after four full pages inside The New York Times, are there any new questions to be asked—is there any new information to be had—about the troubled young man who last summer scandalized journalism and brought down the top two editors of the Times? Probably not. But, when the publicist on Blair's new book offered us an interview, it seemed silly not to try. We were told to read the book and then email our questions to Blair (a phone interview was not a possibility, apparently); though the book never arrived we sent our questions Saturday afternoon and the answers arrived late last night. Blair was discursive and seemingly straightforward; he answered all of our questions, addressing his downfall, its coverage, and what he plans to do next.
Birthdate: March 23, 1976
Hometown: Columbia, Maryland; now lives in Brooklyn, New York
First section of the Sunday Times: "I do not read the Times anymore. I still read newspapers—The Washington Post, the Daily News, and The New York Post, which I luckily no longer have to hide underneath my desk."
How do you feel about the coverage of your fall from grace? Have you read all of it? Do you think you've been treated fairly by the press?
I think journalists have a hard time separating their emotions—their personal interests—from the rest of the story. I think the fairest pieces that have been written were by Howard Kurtz in the aftermath of my resignation and his more recent coverage; the Newsweek article following news of the scandal; David Folkenflik's coverage in the Baltimore Sun; and, in retrospect, the 14,000-word package that appeared in the Times on May 11. Each of these writers have attempted to take a fair and balanced look at me and what happened. None of their pieces have been softballs, but they have tried their best to look deeply at my situation and the troubles at the Times. I feel the same way about the Dateline NBC coverage—it was tough and made me cringe at moments, but it was very fair.
How do you feel about the process of publicizing your book? Unlike Stephen Glass, who laid low for a couple of years, you put yourself right back out there. Why are you putting yourself back in the spotlight so soon? How has it been?
I needed to write this story. I did not know what else to do. I needed the therapy. And I needed to get my voice into the mix. Some argue that if I had taken more time, the book would have provided a more dramatic, comprehensive, and lucid narrative arc. The book gives you the real Jayson Blair, contradictions and all. I thought it was also very important to lay on the table the fact that I believe that it was entirely my character flaws that caused my downfall. I also thought it was important to point out that some of the troublesome practices I practiced in at the Times are more widespread than people believe.
Many would like to demonize me so they can make the case that I was an extraordinary aberration. I think there are ample examples of the fact that there will be more cases like mine, including the Jack Kelley case of fabrication at USA Today, the Uli Schmetzer case of fabrication and plagiarism at the Chicago Tribune, the Bart Ripp case of fabrication at the Tacoma News Tribune, and the Khalil Abdullah case of plagiarism at The Macon Telegraph. And that's just in 2004. There were several other cases of plagiarism in 2003, including the cases of Charlie LeDuff at The New York Times, Bernard Weinraub at The New York Times, and Catherine Fitzpatrick at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In my book it will become clear that there are several other violators of journalistic ethics who are still out there waiting to be caught.
One of the first writers you talked to after the story broke was Newsweek's Seth Mnookin, who is a recovering heroin addict. Did his history influence your decision to talk to him rather than someone else?
Yes, it did. I admire Seth as a human being. He got me in a way that made me cringe at times—and, hell, still does make me want to run for the hills.
While you were engaged in your fabrications, did you know about Stephen Glass's scandal? Did you realize that you were going down that same road? At the time, did you think that what you were doing was objectively wrong, or were you more concerned with not being caught?
I was aware of the Stephen Glass scandal, but I thought that once I felt better physically and emotionally, I would hit the road again. It crept up on me and the deceptions got bigger and bigger and more daring and daring. I knew what I was doing was wrong and was focused more on day-to-day survival. That does not excuse it, and obviously there is a character flaw in me that allowed me to carry on lying to editors, colleagues, reporters, friends, family members, and others who cared deeply about me. Lying is something I am going to have to guard against until I am in my grave. I admit I have a weak spot for it.
The title of your book, Burning Down My Masters' House, as Katie Couric pointed out in her interview, has overt allusions to slavery and racism, but also to a certain revolutionary take-them-down kind of overthrow. Did you think that The New York Times somehow deserved to be brought down? Was it a careless fire, or was it arson?
It was not arson. I had no interest in damaging The New York Times. If I did, I think there would have been some pretty clever ways to do that (like emailing the daily budget list to The Washington Post each day) without causing myself one iota of damage. It was a careless fire. The house I burnt down was my own. I am the master of it. As you can see, the Times is still standing. I am lucky enough to have landed on my feet and been given the opportunity by my publisher to dig myself out from some of the rubble.
Given that your book's title implies that you are reacting to some kind of racism, do you find it ironic that your actions marred the career of Gerald Boyd, who was arguably the most successful African-American journalist in the country?
I don't think the title implies that I was reacting to some kind of racism. I have perceptions about certain things, but I was not reacting to racism. I am colorblind on this point. I feel equally bad—tremendously sorry—that my actions harmed the careers of Gerald Boyd, Howell Raines, Lynette Holloway, and Rick Bragg. None of them deserved what happened to them. There are also a countless number of Times editors whose careers were harmed—or at least sidetracked—when Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd resigned and Bill Keller took over, and I feel equally bad about the pain that they have suffered.
Did you tell anyone about what you were doing as you were going through it? Did you feel like you were getting away with something illicit, in the way that shoplifters often feel pleasure at succeeding undetected?
No. I did not tell anyone. Everyone got the same lies. There were moments where I felt a sort of high from getting away with it—but lying served a much more practical purpose in my case: to keep from having to admit to people that I could not do it as I was. I think the clinical term is, um, losing my mind.
You've said you want to write books now. What kinds of books can you write that people will believe? Do you plan to write novels?
I have had one offer to write a nonfiction book, but I think I am going to focus on fiction. There is a story—based on some true events about a journalist, about race, and about a descendant of a black slaves from South Carolina and a descendent Irish slaves in the Caribbean—that I want to tell. I expect to have a deal for that piece of commercial fiction in the next few months.
Do you think of this book as the beginnings of a sort of atonement? If so, then what of the money you receive from it? Do you feel bad profiting from what essentially is your own contrition?
Whether it is the beginning of some sort of atonement is something others are going to have to judge. I am sorry. There is no doubt about that. Just because I took money for the book, does not mean I am not sorry. They are not mutually exclusive propositions.
David S. Hirschman is mediabistro.com's news editor and a freelancer writer and editor. You can buy Burning Down My Masters' House at Amazon.com.
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