Jewish World Review March 16, 2004 / 23 Adar 5764
Jayson Blair's new
career: Scandal star
Clarence Page's column below incorrectly stated that former New Republic writer Stephen Glass had "sold his life story to Hollywood." The movie "Shattered Glass," was an unauthorized biography in which he did not participate and for which he was not paid.
As I sit down to peck out some thoughts about Jayson Blair and his World Contrition Tour to plug his book, I am tempted to pretend that I actually have read it.
It would be easy but it would be wrong.
It would be easy because I've seen excerpts and reviews and sounds bites from a variety of media on Blair's "Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at the New York Times." I've seen parts of Blair's interviews with Katie Couric, Larry King, Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews, among others.
But it would be wrong because, well, lying is wrong. Ethics, as an old saying goes, is what you do when nobody's looking. Media people with shaky ethics take a big risk because, in our line of work, we invite everyone to look at what we're doing.
Yet, amazingly, some journalists take the risk.
Once there was a time when such people were shunned, if not jailed. Today, one's profit potential as a star of scandal means never having to say you're sorry, unless it improves one's book sales.
Depending on how well you play the angles and listen to your publicists, you very well may find yourself enriched with prime-time talk show stardom, book advances, new wealth and even new jobs precisely because you bent the rules.
Count me out. I have not read Blair's book and I don't plan to read it. I share the sentiments of Tavis Smiley, who rushed to deny reports that his PBS talk show had booked Blair. Smiley, who is black like Blair and me, told the New York Daily News that he would not give Blair "even 60 seconds" because he is "an embarrassment to any African-American journalist in this country."
I understand where Tavis is coming from but I don't think he goes far enough. Blair is an embarrassment not just to black journalists, but to all journalists in this country.
I feel a mixture of anger and sympathy for him inasmuch as I sympathize with anyone who is mentally ill. In interviews and in his much-hyped book, which was whipped into publication less than a year after his journalistic frauds rocked The New York Times, Blair now says that his serial fabrications resulted, in part, from undiagnosed manic depression. Mixed with his cocaine abuse, binge drinking, racial anxieties, burning ambition and youthful inexperience, his lying, cheating, plagiarism and social isolation in his Brooklyn apartment grew more pronounced, eventually leading to the scandal that resulted last year in the resignations of the Times' two top editors.
Blair might well have benefited from the small-town, small-newsroom obituary-writing, police-chasing and doorbell-ringing stories on which about 99 percent of young journalists cut their professional teeth. It is bracing, edifying and energizing to test one's chops on a short leash of close supervision. It is also educational, as one older editor told me in my impatient youth, to make one's inevitable mistakes in a low-profile place where they are less likely to be career killers.
Instead, Blair's career as a journalist is ruined but his future as a media star is off to a robust start. Having completed the exile stage of his new infamy, Blair now moves to the next phase: the national confessionals on TV talk shows and other media.
What next? Maybe a novel, Blair says. Why not? Stephen Glass wrote a novel and sold his life story to Hollywood. Glass, you may recall, was fired at age 25 in 1998 for fabricating articles at the New Republic. His novel, "The Fabulist," made barely a ripple, sparking endless jokes about how his fiction writing worked better when it was passed off as fact. The movie, "Shattered Glass," did better, indicating fabrications of his life still work for him.
Or maybe Blair can look to a radio talk show, a cable TV talk show or a newspaper column. Mike Barnicle has done all of those before and after he resigned from his popular Boston Globe column in 1998. His exit resulted from questions about possibly stolen jokes in one column and some unverifiable facts in another. Last week, Barnicle unveiled a new column in the rival Boston Herald, the paper that ironically first raised questions over the allegedly pilfered jokes.
Many Barnicle fans think he was pushed out to blunt possible charges of racial favoritism. Weeks earlier Patricia Smith, an award-winning black columnist at the Globe, resigned after admitting she fabricated people and quotes in four columns.
I don't know what happened to her, but she might consider making a comeback. Where there is no shame, there is no embarrassment and today there is almost no shame left in the big talk-show celebrity game.
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