Jayson Blair debacle has race all in it, but not in the simplistic
sense recently suggested by anti-civil rights types such as
William McGowan or liberals who choose to ignore the racial
subplot. If we are willing to face the fact that Mr. Blair
was taking the place of another qualified journalist - whether
black or nonblack - then we can move on and identify the unfortunate
Blair scenario for what it was: a bizarre human-resources
glitch that New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines
called a "terrible mistake" in Sunday's newspaper.
in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University,
a number of the largely frustrated and jobless white students
who will graduate in two weeks have been grumbling that the
former New York Times reporter never would have been hired
and/or promoted at The New York Times had he been white.
Blair is black.
27-year-old reporter resigned from The New York Times after
portions of a story he wrote were found to be identical to
those of a front-page article that had been published in The
Express-News. He since has been linked to 50 corrections over
three years, and much of his earlier work has been credibly
scandalized: An ongoing New York Times investigation has uncovered
new problems in at least 36 of the 73 articles Mr. Blair wrote
since he started filing national reporting assignments late
last October. Even his past credentials have come under the
microscope. Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post reported that
Mr. Blair never graduated from the University of Maryland,
where he served as an editor of the campus newspaper.
prefer to focus on why Blair got where he got, which is a
logical concern in light of his ineptitude and lackluster
credentials. While conservatives such as Mr. McGowan blast
diversity-preaching enterprises, including The New York Times,
for their roles in the Blair affair, liberal supporters of
affirmative action seldom acknowledge the verifiable claim
that Blair was out of his league. But he was.
twenty-something writers for the newspaper widely regarded
as the best of American print media are an extraordinarily
well-educated and talented group of journalists. They generally
have been educated at Ivy League or other highly selective
universities, have served with distinction those universities'
daily newspapers, have graduated from those universities with
some sort of honor, have interned or worked for one or more
of the other prestigious national newspapers (The Wall Street
Journal and The Washington Post are typical past assignments),
and have not been linked to anywhere near 50 corrections in
three years, if in their entire careers.
of Mr. Blair's incongruous circumstances, liberal and conservative
critics who charge that he would not have been hired and/or
retained had he been white might be right. The problem is
that these critics have reached this conclusion simply because
of Blair's race and, to a lesser extent, his mistake. They
finger as the culprit The New York Times' policies rather
than Blair's own conduct, but they never substantiate the
policies thought to have caused the meltdown.
though it may be, the contention has been loudly and repeatedly
articulated by the conservatives, who by definition hate affirmative
action in any form and deny the very legality of New York
Times policies to diversify its newsroom. Conservatives ignore
the fact that The New York Times did not hire and promote
black journalists for most of its history, compelling today's
editors to pay special attention to race because of their
historical tendencies, in the absence of diversification programs,
to discriminate racially.
liberals ignore a different issue. What I have found on television,
on the Internet, in newspapers, and in the journalism school
is that the liberals who generally support diversity initiatives
and affirmative action of the type The New York Times employs
to attract the best journalists
are reluctant to discuss affirmative action in light of the
Blair controversy, and similarly unwilling to critique the
Blair hire itself. To do so would require questioning the
credentials of a hitherto popular black man, in language that
might appear to be applying traditional stereotypes of black
inferiority to a hard-working journalist of bona fide distinction.
But as journalists, we must tell the whole truth, which requires
us to examine the Blair case in its entirety. We must zero
in on the hiring and promotions.
issue I spot, as a 25-year-old black journalist familiar with
The New York Times and some of the young journalists who work
there, is that Blair does not fit the profile of a typical
twenty-something star at The New York Times. In fact, he was
a total mess, according to the newspaper's own records. His
editors, aware of the pressures in a newsroom like that of
The New York Times, should have forecast the train wreck and
recognized it in its prolonged commission. They should have
taken Blair off the job long ago, as they now seem to acknowledge.
would wager that Blair's record did not merit even employment
three years ago, nor did his performance measure up to his
contemporaries' at the newspaper by the time he quit. The
New York Times editors should have been able to assess his
fitness, if only after all the corrections and complaints
about him. Yet the editors, for some reason that may never
be revealed, avoided coming to terms with the ever-elucidated
reality that this man was in over his head, even as he steadily
reduced the newspaper's credibility. These editors might have
suffered from the same condition presented in the white liberals
on the United States Senate Judiciary Committee, who in 1991
refused to condemn the Clarence Thomas nomination on the most
logical and defensible grounds: that the black man of deficient
preparation for jurisprudence was utterly unqualified to serve
as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court.
Had the Senators possessed the courage to tell the whole truth,
a qualified black justice might have emerged, be he or she
liberal, conservative, or neither. The Senators chickened
out of telling the truth, and the confirmation became a referendum
not on issues of law and justice, but on whether the Senators
believed Thomas ever had remarked about pubic hair on his
Coke to Anita Hill, a conservative black law professor. The
real issues fell by the wayside.
assume, for argument, that Blair was hired and promoted because
he was black (a largely unfounded though widely held notion
different from the belief that he would not have been hired
and promoted had he been white). Regardless of whether one
supports affirmative action policies and diversity-recruitment
initiatives, the fact of the matter is that The New York Times
does. The newspaper even attempts to lead its industry in
such matters. That's why The New York Times Company was a
major underwriter of The Maynard
Institute's 25th Anniversary gala at the Waldorf Astoria
last year. Given the legal hiring prerogatives of The New
York Times, there was nothing wrong with Blair's appointment
and promotion, on their faces.
let us return to reality, which happens to refute the assumption
underlying the previous counterfactual. In the environment
of The New York Times, Blair did not under any circumstances,
as many whites have whispered plaintively, take the place
of a qualified person of a different race. Blair, in actuality,
took the place of some qualified person. As we know,
plenty of journalists are highly qualified to perform for
The New York Times at a level superior to Blair's. Many of
these journalists happen to be nonwhite. Many of them happen
to be black. Choosing from among all of them, The New York
Times hired Blair. They steadily promoted him. Then they looked
on as he made glaring mistakes. Now they are exposing him.
New York Times erred in its handling of Mr. Blair, but the
vexing culprit, in light of the facts, is neither affirmative
action nor Mr. Blair's blackness: It is an unprecedented instance
of faulty recruitment and development that oversaw the commission
of a conspiracy of one. Nothing more.
former intern in the Southern Bureau of The New York Times,
Amos Jones is a Master of Science candidate in the Graduate
School of Journalism at Columbia University. He has served
as a News Copy Editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
and The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer. Reach via e-Mail at [email protected].