- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

As I sit down to peck out some thoughts about Jayson Blair and his world contrition tour to plug his book, I’m tempted to pretend I actually 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. I’ve seen parts of his 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, just as some people in other professions do.

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 Mr. Blair’s book and I don’t plan to read it. I share the sentiments of Tavis Smiley, who rushed to deny reports his PBS talk show had booked Mr. Blair. Mr. Smiley, who is black like Mr. Blair and me, told the New York Daily News that he would not give Mr. Blair “even 60 seconds” because he is “an embarrassment to any African-American journalist in this country.”

As another journalist who happens to be black, I understand where Brother Tavis is coming from but I don’t think he goes far enough. Mr. 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 “Burning Down My Master’s House,” whipped into publication less than a year after his journalistic frauds rocked the New York Times, Mr. Blair says 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.

Mr. 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 young and impatient youth, to make your inevitable mistakes in a low-profile place where they’re less likely to be career killers.

Instead, Mr. 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, Mr. Blair now moves into the next phase: the national confessionals on talk shows and other media.

What next? Maybe a novel, Mr. Blair says. Why not? Stephen Glass wrote a novel and sold his life story to Hollywood. Mr. 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 Mr. 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 the Boston Globe, where he was a popular columnist, in 1998. His exit resulted from questions about possibly stolen jokes in one column and some unverifiable facts in another. Last week, Mr. 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 young 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.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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