Jayson Blair presumably wrote Burning Down My Masters' House, a memoir, to share his many deceptions at the New York Times with a public hungry for insider dirt. There's one problem: Blair was a truly sad and boring thief. He pilfered quotes from Associated Press copy, details from small newspapers, and datelines he didn't deserve. When Times editors thought he was traveling, he was often holed up in his apartment, suffering from depression. Stephen Glass' crimes were compelling because they involved his gonzo imagination; Blair's involved only laziness or ennui.
But there is one strangely compelling thing about the book: Blair's slippery persona. Every chapter seems to bring a different Blair: a sniveling liar; a cokehead; a crusader for racial justice. The fact that Blair believes he fully inhabits each of these roles is itself enlightening. Perhaps the best way to excerpt My Masters' House, then, is move personality by personality, beginning with the most famous.
Blair as Liar
Page 1: His claim to fame. "I lied and I lied—and then I lied some more. … And these were no everyday little white lies—they were complete fantasies, embellished down to the tiniest detail."
Page 69-73: Blair reflects on the June 2003 resignations of Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd, the top two editors at the New York Times: "I was no more responsible for their resignations than Gavrilo Princip, the man who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, was responsible for starting World War I. I knew the groundwork for their resignations had been set long before I began fabricating stories, but it was hard, as the catalyst, not to take responsibility for the entire situation."
Page 128: Blair describes his habit of joyriding with the Times' company car. He drove it to Maryland to visit a friend who had been raped; he took girls on weekend sightseeing tours of the five boroughs; he used to transport himself and friends to and from bars in wee hours.
Page 179: Eager to shirk "Portraits of Grief" duty, Blair tells an editor that one of his cousins died in the Sept. 11 attacks. Coincidentally, it turns out that someone with the last name "Blair" actually perished. Blair gets away with it.
Page 181: Blair's first Times fabulism—inventing the last name of a day trader, "Andrew Rosstein," for afeature story. "I wanted to make sure the story made it into the paper," he writes, "and was not incorporated into one of the many other business stories running that day."
Page 198: The Times dispatches Blair to cover a benefit at Madison Square Garden. Buzzed on cocaine and drugs, Blair loses his media credentials and has to cover it by watching it on television. He makes numerous errors, including misquoting Bill Clinton twice.
Page 253: Blair describes the Times' "dateline toe-touch" policy, in which writers report a story from afar and then travel to the scene to scoop up a dateline. (It's his most damning description of Times' practices.) After a series of "toe-touches," Blair gives in to a greater crime: the "dateline no-touch" policy, in which he submits datelines from cities he never visited.