‘E&P’ Puts Readers’ Questions to Jayson Blair

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On Monday morning, E&P Editor Greg Mitchell and Senior Editor Joe Strupp sat down with Jayson Blair at the E&P office in Manhattan to talk about the ethics scandal that rocked The New York Times last spring and whether anyone should believe a word Blair says about it in his new book, “Burning Down My Masters’ House.” E&P had solicited questions from readers, and as the interview rolled along, many of them were put to Blair.

A transcript of the interview follows. Along the way, Blair reveals, among other things, that when he started the book he thought “racism would be the driving element of the story,” but later changed his mind. He claims he would have written the book “for free.” And while he says he stands by every fact in the book, he also discloses that there will be at least one change in the paperback.

How did you feel you were treated in the “Dateline” special last Friday?

It was tough but very fair in allowing my voice to be heard. The thing that struck me was how fair they were to The New York Times, considering the Times was not talking to the show.

When you watched it did you cringe at certain points?

I did cringe. There were a number of times. A lot of things were very difficult for me to hear. That said, the former journalist in me respects the job they did, but it’s not necessarily something I would show my kids unless I was teaching them a lesson on why not to lie.

You use the expression “former journalist.” Do you feel you are banned for life?

I don’t think I have a right to be a journalist. There may come a time when I can write a book that can be nonfiction, but at this point I am banned from doing any nonfiction right now. I think I have to pay a certain amount of penance.

What’s your reaction to the critical reviews of the book in the past two days?

I’ve read some reviews, but the most touching stuff is some of the e-mails I have received at my Web site. I received an e-mail from a woman in the Air Force who was in one of my stories that had fabrications in it. She said she forgave me. Old friends have re-connected with me. I’ve gotten notes from people who said, “I saw you on ‘Dateline’ and I relate to parts of your story.” That’s nice. I’ve received notes from journalists and others who do not believe I am being honest, who are angry with me — and I certainly understand why they have that anger. It’s a perfectly reasonable response.

Do you think reviewers are reading the book with an open mind?

I try to put myself in their shoes. As a journalist it would be hard to separate your emotions from the situation — when you have someone who did a lot of damage to journalism. It would be difficult not to be upset and let that come out in reviews. I understand that. But I think some people have been able to step away a little bit and have a more balanced perspective.

But most reviewers seem to feel you offer too many excuses in the book and are not properly apologetic.

What’s properly apologetic? I think my job in the book was to offer a convincing portrait of how this could have happened. I apologize in the book but you can only go so far. The strongest statement you can say is that you are sorry for something. If people don’t want to accept that, that’s a decision they come to on their own. I said I was sorry and tried to come clean. Some of those critics who feel I have not been apologetic enough — what they would like me to do is to disappear and that’s the only way to show proper contrition. That is not the path that I have chosen.

Since the scandal broke last May, has anyone hassled you on the street or anywhere?

It has not been that tough. The vast majority of run-ins on the street have been positive and encouraging. Sometimes I will run into someone from the New York Times and usually they will have something nice to say — or end the conversation quickly. There have only been one or two bad run-ins with journalists. One was with a former colleague who I like very much, and one with an editor I respect a great deal.

What were those confrontations like?

Yelling conversations on the street, in Brooklyn, real bad. Last fall.

As for the general public, before I wrote the book some people would ask what happened, they had a curiosity about how a young man with such promise could end up making such a mess. This past weekend more people recognized me on the street. But I enjoyed that time between the initial media coverage last spring and now, when I faded into the background. You know, I’m a little uneasy with the idea of being recognized.

Did your publisher push the book in a certain direction?

It’s fair to say, we had differences of opinion on certain things. But every suggestion was purely a suggestion, and I gained a lot and there was nothing we didn’t ultimately agree on.

One thing to know about this book: I initially started with the premise that racism would be the driving element of the story. And I began digging and became more introspective and I realized that there were actually two key things about the story: 1) how the news business has changed 2) my own personal story of self-immolation.

So how can you defend the title of the book?

We had already picked the title “Burning Down My Masters’ House.” We considered changing the title but we made the decision to keep it the same because as I say in the book, I am the master of my own house, of my own destiny. It just happened to be a title that worked for both situations.

Was the book closely vetted?

Yes, there was extra fact checking, in house and out of house. My publisher tells me that she did double the normal fact checking.

Do you stand by everything in the book?

I stand by the book as the truth the best I know it.

You stand by all individual facts in it?

Yes. So far nothing conflicting has come up.

Now let’s turn to questions from our readers. Here’s one asked by several people: Do you feel you set back the cause of all black journalists?

I think it would be unfortunate for anyone to look at my story as showing what’s wrong with affirmative action. No one yet has come out and said what role affirmative action had in my hiring and promotion. But I think you can safely say that my managers said at the time, “We have a talented journalist and the fact that he is black is icing on the cake.” That said, those decisions were made behind closed doors.

It’s the same thing with the racism charge. There are those who say racism set me back and created pressure. Once again, those are things in people’s hearts and I can’t comment on that.

But in the book you make some of those judgments yourself and in fact claim that racism set you back and created pressure.

I don’t think I do.

You say you were a “racial pawn”?

But I don’t know what impact that had. Did that set me back? Maybe being a racial pawn helped me. It’s unfortunate if people use this to tear down affirmative action. I think newsrooms are smart enough to know that if they want to gain readers in the future they need to have more diverse coverage and part of that equation is having a more diverse staff. I don’t think they will throw out those considerations because of my case.

Back to our questions from readers. Here’s one from a top editor in Texas: How many of the reporters whose work you stole have you personally apologized to?

Uhm … none.

A question from a top editor in Boston: Have you apologized to any of the people in your stories, such as relatives of soldiers in Iraq, that you pretended to interview but didn’t?

No. But on the broader issue of apology: I have tried to apologize to people directly when the opportunity has presented itself.

But you have not gone out of your way to do so?

I have not gone out of my way. I’ve made public apologies but I also believe that personal apologies need to be made. One of the things I have done is, I have made a list of everyone that I felt may have been hurt by what I did in any way. And one of the things I plan to do is, at some point — two months from now or 20 years from now — is to directly make amends to these people.

Another question from a reader: Did you, as charged, go into co-workers’ computer files, get e-mails and personal evaluations and confidential memos?

Yes. I was also given confidential material by others.

You barely mention that in your book.

A couple times.

Here is another popular question from readers: You say you are through lying, so why don’t you be honest about how much money you are making off your misdeeds?

$150,000 advance for the book, $25,000 in serial rights to the United Kingdom, and $2,000 for the Hebrew rights — I wasn’t expecting that one.

But how do you justify profiting from your poor conduct?

I’m grateful for the money, it’s how I’m surviving, how I am paying the bills. It’s not going to make me rich. The real profit is the therapy I got from doing the book or the good that might come from it — like reading, on a bipolar Web site last night, about how they want to use the book in a classroom. It’s not the money. I would have done it for free, frankly.

Someone wants to know: Would you step into an elevator with Howell Raines?

Yes.

What would you say to him?

First, that I am sorry. There’s no way Howell could have known what I was doing, there is no way Howell was responsible for my actions, and I’d probably wish him well and wish his wife well and his kids well, and apologize.

But in your book you say your actions did not cause his exit at the Times?

There was a certain environment at the Times, a lot of pressure on the paper to change, to become faster-paced, and Howell was leading this charge. And it ruffled a lot of feathers and created an environment that was not comfortable for a lot of people. If that environment did not exist, my actions would not have fermented this into something that would boil this big — forgive my mixed metaphors!

Another popular question: Why should we believe anything you say or write now?

You know, this book is a collection of my perceptions. Do I vouch that all my perceptions are right? No one’s ever are. In terms of trying to be truthful, I’ve tried to be as honest as is humanly possible. And ultimately individuals will need to read the book and determine themselves.

Yet you use lengthy verbatim quotes from conversations where you did not have a note pad or tape recorder.

We made the determination that we would rely on my journals when we could and when we couldn’t we would rely on my best recollections. It’s the standard for this form of nonfiction.

A reader wants a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question: Do you think you would have been hired by the Times if you were not a minority candidate?

(Long pause) I think … I was good enough to be hired by the New York Times regardless of the color of my skin. If you compare the experience of interns in my class and before and after me, I compare very well.

In the book you say that Gerald Boyd “devoured” the careers of many black journalists. If that’s true, would you care to name them or put a number on it?

I don’t have an exact number, but several. You know it’s often said — if you are black and you are pulled over by a black cop, he is going to be twice as hard on you. It was like that with Gerald. But I don’t want to say anything more about Gerald.

You paint a lot of New York Times journalists with a broad brush in the book. So when you say that many of them are on drugs, can you be more specific? Aren’t you being a little unfair?

It’s a 1,400-person newsroom but a significant number have substance abuse problems. I don’t like pointing my finger at people when it’s pointing back at me. But there are a number of people who cope with the job by abusing alcohol and drugs. A large number. It was somewhat surprising, getting back from rehab, to be greeted by a handful of Times employees who rather than being happy that I was clean and sober were upset that they would no longer be able to party with me. The culture is not one of sobriety.

You also say many have a “weak spot for sex”?

A large number.

You mean getting sexual favors, as you did, by offering free publicity?

Not necessarily. There are instances I know of. I don’t mean to suggest that’s typical.

You talk a lot about the practice back then of the “toe-touch” — someone reporting a story from their home desk and then traveling only briefly to the city where the story is set just to “get the dateline.” You say editors “often” ordered that to be done. Was it really that common?

It happened on average several times a week on the national desk, and equally on the foreign desk, and some on metro. They call it ‘toe-touch’ right in the Siegal report (the paper’s own 2003 probe of disputed practices).

If you are truly contrite, one reader asks, why didn’t you cooperate fully with the Siegal committee so that you could help prevent future Jayson Blairs?

Uhm… the truth is, at that point, I had just come out of a mental hospital and was not in a good state, but also at that time — I was not yet contrite, I was still very angry, at them, and at myself. I doubt that at the time I had much to offer them.

Are you still angry at people at the Times?

Not at all. I’ve been able to step back and understand their reactions a lot better.

In the book you mention the Times’ “Portraits of Grief” of 9/11 victims and then you equate yourself with them by saying your life, too, was a portrait of grief.

Perhaps it was me attempting to be too clever. … My life was miserable at the time. I’m not suggesting it was comparable to people who lost loved ones in the WTC.

Someone wants to know precisely when you first plagiarized a story?

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.

What about high school?

I don’t think so, but I barely remember high school.

How long until someone else at the Times is caught for misdeeds of your magnitude?

This wasn’t the first time this happened and it won’t be the last time. It’s going to happen again.

But wouldn’t you consider what you did the worst in memory?

Excluding Stephen Glass? On an order of magnitude, what I did was an earthquake 10. But there are equally damaging things that newspapers do every day that are not covered by others. Look at the pre-war coverage of weapons of mass destruction. Ultimately what I did was very damaging and I wrote stories that hurt people, but my stories didn’t get any American soldiers killed.

There are plenty of stories that happen every day, every month, that result in people dying. That doesn’t excuse me at all but it does say that a lot of that ink that is spent looking at me and trying to prove that I am some kind of aberration, should really be focused on people who are so callused that they don’t care that the lies or deceptions they are printing are actually costing people their lives. But I also recognize that this is not an argument I, personally, can carry.

In the book you refer to the one person who was “most responsible” — besides yourself — for your “meltdown” but it’s not clear who you are referring to.

Jon Landman — must be.

But while you portray him as the bad guy who had it in for you, wasn’t he actually the only one who correctly realized you were out of control and not to be trusted? How do you expect readers to buy your picture of him?

From my perspective, I just told the truth of the story. I laid out how I viewed Jon. And also how bad I was. People can make their judgment. I don’t begrudge people feeling that way. I gave them the information to make the determination. That’s all I’ll really say about that.

You say you want this book to promote “healing” yet you attack some people at the Times by name and mention a lot of other despicable personal behavior, even if you don’t name names.

You know, this is a question I’ve thought a lot about … When I wrote the book I made a commitment to stop lying and tell the truth, and that obviously in telling the truth it will hurt a number of people, but the number of people who could potentially be helped by this book far outweighs those I hurt.

You mean people who have alcohol and drug and mental problems?

There are millions of people who can be helped by this book.

In the book you do name one co-worker who you clearly suggest was a drug user. Does she have any problem with that?

There are a handful of things in the book — public details about people — that, you know, if I had to do it over again, I would have taken them out or better obscured their identities. She would be one of them.

Have you heard from her?

No, but in the paperback edition you will not find her in there, we will take it out. [Blair laughs.] Do not libel people!

I thought you said the book was closely vetted?

Yeah, which could tell you what it must have been like originally… only kidding!

A reader wants to know why did you resign from your college paper?

There was a lot of animosity with people I worked with and I thought it best to get out of the way.

Don’t you see any similarities between the response to your book and what happened with Pete Rose and his publicity blitz a few weeks ago — where he had this golden opportunity to prove he was contrite and the media did not buy it?

What arguments do people make about what one should do to show proper contrition besides, you know, that I should give the money away. … I don’t think being contrite takes away your ability to analyze, criticize or shed light on things. I’m sorry and I feel sad about this but that doesn’t mean that in five minutes I won’t be laughing. If what journalists want from me is to crawl in a hole and never be heard from again, it’s just something they’re not going to get from me. And my book is written for a much wider audience than journalists and I’ve expressed that I’m sorry but the book is not 290 pages of apologies, nor was it intended to be.

At heart, don’t you resent getting inordinate blame for what you did?

No, I’m not like the white collar criminal sitting in prison and saying “Why am I the only one to get caught?” The fact that other people did unethical things is just a fact, it’s not an excuse for me, because a man with real character can look at unethical behavior and go the other way, and I didn’t.

A reader wants to know: What you would tell young journalists today to avoid what you did?

What I’d say — be honest with yourself first, which is something I wasn’t. Don’t be afraid to go for help. Don’t put a career or your aspirations ahead of your integrity. What ultimately will help you sleep at night is being a good person with integrity, not the superficial successes.

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