Blair House; the Wayward Press

By Lemann, Nicholas | The New Yorker, March 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

Blair House; the Wayward Press


Lemann, Nicholas, The New Yorker


One short year ago, Jayson Blair was, for all that readers of the Times knew, a reporter in good standing, and Howell Raines was the paper's triumphantly successful, though not well-loved, executive editor. The rather abrupt pace of journalistic history in this case is worth keeping in mind, because Blair has just published a memoir that is sure to set off a great reconsideration of last spring's succession of dramatic events at the Times: Blair's resignation, the paper's printed exposure of his amazingly extensive journalistic misdeeds, and the resignations of the paper's top two news executives, Raines and Gerald M. Boyd, the managing editor. In theory, the publication of a book should mean that the event it's about is ready for a full, wise assessment. That is not the case for the Jayson Blair scandal, partly because it's still too soon, and partly because of the nature of the book. Only ten months after his resignation, Blair has produced a full-length work that you can hold in your hands. If you subtract however long it took to negotiate the contract and physically create the book, it appears that Blair must have written it in a few weeks. Of course, Blair never had a problem in being rapidly and copiously productive.

Inescapably, it's a quickie book. It feels padded; there are many brief chapters, some of which are recitations of the sort of reportorial adventures that are fine as after-work barroom anecdotes but fall short of book-worthiness. It is less than scrupulously edited ("One learns from their environs, particularly when it comes to the priorities"). The bits we've all been waiting for, where Blair begins faking stories, don't start until two-thirds of the way through. The larger issues that Blair's story raises--the nature of Raines's reign, the Times' vulnerability to fraud, the question of whether Blair's being black had to do with the scandal--don't synch very well with the book itself. It's a curio, an artifact, an unprocessed download from Blair's brain--vivid, wired, serviceably written and paced, and, in a way, more interesting for its artlessness. Here, you feel, is the real Blair, not a Lillian Hellman-like fully imagined and realized character who happens to share the memoirist's name.

The most obvious example of Blair's appealing lack of authorial control is that, in calling the book "Burning Down My Masters' House" (which must have beaten out "Confessions of Nat Timesman"), he seems to be putting forth the view that the whole affair was about race--to be precise, old-fashioned white racism, with him as victim, rather than a racial dynamic engendered by affirmative action, through which he benefitted. But in the text he can never quite stay on message, and he winds up presenting a story whose racial angle is about as complicated and undidactic as race relations actually are. Blair grew up in suburbs all over the country, some integrated and some not. His father works for the federal government, and his mother is a schoolteacher. He appears to feel quite comfortable around white people and they around him--his world, as he describes it, isn't all that far from being a paradise of diversity in which everyone gets to be ethnically identified and proud of it and can interact richly and unself-consciously with members of other groups. Some of Blair's best friends are white, and some of his most complicated relationships are with blacks. His (very small) superego seems to want his downfall to contain a lesson for us all about discrimination, but his promotion of this thesis is mainly confined to dutiful-sounding transitional passages at the ends of chapters--for instance, his hope for an "order where I was not a pawn in a game because of my race."

Actually, if you wanted to put Blair into a category, it would be Major Head Case. And his book would be more appropriately shelved under Recovery (except that he doesn't recover) than under African-American Studies--or, for that matter, under Journalism. …

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