On the afternoon of Monday, May 19, book agent David Vigliano was busy buffing up a five-page proposal to circulate to Hollywood executives: the story of Jayson Blair, a troubled black journalist whose overweening ambition, fueled by the politics of race and inflamed by substance abuse, led him to lie and mislead the public in story after story, singeing the reputation of the hallowed New York Times -quite a tale!
“We’ll probably do something in Hollywood first and hone the book proposal over the next few days,” explained Mr. Vigliano. The book proposal will consist of the same five pages he’s showing to movie executives, along with a sample chapter that will “showcase Jayson’s writing talents at more length,” Mr. Vigliano said. Book publishers will be hearing from him shortly, he said: “I think we will be getting the proposal out in a week or 10 days and expect to make a deal within a week after that.”
The proposal, portions of which were obtained by The Observer , focuses almost exclusively on Mr. Blair’s experience of and views on the spiky complexities of race, both in the Times newsroom and in the professional world in general. “Why is not simple,” Mr. Blair begins. “I want the chance to articulate the reasons for my downfall, not to excuse myself or to cast myself as a victim, but as a cautionary tale.”
If Mr. Blair’s instincts as a journalist are shaky, his skills as a self-promoter appear to be solid: On Monday, he issued a statement to CNN that said, “I hope to have the opportunity to write and share my story so that it can help others to heal.”
Mr. Vigliano, meanwhile, is working hard-and fast-to turn the 27-year-old into Jayson Blair Inc. It’s a story that he believes could be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in film and book royalties.
But unlike Mr. Blair’s career-suicide doppelgänger, Stephen Glass-who has said he spent five years in therapy before publishing a work of fiction about his fabrications in The New Republic -the former Times reporter isn’t waiting around to get his head straight. He’s diving right in, not slowed down at all by the gummy ethical issues involved in exploiting his own bad behavior for personal profit. The memoir that Mr. Blair wants to write will either justify his actions or further damn them. Above all, the proposal claims, the book will have something to teach others: “I want to offer my experience as a lesson,” Mr. Blair writes, “for the precipice from which I plunged is one on which many young, ambitious, well-educated and accomplished African Americans and other ‘minorities’ teeter, though most, of course, do manage to pull back from the brink. That precipice overhangs America’s racial divide; and the winds sucking us down into the chasm (cultural isolation, professional mistrust, and the external and internal imperatives to succeed, at all costs, to name a few) can be too strong for the troubled and unprepared-as I was-to withstand.
“Today,” ends that section of the proposal, “even at the most liberal, well-intentioned of institutions, race is still terra incognita, where the young and conflicted, like me, can all too easily lose compass.”
Just a few days after Mr. Blair’s compass sent him out the front door of The Times , which was on May 1, he returned a call from Mr. Vigliano-whom he’d met while shopping a book on the Washington, D.C., sniper case last fall-to talk about a book deal. “At some point, after I heard what had happened at The Times, ” said Mr. Vigliano, “I called him and said I was thinking of him and if he wanted to talk or needed help with anything, to give me a call. Then he called me.” Mr. Vigliano said he couldn’t recall the exact date, but “a few days” after Mr. Blair’s dismissal, the former reporter paid a visit to Mr. Vigliano’s office on Broadway in Soho. He declined to describe Mr. Blair’s emotional state at the time-that would be material for the book, he explained-but he did say that “I obviously wouldn’t be dealing with somebody who was unstable.”
Some time after that, Mr. Blair wrote the proposal, to which the agent made “minor edits,” according to Mr. Vigliano.
Mr. Vigliano said he had plans for Mr. Blair’s book to be much bigger than a tell-all about journalistic sins, or even an inside look at the dysfunctional world of Howell Raines’ Times .
“Clearly, there are issues of race here that transcend The New York Times ,” said Mr. Vigliano. The paper of record, he said, “is just one institution that’s really a surrogate for many, many other institutions in America. It will also deal with issues of substance abuse. Clearly, he had psychological issues that he’s going to talk about.”
One possibility is that Mr. Blair will write something similar to James Frey’s self-eviscerating addiction confessional, A Million Little Pieces -which, The Observer has learned, Mr. Blair is currently reading. But his agent suggested that Mr. Blair’s memoir might resemble Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America , by Washington Post reporter Nathan McCall, who bootstrapped his way from prison to a position as a journalist.
“It probably has some elements of the Jill Nelson book, too,” said Mr. Vigliano, referring to Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience , another memoir by a black Post reporter, because it will make “elements of the stiff, snobby book-publishing community uncomfortable.” But, he added, “it’s a huge, huge story, and it’s far, far bigger, in my mind, than any of those books, because it’s the cover of Newsweek , it’s the cover of New York -and maybe, paradoxically, you’ve got an enormously gifted writer.”
Mr. Blair gives a taste of his own authentic experience in his proposal. At one point, he recalls the racism he confronted on a daily basis as the “only black reporter on any of the New York newspapers covering crime”:
“I was tired of listening to the other reporters joke about victims like the five children who were raped by a man in the Bronx,” he writes, “or how black-on-black violence was just making the city safer for everyone.”
Already, speculation in the New York Post has suggested the possibility of a six- or seven-figure advance for a book by Mr. Blair. Those figures, Mr. Vigliano said, “don’t seem unreasonable to me. It’s a huge, huge story. I’ve talked to Jayson and I’ve seen the richness of this story. It’s a very deep and very textured and layered story, and he’s a gifted writer-and no, those figures don’t seem unreasonable at all, by any means.”
While Mr. Blair’s story will be defined largely in the context of race, that doesn’t mean the former reporter won’t be trying to put forth his version of what went down at The Times . In particular, Mr. Blair comments frankly in the proposal on Jonathan Landman, the editor who oversaw the metropolitan desk where Mr. Blair was assigned. Of the now-famous e-mail that Mr. Landman sent to colleagues saying that Mr. Blair had to be stopped from reporting for The Times , Mr. Blair writes in his proposal that “it was actually in the context of whether I should be writing during a two-week break I took for drug and alcohol rehabilitation. Months later he would send me an e-mail offering his unqualified support for my improvements.”
Mr. Blair goes on to write that while Mr. Landman “is no hero in this story,” he calls him “an honorable and honest man.” However, he asserts that Mr. Landman’s “neo-conservative views have been some of the most difficult things for any minority reporter at the Times to handle.”
Reached for comment, Mr. Landman told The Observer , “I sent a lot of e-mails. There was never unqualified support. Never, ever. But there was progress.” As for Mr. Blair’s characterization of him as “honest,” Mr. Landman responded, “To be called ‘honest’ by Jayson Blair-there’s something to treasure.”
That Mr. Blair should try to profit from telling his story is not really a surprise, of course. Nowadays, public indignation is practically a cash crop in American culture. And in journalism alone, the examples of post-fuckup money-making are plenty: from The Washington Post ‘s Janet Cooke, whose faked 1981 Pulitzer Prize–winning story about a young drug addict eventually netted her $380,000 with Columbia TriStar Pictures, to Michael Finkel, the Times Magazine reporter whose profile of an African teenager named Youssouf Male turned out to be a composite of a number of subjects, who sold his tell-all memoir to HarperCollins for a reported $300,000.
Mr. Glass’ novelization of his fictional nonfiction exploits, The Fabulist , which went for a sum in the low six figures, has attracted equal parts awe and disgust. His publisher, Simon & Schuster, has been criticized for rewarding Mr. Glass’ wrongdoing (although few have leveled similar charges at Mr. Glass’ agent, Lynn Nesbitt of Janklow & Nesbitt). In any case, Mr. Vigliano shrugged off the ethical issues of making money off journalistic transgressions.
“As far as ethical choices,” said Mr. Vigliano, “I don’t have a problem repping a guy who made up a few stories and embarrassed The New York Times . He lost his job, and he’s been the object of intense scrutiny. He did wrong, he obviously admitted it and paid the price, and I don’t feel like it’s any huge … he’s not eating babies, you know?”
Whether Mr. Blair’s future output is the stuff of best-sellers and blockbuster films remains to be seen. But already, editors at major publishing houses are skeptical.
“I am wholly uninterested,” said Jonathan Karp, the vice president and editorial director at Random House, echoing the sentiment of a number of editors contacted by The Observer . “It’s a boring story that everybody already knows. I think the public will be completely satiated by the coverage in other newspapers, and to revisit it in the form of a book is unlikely.”
Still, he conceded: “Far more boring stories by less interesting people have probably sold over the years.”
Mr. Vigliano, who has been an agent since 1986, said he specializes in highly commercial works. Known for his aggressive hustling of clients, he’s not averse to representing controversial material that other agents wouldn’t touch, according to publishing executives. Last year he represented the estate of Kurt Cobain, selling Journals , his personal diaries, for $4 million to Riverhead Books. Among his other clients are Britney Spears and Jerry B. Jenkins of the Left Behind series. He said he even repped the Pope on a book, The Rosary Hour: The Private Prayers of Pope John Paul II .
Mr. Vigliano originally made contact with Mr. Blair while the reporter covered the Washington, D.C., sniper murders in the fall of 2002. At the time, Mr. Blair was hoping to sell a book that explored his complex emotions while following Lee Malvo, the black 18-year-old sniper, with whom he said that he felt a racial affinity.
At the time, however, Mr. Vigliano had a conflict of interest and couldn’t cement a partnership.
“I couldn’t represent him because I was repping Chief Moose,” said Mr. Vigliano, referring to Charles A. Moose, the Montgomery County police chief who is currently suing the county for the right to profit from a book deal based on the case.
But the reporter and the agent stayed in contact. “I continued to stay in touch with him because I liked him,” said Mr. Vigliano, who said that Mr. Blair’s coverage of the sniper case would still play into the current proposals, although only “peripherally.”
But Mr. Vigliano will have to contend with a number of hurdles to get Mr. Blair’s story sold. For one, Mr. Blair’s believability as a nonfiction writer is undoubtedly a hard sell.
“One of the main reasons I wouldn’t be interested in this book is that the author has a major credibility problem,” said Will Schwalbe, the editor in chief of Hyperion. “This author has forfeited the right, for the time being, to claim any kind of credibility in a nonfiction work.”
“His nonfiction is so untrustworthy, you’d have a hard time believing his fiction,” said David Hirshey, the vice president and executive editor at HarperCollins who acquired Mr. Finkel’s book. “You’d have to suspend disbelief past any known human level.”
Mr. Hirshey said the difference between his author and Mr. Blair was that “Finkel admits he made a colossal mistake, but it is only one mistake and not a pattern of deception and betrayal.”
Even Mr. Blair’s racial angle, which appears to lend him an air of intrinsic credibility, smells foul to some people. “This guy was more of a con man than he was a Negro,” observed Stanley Crouch, the author and Daily News columnist. “His ethnicity is being more emphasized-but he’s a high-level con man. The first thing the con man has to do is figure out the mark. Howell Raines and The New York Times constitute the mark.”
Still, said Mr. Crouch, “This guy might have a story that might be very interesting, for people who are interested in that kind of story. He might do very well.”
Mr. Vigliano, for his part, defended his client’s right to write a memoir. “He’s not going out and reporting on a story,” he argued. “If he was going out and reporting on something that needed to be fact-checked, that had reporting at its core, then there would be issues of credibility.”
Mr. Vigliano also said that suggestions that proceeds from a Blair book would be garnished under the Son of Sam laws-which stipulate that the perpetrator of a crime can’t profit from it, and that any proceeds must go to the victim-were ludicrous because, he said, “Who is the victim that would have to recoup money in Jayson Blair’s case? The New York Times ?”
Stephen Glass’ publisher, Simon & Schuster, sought to distance itself from Mr. Blair’s proposed project. David Rosenthal, the publisher, said the speed with which Mr. Blair was grabbing for a book deal was troubling to him.
“It does appear a bit complicated and unseemly,” said Mr. Rosenthal. He defended Mr. Glass’ novel, saying it wasn’t “somebody trying to do something off the headlines. It was never intended that way. I think the Blair situation has colored people’s feelings about Glass, there’s no question. Although I do think the similarities are extremely superficial at best.”
Mr. Rosenthal said he wouldn’t even consider Mr. Blair’s book. And he questioned Mr. Blair’s ability to write with gravity about race. “I know of no great track record of [Mr. Blair] writing on race,” he said. “It seems more convenient than thoughtful, perhaps.”
Not everyone was unsympathetic to Mr. Blair. Eamon Dolan, editor in chief of Houghton Mifflin, said he figured that Mr. Blair had few other recourses. After all, the man needs an income, he said.
“It seems to me that publishing is almost the last refuge for this type of scoundrel,” he said. “What else is he going to do? He’s not going to be able to get a job in periodical publishing, he’s not going to J-school. He can write a book! He could conceivably have this long afterlife as a book writer. Look at Mark Fuhrman. He writes true crime; he has two or three best-selling books.”
Even so, Mr. Dolan made his own feelings about a Blair memoir clear. “I have a strong, visceral reaction,” he said. “I have a strong, visceral disinterest.”