Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 6, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

THE RETURN OF JAYSON BLAIR....Remember Jayson Blair? Sure you do: he's the guy who wrote all those fake stories for the New York Times that eventually led to Howell Raines departing the paper in disgrace.

As promised (or perhaps threatened), Blair has now written a book about his misdeeds, Burning Down My Masters' House, and the Guardian has a long excerpt:

No sooner had I got back to New York than I received a telephone call from the national desk....They wanted me to write a story and then get back to Washington to get the dateline. Given the deadline, I knew this was going to be a toe-touch. A toe-touch was a popular and sanctioned way at the newspaper to get a dateline on a story by reporting and writing it in one location, and then flying in simply so you could put the name of the city where the news was happening at the top of the story.

....I began working my sources, and my best one once again delivered. I was able to cobble together a 600-word story, then dash off to Pennsylvania Station in a cab. I arrived well past midnight in Washington. At Union Station, I promptly turned around and headed back to New York on the next train.

Toe-touches were not acceptable under the newsroom policy on datelines, but they were widely sanctioned and often ordered by editors on the national desk. Datelines, under Howell Raines's "flood the zone" philosophy, were almost more important to national desk editors than the content of the stories. Howell wanted the paper to read as if the Times had been everywhere imaginable on any given day.

According to Blair, this is how it all started. One evening he missed his train, then another, and then another, and couldn't get a toe-touch he was supposed to get. So he just lied about it and got the dateline anyway. Pretty harmless.

From there it was all downhill and eventually he was concocting an entire fantasy life about his travels. The rest of the Guardian's excerpt is a fairly histrionic account of his eventual descent into madness: "I had begun to smell, hear and see things that did not actually exist, I could not complete everyday tasks like taking a bath without a crisis arising....I relapsed, not into drinking or doing drugs, but into psychosis, with its similar effects the blurriness, the vague recollections...."

That's about all there is, though. As Greg Mitchell complains in Editor & Publisher, only a very few pages at the end of the book are actually dedicated to the fabrications that made Blair famous:

Still, this is more than enough space for Blair to blame his misbehavior on: toothaches, backaches, his girlfriend not fully committing to their relationship, his obsession with Lee Malvo, the death of a Times colleague, a bipolar disorder, psychosis, not getting enough sleep, lingering psychic pain from 9/11, pressure from editors to get more scoops, feeling unfulfilled, seeing/smelling/hearing things that did not actually exist, dizziness, and being assigned to write too many stories on the road, among other things.

Quite a list.

Kevin Drum 5:00 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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