Jayson Blair celebrated his christening, his bar mitzvah, and his confirmation all in the past two weeks. Or so it seemed, as NBC Dateline, NBC Today, Larry King Live, The O'Reilly Factor, and Hardball invited the confessed liar and habitual plagiarist on the air to help him promote his book, Burning Down My Masters' House. (Warning, some of the links above go to Blair's Web site.)
The NBC segments pounded Blair, but King, O'Reilly, and Hardball's Chris Matthews let the disgraced journalist essay off the top of his head about journalistic ethics, the internal politics and deficiencies of the New York Times, affirmative action, and his own mental diagnosis—as if he were a credible source on any of these subjects.
Many have expressed wonder at how Blair hoodwinked all the bright lights at the New York Times, but there he was, just a few feet away from the TV talkers, demonstrating the method of his con: Flatter your target; be self-effacing; be useful to your target; appear sympathetic, vulnerable, innocent; and know what you want out of the con. In short, suck up, and suck hard. Add to the TV appearances the many published book reviews and features, and the exposure has been enough to make the young narcissist's head swell and explode like a dead pig in the August sun.
I played a small role in the Blair aggrandizement with a negative review of Burning Down in the March 14 New York Times Book Review. Blair responded with a seven-point e-mail listing the errors and ethical deficiency (!) of my review.
Allowing Jayson Blair to judge the ethics of a writer—or publication—is a little like green-lighting Josef Mengele * to lead a malpractice investigation of Marcus Welby. Blair concludes in his March 13 letter, which he also sent to Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent, "If Jack Shafer, a media critic who covers The New York Times, is going to review a book related to The New York Times, Times' policies dictate that he must disclose that conflict of interest."
I don't "cover" the New York Times, either, as this index of my Slate bylines proves. The Times is not my beat. I write press criticism about television, Internet, and print journalism, a fact that was acknowledged in this bio note that accompanied my review: "Jack Shafer writes the Press Box column for Slate." Now and again I write about the Times, but usually to savage it. (I can't remember the last time I sent the paper a love letter, if ever.) If my familiarity with the paper constitutes a "conflict of interest," then I'm guilty. Is Blair saying that a writer who knows nothing about the Times or has never written about it should have been assigned to review his book? Should poets review books on science and baseball players review books about opera?
Blair's other objections, in order:
1) Blair disputes the sentence in my Times review where I write that Burning Down My Masters' House criticizes Rick Bragg. Blair writes in his book that many Times reporters creep into a locality just long enough to claim a dateline for stories that they've reported mostly by phone or for which they've mostly used stringers (the "dateline toe-touch"). In a half-dozen instances, Blair describes such toe-touchery and the use of other people's uncredited reporting in disparaging and contemptuous terms. (Bragg committed both offenses.) And yet Bragg is the only toe-toucher I can find Blair naming. If that isn't critical, I don't know what is.
2) In my Times review, I write that "contrition is a dish served not at all in this memoir." Blair counters in his letter that he uses the word "sorry" 17 times in the book. Preposterous! The constant stream of excuses that Blair offers—being overworked, having an undiagnosed mental illness, believing that many people at the Times skirt the rules—more than nullify his sorry sorrys, as does his constant finger-pointing. Burning Down My Masters' House is the longest insincere apology I have ever encountered.
3) I write in my Times review that Blair composed the story that got him busted during a blackout weekend. On this score, Blair is right, and I am wrong. A correction is in order.
Blair wrote the story that got him busted in the days just before the blackout weekend (Pages 294-5). But he claims to have been out of it while writing, describing his condition as a state of "psychosis." His memories from these days are "vague" and blurred but are followed immediately by a more lucid 24 hours on the Friday the story was published. Psychosis returned by Saturday, with a blackout weekend he calls a "blank spot" that extended to Tuesday, when he was "jolted by the telephone call from [Times national editor] Jim Roberts. It was the fateful call saying that someone had complained [about] my story. …"
(Oddly, on Page 7, Blair writes that the call from Roberts came on a Monday, not a Tuesday. Is this an innocent mistake on Blair's part or a hint that the psychosis week didn't happen the way he describes it?)
[Addendum, March 18, 2004: Blair writes in his book that the piece that got him busted was published on Friday. Wrong. It was published on Saturday, April 26, 2003. Readers are invited to use this additional information to speculate that Blair is lying about both his psychosis week and the circumstances behind this particular act of plagiarism.]
4) Blair maintains that he was "considered" a Washington Post intern and not a freelancer, as I wrote in my Times review. Blair is wrong. Washington Post reporter Nell Henderson—Blair's immediate editor during the time he freelanced for the paper—categorically rejects Blair's formulation, as does Post Assistant Managing Editor for Career Development Tom Wilkinson. Says Henderson, "Legally and financially he was treated as a freelancer." When writing about Blair in the Post, staff reporters Howard Kurtz and Paul Farhi have consistently described Blair as a former Post freelancer.
5) I write in my Times review that Blair had more than 600 Times bylines. Blair claims 725. Is 725 not more than 600? And given Blair's penchant for plagiarism, does he really want to argue that all 725 bylines belong to him?
6) I assert in my Times review that Blair plagiarized the Associated Press as a student journalist at the University of Maryland Diamondback. He denies this. The most definitive independent account of Blair's plagiarism appears in this Feb. 29, 2004, Baltimore Sun piece by David Folkenflik:
Alex Knott, the [Diamondback] managing editor, accompanied Blair to a November 1996 football game at Byrd Stadium in search of students carrying banners critical of the football coach. When Blair's story was published, Knott was astonished to read the colorful quotations attributed to the less-than-talkative students he had witnessed Blair interviewing. Blair insisted the article was accurate.
The same story had other problems. One quotation was discovered to have been lifted from an Associated Press article and was edited out before Blair's story was published, says Todd B. Rhoads, then a sportswriter. Still another was attributed to a Maryland student named Eric Bouch, whose existence could not be confirmed by suspicious Diamondback staffers. No one with that name was registered as a student in 1996, according to the university.
Furthermore, in a March 9 interview with Editor & Publisher, Blair answers the question of when he first plagiarized:
That's a really hard question. There's a claim that I plagiarized once in my college paper. That appears to be the first time.
Why protest the allegation in a letter to me and the New York Times public editor but admit it in E&P?
Here are more incongruities: On Page 291 of his book, he tells Times colleague Lynnette Holloway in early March 2003 of how he wants off the Washington sniper story:
In the stairwell in early March, I told Lynnette that I want to get away from the sniper stories.
"I don't know why," I said. "I just want to get off this story. I just want to be home."
But by late April, he's sick to death of the war stories and wants nothing more from life than to return to the sniper story. From Page 4:
I was much more interested in following the trial by star-chamber in Virginia of the young suspect in the Washington-area sniper shootings, Lee Malvo. To me, these other assignments were simply the ends justifying the means. The more prominent, colorful and tear-jerking stories I wrote about the impact of the war in Iraq on the home front, the better display I would get on the stories that mattered. And what mattered to me were the stories I was writing about Malvo.
When Katie Couric asks him on Datelineabout having fabricated a specific hospital room conversation in a Times story, Blair responds: "The—I'm not sure—actually—one second. I'm not even sure about that one." Couric shows him the passage from Burning Down My Masters' House in which he confesses the fabrication. Blair, who obviously can't remember which lies he poured into the Times and which he included in his book, looks at the page and concedes.
The skilled liar remembers every lie he tells. From the looks of Blair's book and early fallout from his media tour, he's no more accomplished a liar than he was a journalist.
Send your favorite Jayson Blair lies to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)