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The 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.
Here 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.
Mr. Blair is black.
The 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 San Antonio 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.
I 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.
The 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.
Aware 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.
Incomplete 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.
The 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Let's 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.
Now 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.
The 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.
A 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].
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