Blair & what’s fair

May 21, 2003 at 12:00 am

It’s starting already.

The story about Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old New York Times reporter who invented a remarkable number of his stories for the newspaper, was first reported not quite two weeks ago. Already this story is becoming more about the failures of affirmative action and diversity in the newsroom than it is about the failure of one black reporter.

Last Wednesday morning I tuned into "Morning Edition" on National Public Radio where I caught the interview with Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center for Press and Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Kalb, a former CBS and NBC correspondent, was talking about how Blair had "blown it" and ruined his career for reasons that no one understands.

"How very sad that the New York Times must now defend its credibility because a 27-year-old reporter did not understand the extraordinary opportunity that the editors of this paper had given to him," said Kalb, who pointed out that the Times is the recipient of no less than 89 Pulitzers.

That much I can agree with. There’s no way to get around the fact that Blair shot himself with a cannon, then took another damaging shot at his employer. It’s hard for me to imagine an excuse to justify any journalist who figures it’s OK to replace fact with fiction, and then to steal what few facts he managed to find from the work of other reporters who actually did the work.

Unfortunately, the Times — and Blair — are not alone. As noted by Time magazine, Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith both resigned in 1998 following charges of serial plagiarism; the Wall Street Journal’s financial columnist R. Foster Winans was convicted on 59 counts of conspiracy and fraud in 1985 for using his articles to make money in the stock market; and the Washington Post was forced to return the 1981 Pulitzer Prize won by reporter Janet Cooke for her imaginary story chronicling the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict. For that matter, Times associate editor R.W. "Johnny" Apple, an old pro, has a discovered error rate of 14.1 percent, which is slightly more than twice the correction rate of Blair, who averaged 6.9 percent.

Of these others mentioned, Cooke is the only African-American.

This may explain why my ears perked up when Kalb began talking about how "a minority intern" who had risen quickly through the ranks to become a promising reporter "blew it big-time." Why was it necessary to say this was the "minority" intern who blew it big-time, unless his being a minority was the reason he blew it?

Kalb went on to say the editors at the Times "wanted this bright and energetic liar to succeed, his blatant shortcomings notwithstanding.

"The Times believed in racial diversity, and that is a good thing, but a reporter’s race ought not to be as crucial a consideration as his competence, his honesty and integrity."

This is where it starts to get thick, because now the question becomes several-fold: Are the Times editors mostly at fault for believing in newsroom diversity so much that they blinded themselves to the glaring shortcomings of a particular beneficiary of these policies? Or is the pursuit of racial diversity in the newsroom as a policy the primary culprit, since some would say such a policy is responsible for the racially charged atmosphere that allowed a Blair to get away with so much and still rise so fast?

Or is Blair mostly to blame for his own personal and professional failings?

According to Newsweek’s Seth Mnookian, "outside of Gerald Boyd, the Times’ African-American managing editor, there are very few nonwhites (or nonmales, for that matter) in major newsroom positions. The section editors for national, foreign, sports, metro and business news are all white; so are the Times’ Magazine and Book Review editors. The paper’s Washington editor, the editor of the Sunday Week in Review section, and the editor of the Sunday Arts & Leisure section are all also white — though those three jobs, at least, are held by women."

Now consider what appeared in Time magazine: "Whether or not this is a scandal born of ambition, it is also being cast as a story about race. Publications like the Times work hard to find and keep the best black reporters. That sometimes involves hiring minority reporters whose experience was ‘significantly below what we'd normally require because we wanted a lot of minority reporters,’ says one Times senior manager, who notes that a special training program helps bring young reporters up to speed."

I strongly suspect that if Blair hadn’t shown promise — or at least what masqueraded as promise — then he never would have been granted an internship in the first place, let alone been hired full-time. As someone who spent a year-long internship at the Los Angeles Times, and who has several friends who were interns at the New York Times, I think I have a bit of insight into how this minority internship thing tends to work. Judging by the quality of journalists in my 10-member internship class alone, not to mention those who also interned at the Times, I’d have to say that merit matters. Big-time.

Incidentally, it’s nice to see that the Times now treats its minority interns with a bit more respect than the old days when, as more than one former Times intern has told me, they were nothing more than bringers of coffee and donuts for the "real" reporters.

But moving right along.

The shape this story has begun to take is forcing affirmative action to account for itself when it shouldn’t have to. Anger toward Blair and the Times editors is nowhere near as white-hot as it is toward workplace policies that promote diversity as a goal. Blair and the editors are symptoms. Diversity has become targeted as the dreaded disease.

So here’s where it stands; Jayson Blair screwed up. He will never work at the Times again, and probably not for any other reputable news organization. Serves him right. But Blair is not the poster child for the failings of diversity in the newsroom, nor is he the justification for ending affirmative action.

Blair didn’t screw up because he was "the minority reporter," the by-product of some hideous well-meaning liberal experiment gone horribly wrong. Blair screwed up because that’s the kind of individual he proved himself to be.

You might say that’s the content of his character.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]