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Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times    by Jayson Blair order for
Burning Down My Masters' House
by Jayson Blair
Order:  USA  Can
New Millennium, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, Audio, CD
* *   Reviewed by David Pitt

There are many confusing things about this oddly inaccessible memoir, but one thing is clear: it isn't a very good book. The prose is dull, lying flat on the page, dragging us slowly through the chapters. The dialogue – and there is a lot of it – is awkward and stilted, like it was written for a high-school English assignment. Listen to this:

"Hey, Joyce," I said to the woman behind the desk.

"Hi. Jayson. How are you?"

"Oh, I am good. I am just wondering if Pat is around by any chance."

"She is in with someone. Do you want to set up an appointment?"

"Sure. What's a good time?"

"How about three p.m.?"

"Okay, three p.m. it is."

Doesn't exactly sing, does it?

In recounting the story of his fall from grace – he's the guy who resigned from The Times after his editors found out he was faking stories – Blair isn't blatantly begging for our sympathy, the way Stephen Glass did in his autobiographical novel The Fabulist. But he does seem, and perhaps this is not deliberate, to be sidestepping the bigger issue.

At the beginning of chapter one, he writes, 'I lied and I lied – and then I lied some more,' going on to admit to lying about plane trips he never took, people he never spoke to, places he had never been. But, before that, in the preface, there are already hints that this is not going to be the confession we expect.

'Some might hold me responsible for not foreseeing the results of my actions,' Blair writes in the book's opening paragraph, 'but my behavior was first and foremost an act of self-destruction.' Booze and drugs, he tells us frequently, had set him on his self-destructive course. 'Throughout my career in journalism I found myself dangling on a precipice – it can be debated how much of it was environmental and how much of it was genetic – above the struggle with addiction and undiagnosed mental illness.'

Did you catch that? I did what I did, not because I'm inherently unethical, not because I made a series of stupid mistakes, but as a result of a combination of environmental and addictive influences. Don't blame me – blame my addictions, and my surroundings. (This undiagnosed mental illness, by the way, Blair claims to be manic-depression. But he provides only the thinnest evidence that he actually suffers from it. Meanwhile it's a great excuse.)

Blair mentions his dual addictions a lot – he even mentions, obliquely, having been sexually abused as a child (a throwaway line on page 63) – as though he wants us to cut him some slack because he wasn't responsible for his actions. People have tried this sort of defense in a courtroom, and it usually doesn't work. (Anyway, by the time he was caught out, Blair had been clean and sober for more than a year.)

Blair also wants to be sure we understand that many of the things he did are, according to him, commonplace in journalism. Writing a story at home, then going somewhere else so you can put an out-of-town dateline on the story (the 'toe-touch') is, Blair tells, 'a popular and sanctioned way at the newspaper to get a dateline on a story.'

Similarly, when admitting to writing a story about a benefit concert by watching the event on television (in between breaks to snort cocaine in a stairwell), he tells us that '(w)riting off television was not that odd an occurrence at The Times.' (Although he does admit doing it in this instance, when he was less than ten blocks away from the event, was unusual.)

Whether he is consciously using the other-people-do-it-so-it-isn't-so-bad excuse, or whether that's an accidental byproduct of his narrative, is difficult to say. And does he mean to present himself as a helplessly weak man who got himself in so much trouble because he was initially too spineless to clean himself up and, later, too lazy to resist the temptation to take shortcuts? It's anyone’s guess.

But one thing is certain. Blair does not seem to think arrogance, or ego, or laziness, or an essential lack of ethics, played any major role in his downfall. The booze and the blow, they're responsible. The difficulties of being a young black reporter trying to prove he was more than an affirmative action hire, they're responsible.

Jayson Blair? Heck, he's just a victim in all this.

Yeah, right.

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