back to the Black Table
               
  ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: SETH MNOOKIN, MEDIA REPORTER.  
   
   
  Seth Mnookin: The heroin junkie-cum-media reporting superstar formerly of Newsweek has come along way since being hooked on the big H.

He's written for the New Yorker, The New York Observer, Slate, and now has a six-figure book deal from Random House in place to chronicle the tumultuous, error-filled last few years at the New York Times. The book is in its early stages, but Mnookin took some time out from pestering the Times' brass for embarrassing details to participate in the Black Table's Rock and a Hard Place interview. Well, kind of. He dodged all the moronic, dirty questions and scolded me mercilessly throughout. Hey, it happens.

Even though there is a *slightly* contentious tone to the interview, Mnookin did graciously offer insights about his drug-addled days of lore, the focus of his book about the Times, and the actual height of America's favorite fire starter Jayson Blair.

Too bad he's off the junk. He would've been a great drug-buddy.

Smack it up. Flip it. Rub it down. Mnookin.

 
   

 


WARNING: Do not provoke The Mnookin.

 

   
 

BT: You're writing a book about The New York Times. Is there any way to make that topic remotely interesting to people who don't give a tub of bunny turd about the media? And in a way, aren't you reaping the benefits from all their recent fuck-ups? I mean, do you think you would've gotten that six-figure book deal had all this shit not gone down?

SM: The question about benefiting from recent fuck-ups confuses me. I'm a journalist. I report about things going on in the world, and then I write about them. That's my job, and I get paid for doing my job. I try to inform people about issues I think are interesting, or important, or necessary. The manner in which Americans learn about the world and the reliability of the information they receive is a vitally crucial issue. The media has enormous power to shape the way we understand the world we live in. I think it's important we also understand how the media works.

BT: Do you feel sorry for Jayson Blair? Do you think he's hurt the credibility of black journalists? And how much of your book is going to be devoted to that little fella? And how tall is he by the way?

SM: The question of whether Jayson ruined credibility for black journalists is more complex than I can really deal with here. On the one hand, no, of course he didn't. Did Stephen Glass (or Jack Kelly) ruin credibility for white journalists? (And don't tell me that Jayson was hired as part of a minority internship program and that changes everything -- that's a facile answer to a complicated question.) On the other hand, there are plenty of people who seem all too willing to ignore any of the subtleties of this situation and use Jayson and his flame-out as a reason why affirmative action is a fatally flawed program or why more minority representation in the newsroom isn't an important goal to work towards. Jayson isn't going to be the major character in my book; I'm focusing much more on the last several years at the Times and on the media and newspapering businesses more generally. I think people who are really interested in the minutia of the Jayson Blair scandal have gotten most of the information they need. And: I think he's 5-foot-2.

BT: So, you've been pretty open about how you got hooked on dope. Your success in media has been astounding since you gave up the spooky white stuff. You're kind of like the Aerosmith of journalists. Do you think being a recovering heroin addict at such a young age gives you more of a cachet than the fact that you went to Harvard? I mean, obviously, you can write a little bit too, but all in all, doesn't your past make you more intriguing as a potential hire? Or was it harder? Like people didn't trust you at first because they thought you would steal their computer monitors and office supplies to go cop?

SM: The main impact my addiction had on my career was that I wasted a few years before I got serious about my writing. Besides that, I don't think the fact that I'm a recovering drug addict has really affected my career one way or another. And I know it hasn't given me any kind of cachet -- it's not like I've been writing for Vice or something. Steve Brill certainly didn't say, "Well, here's this guy who wants to cover the presidential campaign. He's not very good, but shit, he used to shoot dope. Let's hire him!" I don't know if you've seen Newsweek recently, but they didn't include "recovering heroin addict" in my staff bio as a way to attract that ever-elusive junkie readership.

BT: Why did you even choose to write about your addiction? And was being addicted to heroin everything you hoped it'd be?

SM: I got sober in 1997. Two years later my mom, who is an amazing poet, published a book of her work that dealt in large part with my addiction and the effects it had on her and our family. At the time, I was writing a fair amount for Salon, and they had a now-defunct section called "Mothers Who Think." Since it's nearly impossible for works of serious poetry to get any kind of attention at all, I suggested that she write a piece for the section, and that evolved in to two twinned essays. I'm not sure I would have written about my addiction at that time had it not been tied to something that I could do that would potentially bring my mom's poetry some tiny amount of the attention and recognition it deserved. (Obligatory plug: buy the book. "To Get Here," by Wendy Mnookin, BOA Press.) Besides that I haven't written about my addiction, although I'm working on a piece now that loosely deals with that part of my life. Since I got sober, I've always been conscious of not wanting to define myself as heroin-boy or something, but I've never felt like I should try to pretend all those years didn't happen.

I didn't "hope" being addicted to heroin would be anything. It was more hellish and degrading and dehumanizing than anything I have ever experienced, or even imagined.

BT: Alright, back to media crap: Would you rather have rodeo sex with Jayson Blair or beat up Arthur Sulzberger's mother?

SM: C'mon, man. Is this supposed to be funny?

BT: Absolutely not. Anyway, do you think there could ever be Watergate-like heroism aligned with journalists ever again? Or do you think that every potential "breaking" story will be raked over the coals mercilessly because of the recent spate of laziness? Does anyone even care when journalists really do their jobs anymore? Is that news? And do you feel any responsibility to show the good side of journalism or is this where the money is right now?

SM: I don't even know where to start with this one. How about this: Yes. No. Yes. Huh? Yes/no.

I guess we're dropping the conceit of this being an actual interview, one where you ask questions and I give answers, because you just emailed back and told me that answer was unacceptable. So: I don't feel any responsibility to show the "good side" of journalism. I feel a responsibility to be accurate and nuanced and fair. My book will include many, many examples of the "good side" of journalism, because I'm examining several years at one of the best news gathering operations in the world. I didn't get a contract to write an overheated or salacious book about the Jayson Blair scandal. I'm writing about an evolution that's going on in the Times, about the ways in which the Internet is affecting traditional news sources, about the challenges facing determined media outlets in a world where people's attention spans are shrinking.

BT: Booooooo! Can you give me the first 12 words of the book?

SM: I don't have the first twelve words written. There. Does that count?

BT: Do you think your book about the Times will outsell Jayson Blair's?

SM: I'm mercifully ignorant about the business side of publishing -- I have no idea what covers move magazines off of newsstands, and I have no sense of how to predict how books will do. Plus, I haven't read Jayson's book (or written my own), so it wouldn't be fair to speculate. It sounds like we're not covering much of the same ground, though -- his book, from what I understand, is a pretty personal look at his own aborted career at the Times. I'll hardly be dealing with the particulars of Jayson's deceptions at all; I'm much more interested in Howell's tenure as executive editor, in the reporting team that produced the Times' four-page investigation of Jayson, in how the Times and the rest of the American media landscape is preparing for the future.

BT: So, apparently you're a music journalist too. How many times have you used the words "eponymous" or "wanky" or "Norah Jones" in your stories or reviews?

SM: Eponymous: 16. Norah Jones: 8. Wanky: 381.

BT: Would you rather have three-way sex with Robert Christgau and Chuck
Klosterman or kill three kittens?

SM: I'm a big fan of both Xgau and Klosterman. I'd rather read both of their collected works than need to answer your inane questions. That's a no-brainer, actually.

BT: "Xgau". That's cute. Is there a hero in the Jayson Blair scandal? That Stephen Glass story had that dude who raped Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry". So who's the hero in the Jayson Blair story?

SM: It depends how you define the "Jayson Blair scandal." And I always thought the hero of the Stephen Glass story was the guy who played Duncan in the Friends episode, "The One With Phoebe's Husband."

BT: Do you think blogging is gay?

SM: Wow. That's a tough one. How about: no.

BT: Fine. Overall, sum this up for me: Does media need better journalists, better editors, or better readers?

SM: Better interviewers.

BT: Bah, eat me.

 

Click Here For More Rock and a Hard Place.