About 8 years ago, while in the midst of his book promotional tour after he was caught fabricating and plagiarizing quotes for the New York Times, I did an email interview with Jayson Blair. At the time, this was a great get for a website called The Black Table and our media interview series, even though Blair was trying to sell his book and had pretty much accepted any request without hesitation.
Some of the questions I asked: "Did your tiny stature help you avoid the fact checkers and editors at The Times?;" "Why didn't you kill yourself when you were outed? What would've been your ideal suicide?;" "Would you rather burn down a house full of children with cancer or be a big fucking liar with no credibility, friends, or people who trust you?".
That sort of thing. He answered all of them with eerie self-awareness even as I did everything possible to internet-bully the little monster back into his hole. He was unflappable, though, and even the most mortifying questions I asked were therapeutic for him to answer, he said.
After spending his post-journalism career mostly out of the media world as a humble life coach in Northern Virginia, Blair reemerged yesterday and did a Salon interview and wrote a Daily Beast column about the downfall of Jonah Lehrer, the precious neuroscience scribe and best-selling author, who resigned from his New Yorker gig Monday after it was revealed he stupidly fudged Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine. Blair plays the part of color analyst about Lehrer's willful journalistic deceit, sharing insights about what Lehrer's state of mind will be after this latest career trauma, and the similarities in their downfalls. Nothing about the scenario is similar despite what he says.
Blair blames his meltdown at the Times on torrid self-sabotage, just a fucked up cub reporter whose unbalanced mental issues surfaced once the pressures of too-early success broke him.
Lehrer's fraudulence is no cry for help, but more a survivalist instinct triggered after he'd become consumed by his own brand of geek boy exceptionalism. I doubt Lehrer ever thought his minor mistakes would overshadow that brand, let alone cost him a job so pathetically. This is a writer whose neat-o psychobabble mythology was advanced by book publishers and magazine editors because it was good business to do so. They trusted that his precocious research habits and encyclopedic knowledge of dense scientific theories were at least partially his, even though some of them were clearly just props for his polished nerd chic appearance. So as many have pointed out, unlike Blair, Lehrer's disgrace wasn't entirely his fault. There were plenty of tell-tale signs that he'd eventually torch his own credibility and that of the places he was published, just by his incredible lapses in "journalistic judgment" time after time, most of which were made public last month during the whole self-plagiarizing drama.
But his career was built to be torn apart since its inception. When other writers profiled or critiqued Lehrer's work by comparing him to Malcolm Gladwell, that probably wasn't meant as a compliment. Yet, the speaking gigs kept coming, the books kept selling, even while his career slowly unspooled. And now Lehrer will forever be tied to Blair even though only one of them is equipped to handle the stigma. Somebody that employs him in the future should actually explain to him the difference between the two of them because I get the sense Lehrer still has no clue.