On Friday night, Jayson Blair finally found some love. It had been a tough week. The reviews for Burning Down My Masters' House, his book that detailed his central role in last year's scandal that brought down the top two editors at the New York Times, were almost uniformly bad. He'd faced a barrage of critical questions from Katie Couric, Larry King and a dozen other interviewers angry at him for the harm he'd done to journalism. A leading black radio journalist said he'd never interview Blair because he is, "an embarrassment to any African-American journalist in this country."
But as night brought the week to a merciful close, Blair found a warm embrace at Hue Man Experience, the nation's largest black bookstore. In interviews and in his book, Blair admits that he can't be certain what role race played in his rise and fall at the Times, but here in Harlem, flanked by displays of books by Angela Davis and Howard Thurman, he readily played the race card for a receptive audience.
During a reading and public interview with a critic for the local Amsterdam News, one of the few who had extended him and his book any compassion, Blair spoke of his expectation as a young black man in America that he would have to, "run twice as fast and jump twice as high as others to be taken seriously." Affirmative murmurs echoed through the room. "I don't excuse him, but I'm empathetic to him as an African-American person who's felt that pressure to succeed," Carmen Thompson, a graduate student at Columbia, said later.
Painting a portrait of an Ivy League old-boys' network that he said dominates the Times, Blair unconsciously lapsed into a southern slave accent. One man picked up on the book's incendiary title, which evokes American slave imagery, and asked Blair if he, "was the field negro or the house negro" - the latter term referring to slaves who loved their masters and helped keep the oppressive status quo in place. Blair nodded enthusiastically and said, "Oh, definitely the house negro."
Blair is by nature eager to please, which may explain why he is still playing the role of house negro, though now for a different master. Since the scandal, he has been embraced by some members of the conservative media for helping to support their long-standing contention that the Times is riddled with liberal bias in its editorial and hiring practices. One of Blair's few friendly interviews last week came with the conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly, who led Blair into suggesting that his own ethics breach could be blamed on affirmative action because the "politically correct" environment at the Times precluded criticism of blacks in the newsroom.
The day before his reading at Hue Man Experience, Blair admits he is surprised by this turn of events. "If I had a choice of having dinner right now with Bill O'Reilly or a leading liberal," he says over lunch at Rockefeller Center's Sea Grill, "I'd take Bill O'Reilly any day, because at least he'd listen to me right now." Blair seems unaware that O'Reilly is happy to listen to him because he is telling him what he wants to hear.
"I really feel a lot of people, particularly liberals in the media, are circling the wagons around the New York Times," Blair says. "It is what they all follow. If there's something wrong with the New York Times, then there's something wrong with all of them." He can't understand why the critics are panning his book for hypocrisy and disingenuousness. Even as he apologizes for his plagiarism and fabrication, he says that others at the Times share responsibility.
Still, he admits that those expecting a reason for his crimes will be disappointed by the book. "It's better at telling you how I did it than why I did it. If you're looking for the reason why, you might have to wait 50 years," he says. "I don't have a real why."
In person, when confronted with the real Jayson Blair, you may find yourself forgetting all of these sins. He is shorter than you'd expect, only five-foot-two, and wears a rumpled gray shirt under an inexpensive black suit. He is a diagnosed manic-depressive, for which he is taking half a dozen medications.
He is affable, an inveterate gossip, and generous: His gift for office politics is obvious. He curses like a cornered CEO. He is a gifted storyteller and has a journalist's sense of the sound bite. He tells a Canadian journalist about falling in love with Canada as a child and pestering his parents to take him to Quebec. He says, many times over, that he is through with lying.
Then you hear him exaggerate, or revel in a crowd's attention and his status as an outcast, or claim credit for someone else's idea, and you chastise yourself for giving in to his charms, just as his editors must have done.
In his New Yorker review of Masters' House, Nicholas Lemann suggests the Times could prevent another Blair-like incident by creating a small team of researchers who would randomly spot-check and verify stories before publication. (This idea was first floated by the Times biographer Alex Jones immediately after the executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd fell on their swords last June.)
In some interviews, Blair acknowledges Lemann. Then at Hue Man Experience he tells the audience, "I actually have an innovative idea, to actually have someone inspect stories." There is no mention that others have already put forward the idea.
In truth - and Blair recites "if you want to know the truth" like a mantra - he is less interested in analyzing his sins than in using Masters' House to prompt a dialogue about mental illness and race. He says he has sent the book for free to some mentally ill people who were unable to afford it, and says he fought to have the book shelved at Barnes & Noble under Memoir and Recovery rather than Journalism.
"People might buy the book because it has something to do with the New York Times," he says, showing a rare flair for understatement, "but it also has an important personal story."
After the flurry of the book tour is over in May, Blair will focus on his recovery, moving back from Brooklyn to live with his parents in Virginia. He has no employment prospects beyond the few Op-Ed pieces he says he's been asked to write by some conservative papers. And treating mental illness is expensive: drugs, insurance and therapy costs easily top $1,500 (U.S.) a month, which he says has already eaten up most of the book advance.
A paid speaking tour is out of the question, at least for the moment, since he says he wants to concentrate on getting his message out without the taint of financial gain. He even offered to create a scholarship for journalists at his alma mater, the University of Maryland, but was turned down. "I wish they would at least help me come up with some way to better prepare journalism students," he says. "I mean, I think I could be invaluable to an ethics class."