Thursday , September 24 2020
"I am the anti-Jayson Blair. I went out of my way to report the truth" -- Jason Leopold

Interview With Jason Leopold, Author of News Junkie

This is the first part of a two-part interview. The second part will be published in one week.

For years I have referred to myself as a news junkie, by which I meant that if I don’t read The Washington Post and The New York Times daily, I’ll feel like I’ve missed something almost as essential as food or sleep. It’s almost like having a daily habit. I guess you could call it my daily fix – sort of like a drug habit, but then I’m getting ahead of myself.

Imagine the passion most people have for sports teams and attach that to news and you’ll start to get an idea of how important I consider it to be on top of the news, as written about in the newspaper (as opposed to the awful, simplified pablum that is too often the fare on cable news programs.) But I have recently decided to stop calling myself a “news junkie.”

What has sparked this change? Is it because I no longer feel that everyone should try to read at least one newspaper a day? No, although I have relaxed my self-discipline on this issue, otherwise I’d be taping C-Span debates and reading the internet all night. Is it because I agree with many in society that the quality of journalism is in decline? No, although that is an issue that fascinates me and I like to ponder from time to time.

Is it because I’m no longer a journalist? No, that’s not it. If anything I find it more relaxing now to read the newspaper because I’m not constantly thinking, “Ok, what can be the local angle I can write about for this issue?”

Is it because I’ve found lately that the best place to read the newspaper is at a bar, since with that atmosphere and the consumption of alcohol some of the stories and issues — especially those regarding the war and the President — start to make sense? No, but we’re getting warmer now.

No, it is because of this book I am introducing, News Junkie.

The book is by a guy named Jason Leopold, who I never heard of before this book. I’ll wait until I introduce the second part of the interview to speak of some eerie, “It’s a Small World” parallels and intersections between his life and mine.

For now let me just say that this book is fascinating in several different ways at once. If you like memoirs and stories of personal journals, you will find them in this book. If you want to know about the ugly side of this beast we call journalism, you will find that here, too. If you are interested in stories about dysfunctional families, that is also here.

I mentioned this book a few weeks ago amid my reviews of documentaries about Enron,  the electric car, and another topic.

Leopold, while working for the Dow Jones Newswire, wrote stories about Enron Corporation’s infamous fake trading floor and how it helped cause the energy crisis in California. As an aggressive reporter regularly making questionable ethics decisions — as we discuss at length in both parts of this interview — Leopold was also hiding his own past from almost everyone around him. While exposing the truth about Enron he — and, by extension, the readers of this book — had his own secrets that could be exposed, and it is those secrets of his past that really made this book, for me at least, gripping reading.

Before becoming well known as a journalist, Leopold not only experimented with drugs but got himself pretty messed up with cocaine. It is this drug past — and the similarity of the feeling of one who is high with the adrenaline rush that comes from a good news scoop — that sparked the book title.

It is also the reason why I’ll probably avoid calling myself a “news junkie” in the near future because, well, let’s just say that as much as I like and respect Leopold, I don’t share his history of use of cocaine. (Mom, if you are reading this, you can start breathing again.)

When I hear the term “news junkie” now I think of Leopold and this book. My life is complicated enough right now without anyone thinking I’m referring to drugs, or a shady past involving drugs. But enough about me. Let’s talk with Leopold, who was kind enough to agree to an interview via email.

Leopold is a former bureau chief of Dow Jones Newswires. His articles have appeared in the Nation, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post and the Financial Times. He writes for TruthOut, Z magazine, Alternet, and Counterpunch.

Scott Butki: What was your intent with this book? Was it just a matter of wanting to tell your story or was it also a matter of trying to exorcise some demons? Do you feel you accomplished your goal?

Jason: My intent with the book was two-fold. I wanted to provide readers with a behind the-scenes look at the cut-throat world of investigative journalism and shed light on what goes on behind the scenes when it comes to covering a story. At the same time, I wanted readers to get an idea of the person beyond the byline and let them know that person is human and makes mistakes and is flawed and complex just like everyone else.

For me, writing this book was a chance to stop running away from the truth about myself and to start taking responsibility for my actions and the carnage I left behind that hurt many, many people.

I also wanted to break my own story before anyone else did and do it on my own terms. When you’re covering politics and you’re writing critically about the government, there are people that are gunning for you and are just waiting for the right opening to tear you apart. There were at least half-a-dozen things my critics could have used to take me down and they would have done so by taking everything out of context.

That’s the blood-sport of journalism: We all love to eat our own and watch our colleagues fall. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to me and that was part of the motivation for writing my book. I wanted to tell my story in context, the way it should be told. I felt empowered when I was through. This was my goal and I feel like I succeeded.

Scott: When did you start writing this book?

Jason: I started writing the book in 2002 and spent a good three years between editing and final draft

Scott: What has been the reaction to the book? Has there been good that come of it? Has there been fall-out?

Jason: The response has been incredibly positive. People have said that my brutal honesty is something they respected and I am grateful for that. We live in a culture of lies right now. You see it everyday not just with our government but in every facet of our popular culture so to tell the truth and to do it in such a brutal way has been something that the general public perhaps did not expect when picking up my book.

Scott: What did you think of the “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” movie?

Jason: I was actually one of the consultants on the Enron documentary so my response will be somewhat biased. I think the movie is a spectacular look at how greed can turn people into criminals. The movie sheds light on how Enron played a major role in the California energy crisis and supports many of the allegations former Gov. Gray Davis had leveled against the company in the early days of the crisis, long before Enron was found to have played a role in the crisis.

Scott: I’m a bit dismayed by something you wrote and I want to ask you to elaborate on it. It concerns the way in which you got your “scoops” on Enron – by having sources tip you off on what other reporters were working on. You write what, no offense, seems like a cheap rationalization to me:

“A scoop is a scoop. In my opinion, as long as you are the first one who reports the news, you own the story. It doesn’t really matter how you get it. Other journalists will whine about ethics, but that’s a load of crap. If reporting a huge story required journalists to pimp their mothers, there would be a lot of elderly hookers on the street.”

While I agree with that last sentence I struggle with the comment: “It doesn’t really matter how you get it.” Do you really believe that? You mention you were compared to the Drudge Report because you, like him, were using others work and then getting credit for it. How did you respond then to that accusation? On reflection do you think you did anything inappropriate?

Jason: When I wrote this book, I wrote it from a particular point of view that I had at a particular point of time and in doing so I dug deep into my soul so I could relive and retell my story accurately in that frame of mind. So, in this particular section that you point out, yes, that is what I believed at the time and how I justified doing what I was doing.

I was not thinking straight and I knew what I was doing was wrong but I rationalized it and that’s why I wrote in the present tense, for that very reason. Do I believe that rationalization to be true today? Absolutely not. And I don’t practice that type of journalism today.

Scott: What do you think of what happened to Jayson Blair, the disgraced reporter for The New York Times? You are probably tired of any comparisons – and the racial issue is missing in your case – but both of you had drug problems and journalism controversies. Do you think he got a raw deal or was his dismissal and pummeling by other journalists appropriate?

Jason: Jayson Blair was a reporter who invented stories out of whole cloth, failed to leave his apartment to report the stories he was supposed to cover and hid behind a mental disorder to explain his behavior. I have never fabricated a story, have never been accused by my editors of doing such a thing and have never been afflicted by a case of extreme laziness. I am the anti-Jayson Blair. I went out of my way to report the truth. And I do not blame drugs or my mental state for my behavior.

Scott: Have you been watching the coverage of the Libby trial, which has shown how much sucking up some reporters do. Do you find that disturbing or just confirmation of your beliefs about the major media?

Jason: The Libby trial, in my opinion, is an indictment of the media and what I have seen has confirmed everything I wrote about the mainstream media. I am glad the media has been on trial during these proceedings. They have done, and continue to do, a terrible job reporting the news.

Scott: In your reporting on the Valerie Plame case you suggested Karl Rove’s indictment was imminent, but that never occurred. Do you think your reporting was wrong or did he somehow get out of it?

Jason: I strongly believe, and this information comes directly from my sources that I have worked with on the CIA leak case, that Karl Rove cut a last minute deal with the prosecutor. My editors have been in contact with these sources and the same information was communicated to my superiors. I believe that what I reported at the time I reported it was true. I know that is difficult for some people to swallow but hopefully the absolute truth will be revealed in due time. When Gary Webb reported on the CIA contras and the crack cocaine epidemic he was taken to task by other members of the media who said unequivocally his reporting was wrong. It took years before he was vindicated.

It was my intention to write an honest, factual story about Karl Rove.  Just like it was The New York Times and the Washington Post's and the cable  news channels to report honestly and accurately that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and posed a threat to this country, which is exactly what  the media reported. Still, with that said, good intentions are not enough in this business. I know that. But it's a chance I took and I accept responsibility for making that decision.

Part two coming soon

About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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