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.
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.
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).
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
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.
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,
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."
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.
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.
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?
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.
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]