Last week all the media reporters (including Press Clips) seemed to have lost their moral compass, devoting round-the-clock coverage to plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair. First Newsweek and New York put him on their covers, then The New York Observer landed the first long interview with Blair, who is hot to parlay his glory days as a New York Times reporter into a million-dollar book-movie deal. By the time this column comes out (it went to press on May 23), a deal may have already been signed.
Blair’s sordid rise to stardom is compelling but not unique. In 1999, a year after the budding celebrity was hired at the Times, Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham wrote an ironic book called Lapham’s Rules of Influence, in which he anticipated Blair’s m.o. exactly. Consider just a few of Lapham’s commands: Socialize with big shots (“never take an interest in people who cannot do you any favors”), polish your résumé like a work of literature, trade in gossip, dole out flattery (“cannot be too often or too recklessly applied”), and learn to tell lies (“always more welcome than the truth”).
The full title is Lapham’s Rules of Influence: A Careerist’s Guide to Success, Status, and Self-Congratulation, and it fits Blair to a tee. According to news reports, when Blair was enrolled at the University of Maryland, he already knew that “other students were the enemy and it was the faculty to be cultivated.” His pre-Times résumé included stints as editor of the Diamondback and as an intern at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. At the Globe, he elbowed other interns aside and “spread false gossip about the imminent breakup of a reporter’s marriage”; while at the Times, he “seemed to be very in-the-know. . . . He’d tell people they’d be transferred before they knew it themselves.”
Almost everyone who knows Blair says he is a really nice guy (“The percentages favor the practice,” according to Lapham). At the Times, the young reporter “often praised articles by colleagues,” making sure to mention something far down in a story so they would know he had read it. In a widely published photo of Blair chatting with Times executive editor Howell Raines, Blair displayed what Lapham calls the “servile” smile: “Flexible yet firm. . . . Of course, you wish to do your patron’s bidding . . . but, more important, you understand the brilliance of the word. . . . The lips should be slightly parted, the head tilted expectantly upward, the expression one of barely suppressed amazement.”
But behind the nice guy lurks a poseur (hypocrisy, Lapham says, is a careerist’s “most faithful ally and truest friend”). In his application for a Times internship, Blair wrote, “I’ve seen some who like to abuse the power they have been entrusted with, [but] my kindred spirits are the ones who became journalists because they wanted to help people.” Five short years later, he had abused the Times‘ power, humiliated his distinguished colleagues, and faked countless quotes and details. While Blair’s reporting sometimes made fools of his subjects, it’s not clear that he has yet helped anyone but himself.
In his fin-de-siècle primer on self-promotion, Lapham recalls how, sometime after 1980, ambitious college grads began to concentrate less on learning, merit, and morality and more on perfecting the navigational and social skills of a courtier. Courtiers first flourished under a monarchy, according to Lapham, but the “arts of deference” became indispensable in a status-obsessed and way-fluid democracy. “What else is the courtier spirit,” he writes, “if not the spirit of a society guided by talk-show hosts, captained by lawyers, inspired by actors, educated by press agents—all of them the kind of people paid to arrange the truth in its most flattering and convenient poses?”
Lapham’s rules also shed light on Blair’s transition from writing “scoops” for his editors to writing proposals that pander to entertainment execs. “Once instructed in the correct forms of agreeable behavior and expedient speech,” Lapham says, “the talented careerist in attendance at one court finds it a simple matter to perform the same services for other well-placed patrons. . . . If it is possible to lick one boot, then, with a little patience and not very much practice, it is possible to lick the boots of a regiment.”
And so, two weeks ago, Blair left the clinic where he was seeking treatment for drug abuse and manic depression (he says he has been clean and sober for over a year now). Instead of lying low, as is standard PR strategy for anyone embroiled in scandal, he returned to New York to engage in another cycle of self-promotion and self-destruction, a roundelay of defiance, sadness, self-pity, and hope that he promised to turn into a book. In a weird way he is starting to resemble an African American Dave Eggers.
Self-promotion is an age-old ploy, according to Lapham. Just as “being seen at court” was the key 400 years ago, today’s venues are TV studios and gossip columns. A careerist must “seize every photo opportunity; accept every invitation to an interview.” So there was Blair with a cigarette on the cover of Newsweek. “When confronted by a photographer with a still camera,” Lapham writes, “you may strike a flamboyant or expressive pose. . . . The correct expression is slightly contemptuous and faintly amused.”
The news is that Blair “gets it.” Completely. Thus, a few hours after the town hall meeting at which Times execs were razzed by employees, Blair wrote a friendly e-mail to his former colleagues. He was around, and things weren’t so bad, after all. In fact, Blair would soon be telling the Observer, “It’s got to be better. It’s going to work out for me.”
Scheduling interviews. Being optimistic. There was only one thing left to do: make a confession, any confession. “It doesn’t matter whether you do so in public or in private,” Lapham writes, “as long as you remember to limit the admission to a general tendency—drunkenness, dishonesty, self-loathing, homophobia—and avoid mentioning particular incidents, specific names, exact dates.” As for blame, “Assign it to acronyms, random accident, historical forces, or people too weak to do you any harm. Don’t mention the names of specific individuals.”
In Blair’s book, as it has been advertised so far, he will cop to one thing, substance abuse. It seems he will forgo any analysis of how the Times allowed his lies to get into print, and instead show the institution through the prism of race. Instead of offering sharp insights on Raines, who Blair sees as a “good man, well-intentioned,” he will ream out the “hundreds of white junior managers” at the Times and deliver “anecdotes upon anecdotes” about racism. (That’s good, in Lapham’s judgment, because opinions “must be welcome and safe.”) And one more thing: Blair will reach out to other “young, ambitious, well-educated and accomplished African Americans and other ‘minorities,’ ” in an attempt to “help others to heal.”
A final word from Lapham: The limelight is “not a safe place. Approach it slowly over a long and gradual curve of time. Too steep an ascent into the atmosphere of fame invites a correspondingly steep descent to the base camp of anonymity.” Jayson, take heed.