Off The Record

“The whole suggestion that I’m not contrite is just bullshit,” Jayson Blair said. Mr. Blair was on the phone from

“The whole suggestion that I’m not contrite is just bullshit,” Jayson Blair said.

Mr. Blair was on the phone from Brooklyn. That is, in the unavoidable epistemological fog surrounding all reporting, Mr. Blair was at a Brooklyn number.

With the publication of Burning Down My Masters’ House: My Life at the New York Times , the barely settled dust of last year’s disasters is flying again; Mr. Blair stands accused, or re-accused, by his critics and reviewers of plagiarism and fabrication beyond what he confesses in the book.

But Mr. Blair was feeling prosecutorial at the moment. It was Sunday evening, and The Times Book Review had just come out with its hotly anticipated Blair review, in which Slate ‘s Jack Shafer had methodically written Mr. Blair off as an unrepentant “con man.”

In response, Mr. Blair dashed off a seven-point rebuttal and e-mailed it to the Book Review , public editor Daniel Okrent and Mr. Shafer-and since he had Off the Record on the line, he sent along another copy.

“You can say I gave you the note,” Mr. Blair said. “I don’t mind.”

Unlike Stephen Glass, who showed up mumbly and squirming at a journalism-ethics panel in the midst of promoting The Fabulist , Mr. Blair sounded feisty and in good spirits. Despite the fact that he’s forever unemployable as a reporter, on some level he has not accepted the concept that he’s journalistic anathema.

He was ready with page numbers and concordance information, something readers trying to skim the unindexed torrent of Burning Down My Masters’ House could sorely use (“In the paperback, there will be an index,” Mr. Blair promised). If Mr. Shafer can’t or won’t notice how many times he says “I am sorry” in the book, Mr. Blair will count them for him. (Answer: nine.)

“I hope I don’t lose my voice,” Mr. Blair said. His publicity schedule has him hopping to Washington and Baltimore this week, then to Atlanta, Virginia, Chicago, Detroit. Whatever other habits he may or may not have changed from his bleak days at The Times , Mr. Blair is now definitely willing to travel.

And he’s willing to please. In Harlem, Mr. Blair said, he focused his reading on the book’s discussion of race; in Dallas, where he’ll be reading to a mental-health organization, he’ll offer his account of struggling with manic depression. For nonspecific audiences, he does a “brief reading that shows the fun of being a reporter,” he said.

The Times as a subject is similarly flexible. In the book, Mr. Blair often presents himself as something of an unofficial ombudsman: chafing at the front page’s habit of ignoring crimes in black or Hispanic neighborhoods; desperately trying to quash pieces that gawked at the spectacle of African-American men in suits at the Puff Daddy gun trial.

But critics of The Times on the right seem, at the moment, more interested in what he has to say than those on the left.

“I did not expect the conservatives to be this fascinated,” Mr. Blair said, rattling off a list of appearances on Fox TV and right-wing radio.

Laura Ingraham, whom Mr. Blair named as a talk-show suitor, said she hasn’t decided whether to bring him on or not. If she does, she said, it won’t be a marathon chat-fest like his appearance on Larry King Live .

“I’d rather listen to Connie Francis for an hour than Jayson Blair,” Ms. Ingraham said.

But when The Times is the enemy, agendas on the right and left can often be reconciled. If Bill O’Reilly and his ilk pass over some of Mr. Blair’s reflections on Sept. 11, for instance, it is only to get past them and onto other, more common ground.

In the book, when The Times wins its Pulitzers for its coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Blair shuns the party: “I wondered whether they ignored the blood on those Pulitzers as they danced the night way [ sic ].”

OK. That doesn’t stop Mr. O’Reilly from seeking Mr. Blair’s affirmation, on a recent show, that The O’Reilly Factor is snubbed on 43rd Street. But Mr. Blair also confides, in the middle of his narrative of the attacks: “I could not help but think about the hurt and fear that would cause a group of men to commit suicide by flying planes into the World Trade Center buildings. Anger as a byproduct of hurt and fear was not a foreign concept to me.”

That authorial solipsism approaches the great recent landmark of the form: Elizabeth Wurtzel’s infamous “It was just beautiful” remark on the collapse of the Twin Towers. And it is Ms. Wurtzel, a plagiarist herself, who seems to echo through the pages of Mr. Blair’s book. The jabbering cadences, the ceaseless contemplation of one’s own misery-this is the voice of the comfortable class, looking inward to find some reason to be uncomfortable. That a black man can sound like a spoiled upper-middle-class white women is, perhaps, a sign of social progress. But beyond that, Mr. Blair’s main achievement is a kind of reverse transcendence: He doesn’t stand for anything but himself.

In the book, Mr. Blair does indulge in flights of empathy, explaining how he sees himself in others. Given Mr. Blair’s credentials, this is not always flattering to the others. That’s especially true in the passage where he sits down to confess his cocaine abuse to then–managing editor Gerald Boyd:

“I was less concerned about my drug problem becoming more public than I was about the background of the man who was sitting across from me,” Mr. Blair writes. “Gerald grew up in St. Louis, raised by his grandmother after his mother died following a long struggle with drugs.”

When Mr. Boyd wishes him luck, Mr. Blair reflects that the editor was “presumably relying more on personal experience than he was willing to give up.”

Or less. Mr. Boyd’s mother suffered from anemia, not drug addiction, according to remarks that the editor reportedly made about his life story in a 2000 speech.

Mr. Boyd declined to comment on Mr. Blair’s version of his biography.

“My plan is to respond to the book in my own time and in my own way,” Mr. Boyd said.

So what about the addiction story?

“That’s not true,” Mr. Blair conceded. It was a mistake, he said, which Mr. Boyd himself had brought to the publisher’s attention before the book came out, but that accidentally went uncorrected. Future editions of the book will correct the passage, Mr. Blair said.

(Michael Viner at New Millennium Press, Mr. Blair’s publisher, couldn’t be reached for comment by press time.)

Tearing Down My Boss’ Mom ?

If his book seems more like an extension of his nefariousness as a Times reporter than an apology, he said, it may be because there are some at the Times for whom an apology will have to wait until he can resolve his persistent anger at The Times .

So former Metro editor Jon (“We have to stop Jayson from writing for The Times -now”) Landman, who is depicted in the book as the embodiment of managerial insensitivity and white-privilege cluelessness, hasn’t gotten his I’m-sorry yet, right?

No, said Mr. Blair, he hasn’t.

What’s in the closet at Cargo ?

Editor in chief Ariel Foxman opens the debut issue of Cargo , Condé Nast’s new men’s shopping magazine, with a neat pre-emptive strike: a childhood anecdote about how much he used to love the Bookmobile-not as a source of literature and knowledge, he confides, but as an advanced merchandise-delivery system. Presumably he chose that example over the Mister Softee truck for a reason: to moot any complaints. Cargo is being coy about its literary merits.

But that battle has long since been fought and won, both by Cargo ‘s merrily airheaded older sister, Lucky , and by the sweaty, beer-stained lad magazines. There’s no point in justifying a magazine without a brain.

There is, however, still some work to do to justify a shopping magazine for men to a wide market. The girly-as-all-get-out Lucky is a hit with the female demographic, but the Y-chromosome set remains uninvolved with it. So rather than an easy spinoff like Teen People , the Cargo concept is more like a ladies’ Field and Stream , or a woman-friendly edition of Easyriders .

“It sounds pretty effeminate to me,” says Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, who teaches Gov. 2080a, “Topics in Political Philosophy: Manliness.”

Professor Mansfield added: “It’s gathering rather than hunting.” Well, we don’t want to be coy, either. Just who is the Lucky guy? Condé Nast couldn’t find any time in Mr. Foxman’s schedule for him to discuss the shaping of the Cargo brand with Off the Record. But on the cover of the debut issue, Mr. Cargo is a close-cropped guy, not too pretty, sporting a nylon jacket from Urban Outfitters over a wardrobe of grayish something-or-other. Kinda schlubby, honestly.

Whether the cover model has the same concerns about fashions as the reader-or has resolved them for himself already-is hard to tell.

“Honey,” the clothes section asks, “does this embroidered shirt make me look gay?” Answer: Not necessarily, if you go easy on the embroidery. But the key word is “honey”: Women are rarely far from the Cargo man’s decision process, especially when it comes to the femme-y decisions.

“My wife likes the hairlessness,” a satisfied bikini-waxing man explains, “and that translates into more sex for me.”

A panel of women convenes to review the smell of John Varvatos cologne (seven out of nine like it, but one of them allows it’s “maybe a little soft for some men”).

The how-gay-is-too-gay issue has always troubled men’s fashion magazines. But Cargo ‘s balancing act has been complicated by the existence of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (or, as Professor Mansfield puts it, “the five queers shopping”). While the TV show tackles the effeminacy problem directly (Yes, of course it’s swishy to get a makeover-now let’s get you one!), it seems the Cargo man is one who worries about how much embroidery is too much embroidery. (Sign up, Jayson Blair!)

In fact, Fab Five interior designer Thom Filicia himself shows up on page 184 to redecorate somebody’s apartment. But elsewhere, the anxiety of the male consumer is acknowledged in a way that the Fab Five don’t bother with: “For those not into candy-colored MP3 players, there’s …. ”

The male consumer is also, it seems, a wee bit insecure. The leadoff item in the ” Cargo Gets” section is Oxen Workwear’s Denim Double Knee pants, “engineered to pump up what you’ve got going on downtown.” Naming the product, though, seems to defeat the purpose; the take-home message is that Oxen Workwear makes small-dick trousers. Later on, in the second of two separate pieces about reducing or removing body hair, Cargo promises that after a trim to one’s netherparts, “your willy will look more like a William.” Off The Record