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Burning Down My Masters' House: My Life at the New York Times Hardcover – March 6, 2004

2.4 out of 5 stars 40 customer reviews

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Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
The bestselling author of "Encyclopedia an Ordinary Life" returns with a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human. Hardcover | Kindle book
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

We know that Blair is a world-class Pinocchio. During his tenure at the New York Times (1998e padding though. In a nod to the book's subtitle, Blair lavishes attention on his (presumably legitimate) coverage of numerous stories, especially of the D.C.-area sniper case, failing to realize that readers' interest will fade when he stops discussing the inner workings of the Times and the mechanisms and consequences of his lying. But we will credit Blair and consider this as nonfiction. The memoir begins with the collapse of his house of cards, then flips back to his early upbringing in Columbia, Md., and swiftly forward to his hiring as a Times intern while at the University of Maryland. Blair's chronicle of his Times years brims with the inside gossip newshounds love, and he names names while dishing it. Throughout, he levels serious (albeit generally unsubstantiated) charges at the newspaper. One is racism, in both the Times's coverage ("The one thing that was clear was that it took a lot of dead Africans for anyone to notice on West Forty-third Street") and its treatment of employees ("a black recovering drug addict at The Times was not going to be given the same leeway that a white one might be"). Blair claims that Metro desk editor Jonathan Landman, who first cast doubts on his reporting, wrote in an internal note that "minority candidates [for hiring] were always sub-par compared to others." Then there's the bartering of news coverage for favors. "Public relations people," Blair reports, "substituted theater tickets, free meals and drinks and, sometimes, even sex for mentions. Journalists at The Times were considered to have a weak spot for sex...." Most startling, though, are Blair's accusations of shoddy journalistic practices condoned by Times management. "The message was clear: getting it right was not as important as getting it fast." He contends that the Times allowed "star" reporters to slap their byline on stories written in part or wholly by stringers and freelancers, and he exposes what he calls "toe-touch" reporting: "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, then flying in simply so you could put the name of the city where the news was happening at the top of the story. It is hard to imagine how many thousands of dollars are spent on 'toe-touch datelines' each month at The Times." Blair also accuses the newspaper of "no-touch" reporting. These charges will make the book necessary reading for some, but they serve Blair, too, apparently providing for him some basis for his actions. "The cognitive logic of my belief that I could get away with not visiting a city that I was supposed to be writing from can easily be understood, though not excused"; so rather than reporting from the field, as he told colleagues and friends he was, Blair composed many of his stories while hiding out in his Brooklyn apartment, relying on information from phone interviews and the Internet to fill the column inches. The book, in fact, is filled with excuses-cum-explanations, most of a personal nature. Blair says that for years he suffered from alcohol and cocaine addiction (he's been sober since early 2002) and from depression, then manic depression, that led him, during his last days at the Times, into psychosis and a suicide attempt described here in detail. And while he claims to take responsibility for his actions, he swipes steadily at the Times and its "callous" managers, and at its "end-justifies-the-means" environment, where he was treated like "a rag doll." It is Blair's notoriety that will first draw attention to this book, and it is his charges against the Times that should push it onto bestseller lists. His rancor, his excuses and his predilection for payback undermine the integrity of his admissions and apologies, however, and will go far to demoting the entire matter and his part in it to a cautionary footnote to the history of journalism. As for the charges, in spite of Blair's reputation for lying, the Times must respond to them; if true, then by acting upon them the newspaper will only increase the transparency committed to by its hiring of an ombudsman, a direct result of the Blair affair. Yet Blair himself remains opaque, despite the book's confessional nature; the evident slyness of so much of this chronicle speaks at the least of a manipulation of truth. It may be that what we read in this fierce, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing volume is truth, albeit one man's version; it may also be that once again the author is hiding out, as it were, weaving fairy tales that we buy at our own risk.
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Review

Contains some of the most poignant and moving passages ever to appear in a book of its kind. -- The Weekly Standard

He bypasses excuses, and holds only himself responsible for the journalistic fiasco that he created. -- The Amsterdam News

I can recognize the newsroom ... The facade of the building is familar, but the foundation is rotten. -- Black Issues Book Review

The gravamen ... doesn't have to do with the Times at all but with Blair's psychological condition, which he diagnoses, persuasively. -- The New Yorker

The inside dope he provides to readers about what allegedly goes on there are anything but a boring read. -- The Washington Post Bookworld
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: New Millennium (March 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 193240726X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1932407266
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (40 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,954,660 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In America, convicted criminals are not legally allowed to profit from their crimes. I see no compelling reason why a serial liar like Jayson Blair should somehow be an exception to this rule. Folks, this country has a terrific network of public libraries that would be happy to lend you this book free of charge or, if it is checked out, reserve it in your name. In the meantime, you can read something more rewarding like "Fast Food Nation" or "The Da Vinci Code."

But I digress. Let me tell you why reading this book should be a low priority. Jayson Blair simply is not a credible author. He weaves a few too many fantastic tales here as well as more than a few self-serving ones. The clearest and most credible information presented in the book merely serves to indict him further for being deeply ungrateful.

He never seems to realize that he was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime chance by the New York Times - one which plenty of journalists I know would have given their arm for - one which he blew to high heaven. As to why he blew this so badly, he presents a multiplicity of uncompelling reasons. He attempts to claim that his behavior was far from atypical at the Times but only manages to cite the case of Rick Bragg, whose failure to credit a stringer came out a few weeks after Blair's own pattern was reported. Jayson Blair may be incapable of realizing this - and he certainly does not in his book - but few newspapers would have allowed him a future after Metro Editor Jon Landman's famous memo (to the effect that Blair needed to stop "writing for the Times. Right now.") For whatever reason - and Blair doesn't shed any real light on it - the Times was determined to see no evil where he was concerned.
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Format: Audio CD Verified Purchase
Holy Moley!! Blair is the narrator of the audio version of his book. He speaks in such a passionless, monotone voice that you run the risk of falling asleep while listening to it in your car. James Earl Jones he's not.
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Format: Hardcover
The "victim" approach is not acceptable when you're a discovered liar. This book is nothing more than an attempt to blame the entire Blair disaster on something or someone other than himself. His actions are because he is black, pressured, a drug user, depressed, etc. Reality should set in now, he did what he did because he is a sociopathic liar. If you want to read a book that gives you insight into nothing, this is a good choice.
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Format: Hardcover
As a former chemical dependency counselor, I take this piece for what's known in AA/NA as a "war story." That is, he digresses from honest emotion into what amounts to bragging about exploits. Ultimately, drug exploits are tiresome: "I snorted a bunch of cocaine, got it on with a stranger, spent all my money, woke up with a headache, blah, blah, blah."

I also agree with the reviewer who commented that the writing is sloppy and the editing evidently minimal. I had to shut the book for a few minutes after reading about Jayson's seeing the Challenger shuttle hurtle to the earth through his ten-year-old eyes. I cringed with embarrassment as he relays the "touching moment" when his fellow mental hospital patient tells him she "liked black guys in her heyday" and would have gone for him twenty years before. One of many true self-esteem lows that add little to the story!
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Format: Audio CD
The two stars rating is solely directed at people interested in the profession of journalism, for whom this car wreck deserves a scan, if not being dwelt upon. That's because journalism professionals ought be familiar with the details of this case as a cautionary tale & to avoid a repeat. For anyone else, I would probably give this one star. It isn't the worst book I've ever read (or, in this case, listened to) but it ain't got a lot to recommend it, either. I'd probably be agitated if I paid for it, but I borrowed the CD set from my Managing Editor, who received it as a donation, so no money wasted. I'd also be agitated if I'd invested much time, but I had to make a couple of seven hour drives anyway.

It was interesting hearing this on CD. Hard to believe it's abridged, as long as it is. It's read by Blair & hearing his voice somehow adds to the experience. He sounds well-educated, arrogant, intellectually lazy ... something really started to wear on me by about the seventh CD.

Writing with the perspective of a recovering alcoholic myself, I believe one of the basic problems is Blair had not advanced very far along the mental road of recovery when he wrote this. He may be physically sober, but his absolute refusal to accept responsibility for just about anything, or to express remorse, or to exercise much insight suggests he has considerable work still to do. I hope for his sake he gets to look back in a few years & be embarrassed he published this.

Blair lists other people's alleged wrongdoings in an apparent effort to justify or minimize his own or at least deflect attention to them. He uses alleged hardships in his life as apparent excuses.
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