Book Review: Jayson Blair’s ‘Burning Down My Masters’ House’

Jayson Blair Book CoverI’ve avoided this book and this review for over 7 years.

The Jayson Blair plagiarism and fabrication scandal happened at an odd time in my carrer. I graduated college (journalism school) in 2002 and started Plagiarism Today in 2005. Jayson Blair’s misdeeds came to light in 2003, in between those two events.

As a result, I didn’t follow the Blair scandal particularly closely when it was unfolding. Though I had a personal interest in plagiarism at the time and was aware of it, I didn’t study it at the time. Because of that, when I did found Plagiarism Today in August 2005, I found myself playing catch up with the case, going back and repeatedly reading the New York Times “Correcting the Record” article about the case and any other coverage I could find.

However, I avoided this particular piece of coverage for three main reasons.

First, I felt it was ethically wrong. Jayson Blair, an admitted plagiarist and fabricator, was paid a mid-six figure advance to write this book. It seemed wrong to reward a plagiarist with a large book contract and it seemed even more wrong to reward the publisher that did so.

Second, it felt like it would be difficult to trust. How does one trust the memoirs of man whose claim to fame is that he’s a liar? How does one separate the fiction from the reality?

Finally, coverage of the scandal was so pervasive elsewhere that there seemed to be little point to a 300-page book on the topic. What could Blair possibly say that wasn’t covered, more impartially, elsewhere?

However, in recent weeks and months I’ve taken a renewed interest in the Blair scandal. Following the Jonah Leher case and the obvious parallels between him and Blair, I’ve found myself looking back to the Blair scandal and trying to understand the question of why people plagiarize.

So, with a lot of reluctance, I ordered a used copy of the book from Amazon (my copy apparently was recently discarded from the New York Public Library) and decided to give it a read, in hopes that some good answered were within it.

However, I was more than disappointed by what I found.

Jayson Blair’s Background

New York Times LogoTo very briefly recap (and over-simplify) the Jayson Blair scandal, in early 2003 it was discovered that Jayson Blair, a reporter at The New York Times, had engaged in widespread fabrication, plagiarism and other ethical violations during his five years at the paper.

Blair, who joined the paper as an intern in 1998, was offered an extended internship and that was postponed so he could complete school (which he never did) and he returned in 1999, in November of that year, hired as an intermediate reported and eventually brought on as a full-time staff member.

However, in April 2003, Macarena Hernandez noticed similarities between a story she had written in the San Antonio Express-News and one Blair had written two days later. She called the paper about the issue and soon an investigation was launched, which led to the discovery of widespread problems with his work, including fabrication of details, not traveling to where he said he was and plagiarism, in particular pulling quotes and details from other publications.

Blair resigned from the New York Times shortly after the investigation began. However, the scandal had much broader implications for the nation’s most prestigious paper and it resulted in two of the papers top editors resigning.

In short, in the journalism community Blair is a hated man and the decision to give him a book deal was controversial to say the least. However, I still felt it worth reading to see if there were any answers to be found.

Unfortunately, there were none to be found.

A Different Book

Jayson BlairThe only reason to pick up Jayson Blair’s book is to try and learn what exactly happened and, most importantly, why. However, the book is amazingly scant on those details.

Though the book starts off promising enough, with Blair saying, “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 a story.” This passage started nearly a half-page of vague “confession” of many of the things he had lied about. It seemed to be a contrite enough opening to hold promise, but that promise faded as the book slid into Blair’s recounting of the aftermath of his scandal, starting with the first accusations of plagiarism.

At the beginning of chapter six, the book took an abrupt turn and went back in time, quite literally, to Blair’s childhood and it quickly brings things back to when he started work at the New York Times and his first articles as an intern there.

Then, the novel begins to head into an unexpected direction. Rather than focusing on his misdeeds or mistakes, the book focuses on his reporting adventures for The Times, including his time reporting from within the police department, his covering of a murder in Central Park, the events of September 11 and the anthrax scare at the paper, just to name a few.

During this part of the book, it doesn’t feel as if the focus is on Blair at all, but rather, on The New York Times and, perhaps, journalism at large. It’s as if Blair is trying to air the Times’ dirty laundry to make himself appear more clean, complaining about unfairness in how stories are reported, how the location of stories are selected and, perhaps most prominently, how office politics affected the paper.

However, Blair does talk some about himself. In particular his drug and alcohol abuse and his recovery from it. He was far more open about his love of cocaine than his problems with plagiarism, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s doing it more to make himself look sympathetic than to be honest with the reader.

When the story finally does wind its way to the DC sniper shootings, which Blair eventually became the lead reporter on, he avoids talking about or minimizes many of the things he did wrong. When it finally does get to early 2003, when his misdeeds were at their worst and most frequent, he only spent about 10 pages on the actual plagiarisms and fabrications, likely due to the fact he’s claiming to have been in a “psychosis” at the time and can’t recall most of that period.

All in all, in the nearly 300-page book that is “Burning Down My Masters’ House”, only about 5% is dedicated to the deeds that made its author famous.

A Waste of Time

Personally, I didn’t find Jayson Blair’s attacks on The Times or journalism as a whole to be very convincing. I learned in my second year of journalism school that newspapers were businesses and would focus on stories and news that made them money. Journalism is not a perfect institution and that should not come as a shock to anyone who went to school for it.

Still, the stories that Blair tells could be interesting – if they had been told by someone else.

The first problem is that Blair’s writing, for the most part, is flat and uninteresting. Even during particularly charged sequences, such as a racially-charged encounter at a bar, Blair’s tone is very emotionless. For a man who is well-known for extracting intricate details for his reporting from other sources and photographs, his book, in many sections, is largely devoid of them.

The bigger problem though is that, while there are many criticisms to be said about The Times and about journalism at large, Jayson Blair is not the person they should be coming from. His criticisms sting of a person trying to make himself look better by making his former employer and institution look worse.

Still, the first five chapters of this book are fairly interesting. Reading about what happened to Blair, from his perspective, as the scandal broke is something unique to this book. However, it’s frustrating that he spends almost 5 times as much ink on the immediate aftermath as he does the misdeeds themselves.

But, truth be told, writing a book about a scandal like this would be almost impossible. Filling hundreds of pages with misdeeds that, though extremely unethical, took only moments, would be amazingly difficult and the fact he claims to not be able to remember most of it makes it even worse.

In the end though, this book is not Jayson Blair’s attempt to clear the air nor is it his attempt to clear his name. He doesn’t dispute what he did but he never covers it with adequate detail or truly apologizes for it. He takes a small amount of responsibility while at the same time offering up a slew of excuses and mitigating circumstances to make himself appear sympathetic. The book neither defends nor explains. It merely dances a very boring dance.

For the most part, it’s just a dull, dry read that adds little to the conversation. A criticism of journalism coming from the epitome of what’s wrong with it and thinly-veiled defense of a journalist who did the indefensible.

Bottom Line

Despite the hefty advance, Blair’s book did not sell particularly well. Reviews of it have largely been negative and, even now, it has just 2.5 stars on Amazon with more than half of the ratings being 1 star.

Despite the author’s past and the questionable judgment by the publisher to request this book, it was still an opportunity to further the conversation on plagiarism, journalism ethics and why people violate these basic tenets.

In that regard, this book was an opportunity wasted, a missed chance. The discussions around plagiarism need the voice of plagiarists who are willing to be open and honest about their reasons.

Blair, at least in this book, was not that voice.

(Note: Tomorrow, I’ll be revisiting this book and going over the arguments Blair makes in it.)

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