Whether or not Jayson Blair's ascent at the Times was due to race is the latest post-911 media preoccupation. To be sure, the theory that race was responsible for his rise was buttressed by executive editor Howell Raines, who suggested that his southern white guilt may have been a factor in his willingness to forgive Blair a host of what were then thought to be honest reporting errors. But the premise quickly falls apart when one looks at the long list of white journalists who gained the trust of their editors through high productivity and solid writing only to fabricate and plagiarize stories from their lofty perches. Their transgressions were not linked to race and, unlike Blair who may now be the subject of a criminal investigation, some of them have managed to survive their misdeeds.

What are we to make of Mike Barnicle, who while at the Boston Globe repeatedly fabricated stories and plagiarized others' work? Legendary Chicago columnist Mike Royko was among those to accuse Barnicle of stealing his words. Barnicle's misdeeds were so infamous that Lamar Graham, now an editor at Parade Magazine, dedicated a Boston magazine "Barnicle Watch" column to chronicling the columnist's fictitious escapades. The magazine even hired a private detective to track down people Barnicle had allegedly interviewed, without success. But unlike the Times, which quickly ended Blair's career once his journalistic crimes were known, the Boston Globe continued to coddle Barnicle, even after paying tens of thousands of dollars in legal settlements to his victims. (One of those victims, Harvard law Professor Alan Dershowitz, called Barnicle a "serial plagiarizer and recidivist fabricator.") But instead of the outrage we see in the Blair case, Barnicle was defended by prominent journalists, including the Washington Post's Richard Cohen (who now, amazingly, critiques the Times' handling of Blair); NBC's Tim Russert and Tom Brokaw. And unlike with Blair, Barnicle was appropriately viewed as an individual, not a representative of his race.

The sensationalized media coverage of Blair has fueled the impression that plagiarism and fabrication are a result of affirmative action gone awry. Black journalists are the poster children for journalistic immorality, beginning with Janet Cooke, the black Washington Post reporter who in 1981 resigned after her Pulitzer Prize winning "Jimmy's World" was found to have been fabricated, and ending with Blair. To these self-appointed guardians of journalistic purity, Blair's hiring and promotions was not due to his political acumen, prolific writing and widescale deceit, but to affirmative action. Many of these writers from lesser news organizations seethe at the idea of Jayson Blair - 27 and African American - writing for a newspaper they can only dream of working for. To read the stories, one would think that no white reporters at the Times or elsewhere had risen from the ranks of intern or clerk due to their talent and ambition. Blair was certainly not the only 20-something reporter at the Times, nor the only one to be hired as a reporter after proving himself as an intern or news clerk. (Blair had also done successful internship at the Boston Globe, which is owned by the Times).

The troubling subtext is that no African American could, on merit, be capable of holding a prestigious position at the Times. Since the 1960s white journalists have complained about the integration of the mainstream news media, and even today, with just 12 percent of newsroom jobs held by people of color, they still argue African Americans and not other people of color have an unfair advantage. While pining for the good ole days of lily-white newsrooms, they take every opportunity to rail against diversity. Jayson Blair has become their latest weapon.

Racial progress in the news media has been agonizingly slow. In 1978 the news industry vowed to have newsrooms that reflect the proportion of people of color in the population by the year 2000. At the time racial minorities comprised roughly 15 percent of the population and 4 percent of newsroom positions. But at the dawn of the new century, with racial minorities comprising about 30 percent of the population and 12 percent of the industry, the goal was scaled back to 20 percent by the year 2025. For many critics of diversity, even this modest goal is too much.

So now with Jayson Blair, the irrational howls against newsrooms that reflect America have drowned out reason. The "I told you so's" can be heard near and far. But even in the midst of overt media hypocrisy a voice of reason was heard. Bob Herbert, the New York Times' first and only black (or non-white) columnist, underscored the value of newsroom diversity with his May 19th column "Truth, Lies and Subtext." Herbert said the race issue "is as bogus as some of Jayson Blair's reporting," and took on those who delight in the failures of an individual African American. "And while these agitators won't admit it, the nasty subtext to their attack is that there is something inherently wrong with blacks." But no number of thoughtful columns by Herbert or Pulitzer Prizes awarded to the likes of E.R. Shipp and Margo Jefferson, will quell their wrath. In their warped view, African American success is the exception; black failure, the rule.

It's noteworthy that Howell Raines, while editorial page editor of The Times, was one of the few prominent white journalists to take on racial double standards in the media. He characterized Barnicle's ability to survive his transgressions as a case of "a male-dominated, mostly white tribal culture that takes care of its own." He said at the time: "Long after Mr. Barnicle settles back into his column, the historical bottom line of this event will be that a white guy with the right connections got pardoned for offenses that would have taken down a minority or female journalist."

The dozens of misdeeds by white reporters bracketed by Cooke and Blair are somehow downplayed or forgotten. Christopher Newton, an Associated Press reporter, was fired last year after editors couldn't verify the existence of 45 people and at least a dozen organizations. Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit - while at The New Republic - were found to have committed similar journalistic crimes. Glass was said to have fabricated people, places, organizations and whole scenarios in his stories. Shalit was promoted at the New Republic and secured a writing contract at Esquire after admitting to several instances of plagiarism. Glass, recently appeared on CBS's "60 Minutes" plugging his new novel for which he was reportedly paid a six-figure advance. Mike Daly, a Daily News columnist who left the paper after revelations that he fabricated characters in columns out of Northern Ireland, landed safely at New York Magazine, and then returned to writing columns at the Daily News. The last we heard, Janet Cooke was earning $6-an-hour as a sales clerk in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Jayson Blair may suffer a worse fate.

In any case, we know that he will not get the Barnicle treatment. Barnicle finally left the Globe in disgrace - after a former Reader's Digest editor revealed yet another instance of fabricating stories. But many continue to whitewash history. In fact, they've done it so successfully that Barnicle now works at an even larger metropolitan newspaper, the New York Daily News, and can be seen providing news commentary on television. His return to journalism hardly raised an eyebrow. The Washington Post's media writer, Howard Kurtz, in a brief column item, simply announced his hiring and noted that Barnicle had left the Globe due to "sloppy" journalism. Suddenly, two decades of lifting paragraphs from other writers, being convicted of libel and fabricating people and situations, is "sloppy." And there must be an embargo on discussing his lengthy record since none of the Sunday television talking heads seem to recall his case when discussing Blair.

There is only one way to end this endless speculation over race, and that is to play by one set of rules. As journalists, these flagrant journalistic abuses - and a perception of racial double standards - chip away at the credibility of the entire profession. This is not a case of black and white, but of right and wrong. If someone at the Times fouled up in the handling of Blair - which they apparently did - they should own up to their negligence, review whether competitive pressures and personal relationships may have clouded their vision, and fix the problem. They should, in reviewing this case, consider that for decades, some white reporters, due to connections, talent, ambition, or other factors, managed to circumvent the normal route to promotion. Some have done it without college degrees, or the requisite time working at smaller papers. That will always be. They should consider whether a reporter's popularity with his editors and high productivity allow the paper to lower its standards by forgiving a high number of errors. And they should acknowledge whether or not they are treating Blair's case differently due to race. If Blair had not been as productive, as willing to please, and as accessible, would Raines' southern guilt still have allowed him to promote Blair simply due to his race?

Any journalists, white, black or blue, who are found to have deceived the public, and their editors, should suffer the same fate. But when only African American journalists are publicly demonized - their photographs, like mug shots, splashed across television screens and newspapers - some are left to wonder whether the reporter, or racial bias, is on trial.

Pamela Newkirk is associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of "Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media," which was awarded the National Press Club prize for media criticism. She is also editor of "A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters" (Doubleday 2003). She can be reached via e-Mail: [email protected]


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Issue Number 43
May 22, 2003

Other commentaries in this issue:

Cover Story
Permanent War and "The Color Line" - Iraq on the 100th anniversary of the Souls of Black Folk

The Morality Csar's New Clothes

Bush cuts deeper into affirmative action... Call for a New Civil Rights Movement... Poor Clarence Thomas feels rejected

Blair/NYT reader response... The dollar’s inevitable slide... Malcolm’s urgent message

Fault Blair and The Times, Not Affirmative Action by Amos Jones, Guest Commentator

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Commentaries in Issue 42 May 15, 2003:

Cover Story
The Jayson Blair - New York Times Affair: Blaming affirmative action for white folks’ mistakes

Malcolm X
05/19/1925 - 02/21/65

Neighborhood Chemical WMD

How Much Money Does a Great White Virtue Magnate Need? Class, Race, and
Legalized Gambling in the Casino Society
by Paul Street

Sex less a factor in African AIDS... U.S. plots "regime change" in Haiti... Danny Glover targeted as MCI spokesman

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety by going to the Past Issues page.