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A lot of lies and just as many excuses

Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at the New York Times, Jayson Blair, New Millennium: 288 pp., $24.95

March 07, 2004|Tim Rutten | Tim Rutten is a Times senior writer who writes the "Regarding Media" column.

If you ever sat through an introductory logic class, you'll probably recall the Cretan paradox.

As the poet Epimenides bluntly put it: "All Cretans are liars."

Epimenides, however, was from Crete.

His statement could be true if -- and only if -- it was false. Hence the paradox or, more precisely and usefully -- especially for the purposes of this review -- the antinomy, which is the logical term for a statement that contradicts itself.

It's helpful to keep this 2,700-year-old brainteaser in mind when approaching "Burning Down My Masters' House," Jayson Blair's self-pitying and unreliable account of the circumstances he alleges surrounded the multiple acts of fraud and deception he committed while a reporter at the New York Times. The discovery of his journalistic crime spree turned the paper inside out and, ultimately, led to the resignations of then-Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd. More widely, Blair's misconduct set off a national argument about prevailing reportorial standards and -- because this particular crook happened to be African American -- about affirmative action in the nation's newsrooms.

Blair owes the readers and colleagues he betrayed a credible explanation and as sincere an apology as he can muster. "Burning Down My Masters' House" is neither.

This is a vile book, as distasteful a thing as you're likely to handle without gloves.

Despite the dust jacket pretenses to candor, it's clear that, however else he may have changed, Blair retains the con man's talent for misdirection. His memoir purports to be about insight and explanation, but it is really about shifting responsibility and settling scores. According to his publisher, Blair "does not push responsibility for his actions onto anyone else...."

Really?

By his own account, there is hardly a hackneyed excuse to which Blair, the liar and plagiarist, does not have recourse: He has been variously victimized by racism, childhood sexual abuse, undiagnosed manic depression, self-medication with alcohol and cocaine and the institutional insensitivity of his former employer, whose newsroom he portrays as a kind of low-rent version of the Borgia court. If we still belled lepers, it's a safe bet this guy would claim to have Hansen's disease.

Still, you do get a sense of the charming energy and disarming fluency that led the Times editors to regard him as a promising young reporter. Consider the book's opening sequence:

"I lied and I lied -- and then I lied some more. I lied about where I had been, I lied about where I had found information, I lied about how I wrote the story. And these were no everyday little white lies -- they were complete fantasies, embellished down to the tiniest made-up detail.

"I lied about a plane flight I never took, about sleeping in a car I never rented, about a landmark on a highway I had never been on. I lied about a guy who helped me at a gas station that I found on the Internet and about crossing railroad tracks I only knew existed because of aerial photographs in my private collection. I lied about a house I had never been to and decorations and furniture in a living room I had seen only in photographs in an archive maintained by Times photo editors.

"In the end-justifies-the-means environment I worked in, I had grown accustomed to lying...."

Note the subtle shift -- from breathless, almost break-neck candor to weary excuse. Who among the Times editors and reporters -- other than Blair -- believed the end justifies the means?

There are no examples in this book of anyone at the Times who behaved in any way like Blair. There are, however, a number of admissions of misconduct and criminality that predate his now notorious fraud spree. Some are minor acts of immature rebellion, such as habitually misusing company cars and fiddling with his expense account. Others go to the heart of the author's human and professional integrity. For instance, in a genuinely off-handed way, Blair describes how, while working on a business story, he traded favorable references to an unnamed company for sex. He goes on to allege that such practices were common among other unnamed Times reporters.

Really?

Blair describes his own descent into cocaine addiction with all the usual sordid references to trading sex for drugs and doing a little dealing on his own. He also recounts numerous cocaine parties that he claims involved large numbers of unnamed Times reporters and editors.

Really?

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