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Hard times
Seth Mnookin reflects on his journey from junkie to Newsweek media expert to profiler of the scandals at the New York Times
BY TAMARA WIEDER

THE LAST TIME I saw Seth Mnookin, we were high-school seniors in Newton, sitting in a semicircle in Mr. Outerbridgeís English class. He was outspoken and brilliant and thoroughly intimidating, and I imagined he was destined for great professional success.

And he was. But it hasnít come without struggle. Seth Mnookin was a teen alcoholic and drug addict. By his early 20s, he was a Harvard graduate hooked on heroin, a junkie who would endure numerous hospitalizations and rehab stints, and who would nearly die before his 30th birthday.

In most other stories, any ensuing professional accomplishments would likely be merely a footnote to such a troubled past. Yet here I am on the phone with Seth Mnookin, the former Newsweek senior writer; Seth Mnookin, the Kennedy School fellow; Seth Mnookin, the media expert. The success has come, and itís come big: his new book, Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media (Random House), is a thorough and riveting examination of the institution that is the New York Times, and how the Jayson Blair scandal and its aftermath nearly brought that institution to its knees.

Q: What made you decide to write this book, and why now?

A: I know this is probably not the most exciting answer, but the reason why I decided to do the book was because it was there. I had been covering the Times and covering media for years, and I was at Newsweek working as their media writer, and so I was covering the Jayson Blair story really, really intensely. As someone whoís been a media junkie since I was in Helen Smithís journalism class [at Newton North High School], the Times has always been the most fascinating place, the archetypal American institution, the sort of pinnacle of American journalism and newspapering. When I thought about writing a book about Jayson Blair, that didnít interest me that much, because I thought that probably everything that should have been said about Jayson had been said, between the coverage at the Times and his own book. But when I thought about the chance to write a larger story about the Times and about its role in the American media landscape, that was something that appealed to me much more. I very specifically sought out a publisher that shared my vision of that, and did not want a quickie Jayson Blair book, or even really a Jayson Blair book at all, but wanted a more institutional look at the Times and also a study of leadership and everything else.

Q: Whom do you see as the bookís audience?

A: I hope itís everyone. I tried to craft it almost like a thriller. I mean, itís totally clichéd, but the reason itís clichéd is because itís probably true for so many people: All the Presidentís Men is what made me decide that I wanted to be a journalist, and it wasnít the notion of bringing down a president, it was just that the book and the movie ó both of which I saw when I was, like, 13 years old; in fact, I remember when I read the book at my grandparentsí house ó it was so exciting. It was a detective story, and there was drama, and even though obviously you knew what the outcome was going to be, you got swept up in it.

So as much as I could, I tried to make the whole story about the internal investigation [at the Times] read like a detective story. And to that extent, I hope that people who didnít grow up since the age of 12 wanting to be a newspaperman, and who arenít journalism junkies, I hope that those people will read this book and enjoy this book the same way they might read A Civil Action, even if theyíre not into civil litigation or whatever. Then on top of that, I hope that people at the Times will find out stuff about the Times that they didnít know, or people in journalism will think a different way about the choices that occur every day that decide how we get the information we get. My fantasy is that it would work on both of those levels, and appeal to a general audience and also a specialized audience.

Q: Howíd you get your access to all these Times people?

A: The same way that I have gotten access to anyone: just through following up and following up and following up. The motto that I try to use is "professionally persistent." People kept asking me, when I was writing for Newsweek, "How did you get to Jayson Blair? He didnít talk to anyone." They asked as if there was some magic reporting jujitsu that I did that suddenly forced him to talk to me, and I didnít. I just kept on calling him, and I kept on e-mailing him, and I kept on calling. I think a lot of people thought, Iíll put in a call, and if he wants to call me, heíll call back.

So with the reporting team, I wrote them e-mails, and I explained what the project was, and I said that I wanted to meet with them and explain where I was coming from before they even thought about whether they wanted to talk to me or not. I said that my only interest was in telling the story accurately, and if they would feel more comfortable using a more traditional magazine-type fact-checking procedure where you would call and check quotes by them, I would do that. Not saying that they could veto what theyíd said, but just giving them an extra layer of comfort.

With some of the executives at the Times, they were obviously also very reticent and didnít want to talk to me, and they said, "Let us see your book proposal." And that was fine; I had no problem showing them that. And even when they said no, I kept them informed of every step along the way, and eventually I think that most people feel that if youíre showing that youíre going to try and be responsible, and youíre clearly going to do it anyway, they would rather have a chance to include their perspective than risk it not being in there at all.

Q: As a self-proclaimed media junkie, how surprised were you by the Jayson Blair scandal?

A: If itís possible to be both totally shocked and not shocked at all, thatís how I would describe my reaction. Iíve worked at newspapers, Iíve worked at Web sites, and Iíve worked at monthlies. I worked at Brillís Content and Iíve done some stuff for the New Yorker, and those two places probably have the most stringent fact-checking imaginable. That said, Iíve always been struck by the fact that if you are determined to perpetrate a fraud, youíre going to be able to do it. I mean, fact-checking usually means calling up someone and asking them if somethingís true. So whatís the difference between a reporter saying, "Yeah, I saw this person do this," and a fact-checker calling up X person, whoís one person removed, and saying, "Did you see someone do this?" Thereís no real difference, and if you want to make something up, youíll find a way to do that. So the fact that Jayson did this once, especially with the pressures that face daily journalists, it didnít surprise me that it happened once. The fact that it happened for six months, and the fact that he was plagiarizing when he was plagiarizing from places like the Washington Post or the AP, the fact that when he was making stuff up, he was putting the made-up facts into stories that were among the most scrutinized stories of the day ó that surprised me.

Thatís part of how, I hope, Iím able to capture a sort of excitement, because that very clearly amazed the reporting team. They get deeper and deeper into this and they just canít believe whatís going on. Thereís this story unfolding before their eyes, and I think itís either [reporter] Dan Barry or David Barstow who describes it brilliantly: they were horrified at was what happening to their institution, and at the same time, their juices were flowing. I mean, they knew that this was an amazing story, and they were going to be the ones to tell it.

 

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Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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