Blair accepts blame in book

Disgraced reporter also faults Times

March 04, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

In a new memoir in which he strikes an alternately resentful and contrite tone, former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair accepts blame for his disgrace last spring, when he was forced to resign from the newspaper following charges of plagiarism. He also details frequent cocaine use, mental illness and compulsive attempts to curry favor by playing office politics.

"In the end-justifies-the-means environment I worked in, I had grown accustomed to lying," Blair writes in the opening chapter. "I told more than my share of lies and became as adept as anyone at getting away with it unquestioned and unscathed."

Titled Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times, the book, which officially goes on sale Saturday, also reveals Blair's lasting anger toward many of his former editors, whom he believed hindered his professional progress.

Blair, 27, was forced to resign from The Times last May amid an investigation into his work that would reveal at least several dozen newspaper articles marred by plagiarism, fabrications or deep inaccuracies. Some of the compromised stories involved weighty topics, such as soldiers who had been wounded in Iraq or the investigation into the Washington-area sniper in 2002.

Throughout the book, Blair, who reportedly received a six-figure advance, writes of being repelled by what he describes as his editors' corrupted journalistic and personal ethics. He touches only glancingly on his time at the University of Maryland's journalism school, which he attended from January 1995 to May 1999, but from which he did not graduate.

"The curiosity, perfectionism, independence, stubbornness, ruthlessness and detachment that lead you to [journalism] and make you good at it - that nourish you - can also destroy you," Heather Lloyd, one of Blair's friends from college who read early drafts of his manuscript, wrote in an e-mail interview for this article. "It happened to Jayson."

Though the memoir is scheduled for formal release on Saturday, a reporter for The Sun obtained a copy yesterday by purchasing it at a Baltimore book store. Through a spokeswoman, editors at The Times declined to comment yesterday.

The Times' memo

But in an internal memorandum written last week by the newspaper, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and the newspaper's two managing editors write that the book "does not merit much attention," adding: "The author is an admitted fabricator."

The memo continues: "The book pretends to be a mea culpa, but ends up spewing imaginary blame in all directions." In the wake of the scandal, the newspaper has put in place new policies designed to safeguard the integrity of its reporting.

In response to messages seeking comment from New Millennium, Blair's publisher, a lawyer for the company wrote a letter demanding The Sun desist from writing any article quoting the book before its official publication date.

Blair has reserved public comment for a crush of television interviews arranged to promote the release of the book beginning tomorrow with NBC News' Katie Couric on Dateline. In it, according to NBC, Blair says, "I was a victim of my own bad choices." He also expresses remorse that former Times Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd were forced to resign in the wake of the internal tumult unleashed by his scandal.

"It's certainly not their fault that I committed acts of plagiarism and fraud," Blair tells Couric.

In the book, Blair writes that some Times editors were inhospitable to reporters who were African-American, Hispanic or Asian-American. Other editors, eager to burnish the reputations of senior Times correspondents, withheld credit from less established reporters, such as Blair, who had helped colleagues on important stories. Additionally, Blair devotes several passages to the newspaper's historical shortcomings, such as its failure to report sufficiently on the Holocaust or the deadly Stalinist purges of the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

Most hurtful thing

By comparison, said Seth Mnookin, a former Newsweek media reporter currently at work on his own book about The Times, Blair's transgressions are "relatively insignificant." But, Mnookin said, Blair is an unconvincing critic of the newspaper. "The most hurtful thing was the confirming of the idea - which is rampant in this country - that you cannot trust what you read in the press," said Mnookin, who has not read the book.

Much of Burning Down My Masters' House focuses on Blair's own despair, stemming from depression and bipolar disorder that led him to seek refuge in substance abuse.

He describes flirting with suicide (by hanging himself by a belt in a bar bathroom) as the integrity of his work was being called into question. Later on, he recounts anecdotes about six dead colleagues whom he writes were driven to their graves, at least in part, by the unrelenting stress imposed by the newspaper. Several had committed suicide.

"Although I am alive by the skin of my teeth, I am destined to become another one of them, a promising young reporter who came to The Times with energy and talent, who somehow lost it, and lost everything," he writes.

As Blair now acknowledges, he pretended to have reported stories from locations to which he never traveled, weaving into articles facts that he had reported with those taken from other news organizations or that were fabricated. But Blair still defends scoops that he wrote for The Times about the sniper investigation that the newspaper later declared were not supported by his reporting and were also undermined by subsequent reporting by the Washington Post and The Sun.

The book does not include footnotes or other documentation for the incidents and extensive dialogue described by Blair. His publisher did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages asking about the degree to which facts presented by the memoir were verified.

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