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May 27, 2003

So That's How You Do It.

"In a racially charged book proposal bristling with anger at the New York Times, Jayson Blair likens himself to teenage sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo and rages at the newspaper he calls 'my tormentor, my other drug, my slavemaster.'

The proposed book, which some literary agents say could bring the disgraced former reporter a six-figure advance, is titled 'Burning Down My Master's House.'" -- "Blair Book Proposal Lashes Out at Paper," Washington Post, 5/27/03

It's an interesting point in time to ask the question of whether there is any percentage in doing things honestly if one wants to get ahead. Let us stipulate that most excellent journalists, working diligently for decades could not yank a six-figure advance out of a book publisher for a first book (a memoir, no less) regardless of how excellent their book might be. Blair may be richly compensated for nothing more than being a spectacularly bad reporter for a very few years, and will have an opportunity to blame his downfall on an institution that gave him rather more trust and opportunity than he deserved.

And indeed there's a real chance at the end of this, more people will blame the New York Times for the implosion of Jayson Blair than Jayson Blair himself (check the Blogoverse for confirmation). There is no penalty for Jayson Blair to have screwed up as badly as he has, except the possible deep-seated self-loathing that comes from knowing that you've screwed up incredibly badly, and it's nearly all your own fault. But of course, any misgivings that Blair may have had appear to be gone now in a wave of personal calculus regarding how to make this all work for him.

As for Blair's book itself, I figure it will sell pretty well, and will have two primary audiences: Conservatives, who are wallowing in the pleasure of seeing a liberal bastion like the Times take a hit, and journalists, who like nothing better than a long deep plunge into schadenfreude, especially as it regards the NYT, which nearly all of them would plunge ice picks into each others' eyes in order to work at. I don't expect anything would be able to keep conservatives from buying the book, since as a class they've shown time and again that their hatred of liberals outstrips their stated statutes of morality, i.e., they're willing to reward deception and incompetence so long as it's the Times that goes down. Indeed, if most of the major publishing houses cames to their sense and chose not to reward Blair for screwing up -- which they won't -- I would expect some place like Regnery Publishing (motto: "We're still making book on Clinton!") would step in and generously offer its services.

But I do hope journalists will avoid the temptation of rewarding Blair for his actions. Schadenfreude or not, this is not primarily the story of the New York Times betraying the public trust, it's the story of Jayson Blair imploding and then trying to find a way to make it someone else's fault but his own. And if journalists can't look at it that way, they should think of it like this: Every Blair book that gets bought reinforces the message that as far as journalism goes, hard work and effort don't matter so long as you can cause enough damage to others on your own way down to Hell. I don't know that a momentary spasm of Schadenfreude is worth that.

Posted by john at May 27, 2003 12:41 PM

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» Best laid plans... from ronbailey's weblog
You know, I started off to blog about a Washington Post article on Jayson Blair's possible book deal. However, since the *&^%$^ WP website makes you fill out a registration page, I decided that they didn't deserve the link anyway. [Read More]

Tracked on May 28, 2003 08:45 PM


Alina | May 27, 2003 01:41 PM

While I have often been accused of being a conservative (which I am on some issues, though I'm also pro-choice, pro-gay rights and generally dislike labels of any kind; not to mention I just plain enjoy confounding people's expectations... but enough about me), my big issue with NYT has always been how inaccurate they are (Jayson Blair aside). When I can find basic errors in news stories because they are topics I know about, I always worriy about the errors I can't find because I don't know enough about the subject.

That being said, though, I'm not really sure why Jayson Blair's book would be such a hot-seller for conservatives. To me, it's simply the story of a guy who got hired to do a job and did it very badly. (Pretend for a minute he was your surgeon or even your contractor, and imagine how you'd feel about a less obscure type of craftsman screwing up, is the example I use to clarify it for the more obstuse). He did this job badly at a pretty liberal newspaper and they didn't stop him. But that's hardly a conservative victory by any means.

Personally, I think his book is more likely to be bought by those who will believe that it was the big, bad newspaper that made poor little Jayson go bad, instead of his own choices in life - and that has always seemed to be more of a liberal mindset.

John Scalzi | May 27, 2003 02:08 PM

Alina wrote:

"He did this job badly at a pretty liberal newspaper and they didn't stop him. But that's hardly a conservative victory by any means."

Well, to be clear, I'd love to be proven wrong about this preconception regarding conservatives as a class.

I personally don't find the NYT grossly full of errors (no more so than other newspapers). But it is useful to remember not to believe everything you read. This is why having two independent sources for confirmation is useful. Both sources may be wrong, of course, but the odds are lessened.

Bill | May 27, 2003 02:13 PM

Perhaps they could box it up with David Brock's Blinded By the Right and sell them as a set, entitled "how to turn a skull full of dung into a million bucks."

John Scalzi | May 27, 2003 02:38 PM

Add in Stephen Glass' novel and you may be on to something.

Tripp | May 27, 2003 02:40 PM

" . . . the story of Jayson Blair imploding and then trying to find a way to make it someone else's fault but his own. "

I suspect there are some people who will buy the book for that reason, and use it as a way to discredit affirmative action.

I think it discredits Jayson, and if he goes through with it he will be hurting other African-Americans for his own benefit.

Bill Peschel | May 27, 2003 04:56 PM

I can't imagine anyone buying this book, especially since it'll come out long after the last ounce of pleasure has been drained from watching the Times twist slowly in the wind.

And ole Jayson makes as compelling an argument that racism exists at the Times as Michael Jackson's argument that Tommy Mottola was a racist, so I can't imagine anyone with a stake in affirmative action would be interested in this.

Expect that "six-figure" advance to be heavily dependent on sales, and to see it remaindered next to Hilary's memoirs about three months after publication.

Roger | May 27, 2003 05:22 PM

Speaking as a conservative, I wouldn't waste my money on his book simply because I don't want to reward incompetence.

Putting aside for a moment the political views of the NY Times, it is primarily a news disemination medium. Everyone loses if we can't trust it to actually present news and the underlying facts that make up the news, even if that news may be tainted with a bit of editorial bias.

As for the blind hatred of liberals by conservatives, please provide specifics because I don't see that at all.

John Scalzi | May 27, 2003 07:16 PM

Roger writes:

"Speaking as a conservative, I wouldn't waste my money on his book simply because I don't want to reward incompetence."

Excellent. That's the sort of conservatism I can get behind.

Bill | May 27, 2003 08:06 PM

Roger -- as much as I hated "Blinded By the Right" for being a mewling, poorly-written attempt to salve Brock's own conscience while conveniently making a pile of money, it did contain some fairly specific information on how certain neoconservative groups mounted some of their particularly vicious attacks in the 80's and 90's. Brock is far from a trustworthy source, but taken with a grain of salt, it's worth reading for at least one of two reasons: first, if he's telling the truth, then it's just plain worth knowing. Second, if he's not telling the truth, then I can assure you that many people on the left believed the things he said for years before he said it, so it may be worth a conservative's time to get a good impression of why the left believes America's conservatives to be a pack of blackhearted villains.

RON | May 28, 2003 08:35 AM

If Jason Blair's notoriety gets him a six-figure publishing deal, then, I can't see how the makings of a TV movie based on Blair, wouldn't be too far behind. His publisher may even get to own the TV rights. A reader has to pay for the book in order to read it while it still has any tabloid value, but its TV version is free for all to watch. Blair might just be in for more cash in the future. Sad, I guess.

Roger | May 28, 2003 03:58 PM

Bill - Thanks for the tip. I'll read that book.

O.F. Jay | May 28, 2003 04:49 PM

John, I'm a Conservative, but I cannot, will not, stomach anything that Jayson Blair says. I've stuck to The Post (Marylander that I am) for my news, anyway, but I think I'd rather read someone of better repute to write something against "His Master's House."

I'm one of those Conservatives who go against your grain of "rewarding deception and incompetence" because Blair makes me sick. His attitude towards the whole thing goes against MY morals.

On an economic note, though, this kid's pretty good turning disgrace into a source of money. He needs to eat to y'know.

mark | May 31, 2003 09:47 AM

Roger, read any column at townhall.com

You don't need to restrict yourself to Ann Coulter (the rest of them, AFAICT, are pretty mainstream -- unlike AC), although doing so will definitely open your eyes, and possibly give you cancer, not to mention ulcers.