Pubdate: Tue, 16 Mar 2004 Source: DrugWar (US Web) Copyright: 2004 Kalyx com Contact: http://www.drugwar.com/ Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/2410 Author: Dan Forbes Note: Daniel Forbes has testified before both the House and the Senate about his journalism. Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/forbes.htm (Forbes, Daniel) BLAIR TALKS TURKEY By the way, the sex for drugs was with men. Or - saying he was revealing details he'd told no one else - so Jayson Blair told me Friday night, the two of us alone on a Harlem sidewalk following his first public reading. The drugs were primarily cocaine, sometimes crack and "a little heroin" to come down on. But cocaine was his decided favorite. Blair said he was "born a decade too late" - that is, after coke's peak. Regarding the sex-for-drugs, I asked only the gender involved and whether any New York Times staffers participated. With yet another of his grating, ingratiating giggles, Blair said no about any Timesmen, "but that would've made a good story, hunh?" He told me his attitude about sex - and indeed perhaps sex itself - was "really sordid" and "twisted" and "fucked up." He declared himself rife with inhibitions and said there were sexual issues "I need to sort out." He added, "Drugs are a way to make myself comfortable with sex." And no, I'm not outing Jayson Blair in any fashion. He invited such questions in his widely trashed new memoir, Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at The New York Times, published by New Millennium Press. (The house bears the twin distinctions of having recently filed for bankruptcy and publishing Blair.) As first revealed by, I believe, Paul D. Colford of The New York Daily News, the book made cryptic reference to " ... other less memorable moments where I performed, or received, a sexual favor for drugs. When I was on the performing end, it was usually implicit that it was for drugs." I always thought it was a bit of a continuum, but where one person's "performing end" ends and another's receiving end begins is, as they say, beyond the scope of this article. In any event, Blair certainly could have told me to get lost rather than answer my questions as I stood there pen and paper in hand. And that would have been that. To his credit, this interview came after I'd maneuvered up front during the last, emptier stages of his crowded book signing. I shielded us so no one could hear and mentioned his vague sex-for-drugs reference. This was up at the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe on Frederick Douglass Blvd. just south of 125th Street. Without blinking an eye, Blair indicated a straggler or two among the very supportive, predominantly African-American book-buyers and asked me to wait. Proceedings dragged, though the maybe ten photographers stayed busy. I was starting to figure Blair was stalling and would plead another engagement and bolt. But he grabbed some cigarettes and we headed to the sidewalk, Blair glad of the smoke. He'd been working hard. As to the sex abuse as a child he'd suffered - one in an endless litany of reasons for why he'd deep-sixed his career and mauled his employer - Blair told me it was at the hands of both a male and a female, neither one an "immediate relative." It started when he was five, the woman soon caught. But the man's abuse continued for five years, until he was ten. Or so Blair said, one feels compelled to reiterate. But hold. It's a new Jayson Blair, possessed of the frankness of someone flogging a book, someone who declared himself now done with lying. He made no promises about self-serving exculpation or craven self-absorption though. And that's good, for he's full of both judging by the ultimately pretty boring book and Friday night's polished performance before enthusiastic fans and a meek press. Oddly enough, silence greeted his stated advice to young journalists: "Put integrity ahead of careerism." His fans nodded and reporters gaped, hoping their silence would spur more of the same. He offered to "be like Moses if you want me to be," when an audience member encouraged him to continue speaking out on racial issues. Self-serving and frank - and however mendacious - Blair also discussed substance abuse and mental illness. Threatening to emulate Al Sharpton's sheer relentlessness, he said he might speak in every bookstore in the country until people begged him to stop. There was little mention of his transgressions beyond such generic verbs as "lie" and "sin." There were no pointed questions. Joking a couple of times that he'd only answer questions from photographers, he also told one white questioner, we "can't let the media guy ask questions - you guys ain't allowed to speak." A couple of other remarks were also geared to get the reporters present to go easy, including a jocular requests or two to his fans in attendance to, in effect, send a vibe to cow the press. I counted some 45 people there; perhaps a third were white, and they were mostly reporters and photographers. Of the perhaps thirty true fans, most were black. Basking in his fans' support, Blair proved a clever and charming performer. Seated behind a desk, he's adroit, good-looking. Elsewhere, he's alarmingly short. His frequent and annoying giggle and occasional drift for a phrase or three into a posh English accent were both remarkable. On the rare occasions the questions got at all pointed, he'd deftly interrupt. Blair his own master of ceremonies, he was joined at the front table by Jamal E. Watson of the Amsterdam News who opened and closed proceedings and pointed to the next questioner. On Friday night, Watson gave Blair mostly kid-glove treatment. It echoed his positive print review of a couple of days before. Watson led his article identifying Blair as "the self-professed fabricator and plagiarist." But on the plus side, Watson wrote that "an apologetic Blair comes clean ." And he termed the book, a "well-written memoir," one that offers "powerful testimony." He asserted that, "While reading the page-turning memoir, it becomes immediately clear that he can write, and he can write well." When summing up the evening, Watson called for "some sense of forgiveness." He added that, "We can learn from what Jayson provided us here, but that doesn't mean we let him off the hook." Watson would no doubt enjoy a spirited exchange with the many reviewers who have condemned Burning as a shoddy, self-serving affair - and a lousy read to boot. But no one disputed the praise Watson voiced on Friday. The Hue-Man is a class operation, with both Bill Cosby and Henry Louis Gates Jr. having recently appeared. Co-owner Clara Villarosa said Blair's Beverly Hills-based publisher had initiated the reading. She declared it obviously to Blair's advantage to appear first at an African-American bookstore. There was no apparent security and none needed. Blair did have both a publicist and an assistant present. Lurking close towards the end of the signing to stake my claim to a private interview, I heard many a lush expression of support from book-buyers. Blair took his time speaking with each and wrote a couple of sentences in each copy. Racial issues dominated the evening, including both the later questions and answers and Blair's opening reading about the Times' allegedly racist under-coverage of the murder of black and brown. (Curiously enough, the passage he read concerned the downgrading of coverage regarding a murdered white woman once it was learned she was homeless.) He said he once complained to an editor about what he viewed as other racially skewed editorial decisions and "got in trouble for it." Blair asserted that a "curmudgeonly" Times copyeditor who, not realizing Blair was within hearing, complained, " 'Why can't any of these black reporters write?' " Yes, Blair brands the Times a racist institution. However he might quantify the paper's alleged racism - and Blair made no firebrand statements on that - it was more racist, he said, than either The New York Daily News or The Washington Post. The latter benefits from needing to appeal to D.C.'s many middle- and upper-class blacks in its coverage, he said. But the Times is written, Blair indicated, for the people who live in the editors' neighborhoods on the Upper East and West Sides. He said affirmative action was necessary to "level the playing field," and that it now was suffering white backlash. More than once he denounced the "white, upper crust, male Ivy League" editors of the Times who hire unqualified whites from the likes of Harvard, Amherst and Yale. Meanwhile, a "white Irish guy from Queens can't get in." Complaining that the editors only knew people who looked like themselves to hire, he expressed a desire to "stick it" to the old-boy network. Nonetheless, fellow African-American, Gerald M. Boyd, the Times number two who lost his job at Blair's hands as did top editor Howell Raines, was the only person criticized by name. There was no mention of then metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman who, as became famous after the fact, worked hard a year before it hit the fan to try to get the Times to stop publishing Blair. As to the Times itself, Blair said the book's title is "sort of" an attempt to bring it down. Blair admitted the possibility that he was an affirmative action hire. But he didn't feel his race "helped me once I got in the door." He certainly was prolific if nothing else. He said that helped explain why he hit "burnout" faster at the Times as a result. He spoke of doing 200 stories a year each of his first two years on the paper and asserted that most reporters do fifty to seventy articles a year. That he worked like hell is corroborated in a scathing denunciation of his "ongoing con" in Sunday's Times' Book Review written by Slate's Jack Shafer. The Book Review refers to Blair's four years as a reporter and his "more than 600 articles at The Times." Starting in college, Blair said he put pressure on himself to exert "double, triple, quadruple" the effort of anyone else. Now he knows it was fueled in part by the manic element of the bipolar disorder that was diagnosed when he quit the Times just ahead of getting fired when a reporter from Texas called him on his latest plagiarism. Having made a suicidal gesture, he checked himself voluntarily into a hospital for a week and got diagnosed with the manic-depression that first surfaced in high school, he said. But he also said his parents, who he spoke warmly of, raised him to work twice or three times as hard as whites. Though the Times hired him at a remarkably young age, Blair said, "I'd already run six miles before I got in the door." And yes he did have prior formal stints while an undergraduate at The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and then the Times itself. Ultimately, he admitted - his scale presumably a football field's 100 yards - "I have perhaps set back the cause of African-American journalists ten or twenty yards." And only the best routinely overcome that kind of third and long. He lost his sure performer's touch only once - not that he received many pitches that weren't fat, slow and over the plate. Adopting his questioner's phrase, he gave the obvious reply that he was a "House Negro" rather than a "Field Negro." A moment later, Blair said, "I can't believe I just called myself a 'House Negro.' " Whether he was rueful over his diction or the concept itself, the half-pregnant, P.C. phrase sounded leaden in these white ears. Remarkably enough, Blair allowed that he's not angry at either Raines or Boyd - a great relief, no doubt, to both men and their families. As the question period was closing, he expressed regret about Raines' firing. I managed two public questions: I wondered whether Blair felt any remorse over helping to move the Times to the right by being responsible for Raines' ouster and replacement by the decidedly more middle-of-the-road Bill Keller. And I asked him about the "powerful drugs" that, according to the bookstore's website advertising the event, "allow him to function again." He sketched through his current legal medications. Worried I might botch it, I subsequently queried him by e-mail. In a gracious reply, Blair wrote that he is currently on: "Depakote, which is an anti-convulsant used to also treat bipolar mania; Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic used to treat schizophrenia and severe bipolar mania; and Paxil, an anti-depressant." He also wrote that he is on Ambien, a sleeping pill and Klonpin, a tranquilizer. Yes, the man is delving into his mental illness, a topic he and others declare shunned by the black community. He ducked my question about Raines, but he'd already stated his preference for "conservative racists" who are more "blunt" about their feelings than are "liberal racists." He added his view that the Times is not only liberal, "it's anti-conservative." All in all, a high-energy and slippery performance -- just like the book. Not incidentally, the book's credibility is harmed by the ubiquitous direct quotes going back years in situations where Blair would be unlikely to have had a notebook out. Editor and Publisher thought to ask him about the "lengthy verbatim quotes...." Embracing the lax, modern standard, Blair told E & P, "We made the determination that we would rely on my journals when we could and when we couldn't we would rely on my best recollections. It's the standard for this form of nonfiction." Well, I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it, especially relying on the recollections - "best" or not -- of someone who writes of waking up on the floor and not remembering how he got there. Used to be something inside quote marks was actually said by someone. Furthermore, a gentleman never tells. I haven't yet found the passage where Blair admits plugging a PR woman's client in the pages of the Times in exchange for sex, but I don't imagine he mentioned her name. So why does he feel the need to mention the first name and employer of a working class woman (a waitress) who he planned to spend the night with until she proved too drunk to direct the cabbie to her own address? Blair's self-respect long since snorted up his nose, the tawdriness of going home with someone liquored up like that apparently didn't register. Failing to dump her back at the bar, which had closed, she was so far gone, he and a hotel concierge had to get her up to a room in a wheelchair. Maybe if he'd rewritten the book about three times, it might've turned out O.K. Over that stretch of time, anyway, he just might have grown up a bit and maybe even reflected that in his book. As is, it's a largely tedious read leavened by the train-wreck spectacle of wretched excess.