Before reading at Powell's this Thursday evening, convicted felon turned cokehead turned journalist and author, Jason Leopold, will speak to new patients at the Volunteers of America men's residential rehab center on NE MLK. It'll be a step down from breaking the Enron story for Dow Jones, but Leopold is happy to do it.
"I feel most comfortable in these places, because everyone is exposed, with their insecurities out on the sleeve, and telling people what addiction was like for me is one way of continuing to stay sober. My career has been chaotic, and my desire to get the scoops and the rush has gotten me into trouble," he says.
But despite his current candor, it is difficult to tell from reading Leopold's memoir News Junkie, or from subsequent events, whether he has recovered enough from the addictive, short-cutting ways of his past to be lecturing anyone on how to avoid such pitfalls.
Reading Leopold's memoir is, in part, to spend time in the company of a man who forces you to reflect on whether journalists can ever redeem themselves from the intrusive, sensationalist nature of the work they do. But at the same time, his writing demonstrates that he remains addicted to the buzz of exposure, attention, and the self-destructive thrill of breaking news that got him into so much trouble in the first place.
When Leopold compares himself in the book to Kurt Cobain, Beethoven, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Enron Finance Director Andrew Fastow, a reader has to ask if his need to be the center of attention has ever really gone away.
Even interviewing the man is an uncomfortable experience, because his memoir is a 250-page admission of how much of an utter, utter bastard he has been to almost everyone around him (until now, of course), including his wife, Lisa, his family, employers at the LA Times (from which he was sacked for threatening to rip a reporter's head off), and latterly Dow Jones Newswires, where he was fired for inaccuracies in a Wall Street Journal story about Enron which forced them to print a five-paragraph retraction the following day.
Later, another of Leopold's articles, about President Bush's Army Secretary Tom White, was pulled from Salon.com after seven paragraphs were found to be directly plagiarized from London's Financial Times.
After a disgracing at the hands of Salon's editors, Leopold set out to write News Junkie. Since finishing, he has landed a job as a salaried reporter at online independent news service truthout.org, and on May 13, broke the story: Karl Rove indicted on charges of perjury, lying to investigators. The story, based on sources Leopold has cultivated for the last year, was one he "believed" to be true when we spoke last week.
"I understand that people are going to ask, 'Leopold, why should we believe you?' But this is a big story; nobody else has broken it because they haven't bothered to cultivate my sources. Major network news outlets couldn't run with it because of problems, but in the book I try to show the differences between the mainstream media and independent media," he said.
But a month later, at the time of this writing, Rove's lawyers confirmed he will not face indictment, leaving Leopold's story on shaky ground, to say the least.
News Junkie is in many ways an admirably honest piece of work, with its author brave to admit that writing to deadlines is for him a macho, posturing experience.
"There is no feeling like breaking a news story. The only thing that comes close is when you snort that first line of coke and all insecurities vanish and you feel like you can conquer the world," he writes.
But as an addiction memoir, it falls short of Augusten Burroughs' humor and self-awareness, or even, dare I mention, James Frey's lack of these things. A page before the end, Leopold writes that he is "jonesing for a story," but blames the publications he used to write for, for not trusting him enough to print his stories. He seems already to have forgotten why that mistrust arose.
Leopold admits that one of the key milestones in his recovery was writing News Junkie, and it is certainly an addictive read. But in the end, I was left hoping he can find the guts to stop writing for a while and find the space to reflect on why he may have started doing it in the first place.