Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Jason Leopold Delivers the Truth at Book Passage

By George Powell 8.24.06
Photo by George Powell

Journalist Jason Leopold has been dogged by controversy and excess much of his relatively short career in the national spotlight. In fact, he has by his own admission had a rather adversarial relationship with his own life. And that's precisely why he makes such a good reporter in the old-fashioned sense of the word.

Leopold came to Book Passage in Corte Madera the evening of Aug. 24 to promote his new book, News Junkie . I for one was surprised at Leopold's youth and the small size (about 25) of the audience. Given the author's proclivity for being in the forefront of two of the biggest stories so far of the 21st century—Enron's corporate criminality and the investigation surrounding the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame—I had expected a bigger crowd.

Leopold is still covering the Plame affair for, and a still-sealed indictment by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald of a person or persons unknown has left Leopold dangling, since Leopold wrote that the person was (according to his sources) presidential advisor Karl Rove.

But Leopold is not shy about going mano a mano with the Bush Administration and the attempts to sandbag his reputation that have come with it. The visceral thrill a reporter gets from nailing down a big story, no matter what the odds, has never been demonstrated better than Leopold does in News Junkie . In fact, the rough equivalence between the powerful rush of a cocaine high and getting a front page bylined story in a major newspaper is a main theme in the book.

Leopold showed the same “let-it-all-hang-out" attitude in reading an excerpt and answering questions about his career and his many scoops, holding back nothing and including the most sordid details.

He read from Chapter 9. “White Lies.” By his own admission, it was the first time he had read that part of his book before an audience, and the narrative pulls no punches:

“He [Jason's father] doesn't get it. Never did. He thinks I can just flick a switch and turn off those images of his fist punching my face or dragging me by my ear through the snow. I couldn't. I thought about it every day. Part of me wanted to take the train to his office on 30th Street, wait for him to walk out and beat him senseless with a crowbar. The other part of me wanted to see him and give him a hug.

“… I hadn't spoken to my family for nearly three years. They didn't know I went back to rehab or that my marriage nearly fell apart or that I nearly killed myself again.

“… The only thing I knew about electricity when I started working at Dow Jones Newswires in April 2000 was that AC/DC didn't mean Antichrist/Devil's Child. But the great thing about working in journalism, particularly for a wire service where every second counts, is that you're forced to figure it all out while you're writing a story. The hands-on experience is more valuable than a college degree.”

While sitting listening to Leopold read all this and more, I thought the excerpt he picked was a bit too long and so personal it nearly made my head ache the way it can when you eat something too cold too fast.

But after reading the entire book, laying open his personal and professional life as he did, made the entire saga more compelling. A reader can see how, behind his mild-mannered exterior, resides a real bulldog of a reporter who would and had done almost anything to get a story and get it first. It's a tradition as old as journalism, a living cliché straight out of The Front Page and His Girl Friday .

Unfortunately in the corporate-controlled major media today, “If anyone tries to report the truth, they're going to come down on you,” Leopold told the audience.

That's because the mainstream media is “timid,” he said, and, never being one to take the word of an authority figure unconditionally, he dug beneath the public relations gloss in pursuit of the truth.

But after both personal and professional knocks, Leopold now recognizes that at the same time he was trying to pursue the truth at all costs professionally, he was running away from it in his personal life. This book attempts to rectify that attitude with a warts-and-all account of his professional and personal life and let the truth reveal itself. News Junkie goes a long way toward capping that lifetime adversarial relationship Leopold has had with himself.

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