In the wake of the New York Times's sprawling scandal involving disgraced reporter Jayson Blair, a rising black star in the newsroom who perpetrated journalistic fraud on a massive scale, the Times finds itself struggling with the issue of race and what, if any, role the combustible matter played in the affair. The question lingers even after the paper published an exhaustive and humiliating 7,000-word explanation. As one New York Times writer says, "This really is a story about race." Underlying the comment is the suspicion that a reporter with a well-documented history of inaccuracies and erratic behaviour was able not only to keep his job but also to secure plum promotions because the Times, in the interest of newsroom diversity, was committed to a fault to attracting, and retaining, black journalists.
"You would have to be a fool to read the Sunday piece and think race wasn't a factor," says William McGowan, author of Coloring The News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism, a controversial book critical of the effects of newsroom diversity that has been condemned by the U.S. National Association of Black Journalists.
But diversity's defenders insist the Blair debate has followed a predictably depressing path, where race comes to the forefront of any examination of a minority journalist caught breaking rules. They cite Janet Cooke, who fabricated a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for the Washington Post in 1981 about an eight-year-old heroin addict.
But, they say, when it's a white reporter accused of plagiarizing or fabricating published work, there's never speculation about whether the unethical reporter really should have been hired in the first place. And, they ask, if black reporters have it so easy at the New York Times, how come so few of them boast prestigious beats?
"Any time a black reporter is found guilty of a transgression, we somehow make it racial," complains Pamela Newkirk, author of Within The Veil: Black Journalists, White Media. "If we're not making the race argument when a white reporter gets caught, then why are we making the case only when black reporters get caught? I don't get it."
Times metro editor Jonathan Landman, who tried to warn fellow editors at the paper about Blair's increasingly erratic behaviour, says the truth lies somewhere in the middle. "There are two conventional wisdoms [about the Blair scandal] out there," he says, but "neither one of them is right. It's not a morality play about race and affirmative action, as some would like to suggest, and it's not a story that has nothing to do with race. Race was one factor among many in a subtle interplay."
One of the many ironies in the Blair story is that it's damaging the reputation of a newspaper that has a history of championing civil rights. Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. has been at the forefront of attempts to diversify U.S. newsrooms. As deputy editor in the late 1980s, Sulzberger deemed diversity "the single most important issue" the Times faced, warning managers, "We don't have much time to get our white male house in order."
In the early 90s, Sulzberger in quick order appointed Gerald M. Boyd as assistant managing editor, making him the first black to appear on the Times masthead, while hiring the paper's first black columnist, Bob Herbert, and its first black critic, Margo Jefferson. Despite the push, the Times, like many other major dailies, has made little headway in recent years in assembling a newsroom that reflects the diversity of the nation. It's doubtful if Blair's memorable trail of infamy will help change that.
The speculation about race was first raised by reports that Blair enjoyed mentoring from Boyd, who, according to the Times's own reporting, seemed to come to Blair's aid in the newsroom time and again. It's easy to see why the two might form a bond. Like Blair, Boyd got his break in journalism thanks to an internship program and also benefited from a newsroom mentor who reached out to minorities.
Blair returned the favour in 2001 by nominating Boyd for the National Association of Black Journalists' Journalist Of The Year award. In verbal scrapes with editors, Blair was not above mentioning his friendship with Boyd. The managing editor has since denied he had a close relationship with the young reporter.
"It's a journalistic train wreck, and it is legitimate to ask about race," says McGowan. He says that by failing to deal with the issue in the May 11 story, the paper "added another dimension for the chattering classes out there to debate." Indeed, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote that the answer to the question of why Blair was protected "appears to be precisely what the Times denies: favouritism based on race." Former New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper charged that Blair was hired and kept on in order "to assuage white managers' moralistic enthusiasm and guilt."
Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Times, dismisses charges that Blair was the product of newsroom affirmative action gone awry as "a crock of shit." Dwyer, who is white and who had no direct working relationship with Blair, insists, "You can go crazy trying to explain everything through the prism of race. Jayson had talent. He had drive. Some people found him charming. That ought to carry you somewhere in this world. It carried him further than his skin colour did, in my opinion."
Dwyer notes that the idea of redemption, as attempted for years with Blair, is hardly unique within the newsroom business. "I've worked at six newspapers and seen alcoholic shipwrecks and drug shipwrecks and people who've fallen apart through nervous breakdowns, and they're all brought back and given a second chance. I've seen it happen to people of every race," says Dwyer. He also claims that critics, including Cohen at the Post, are playing fast and loose with the facts when they express astonishment that the Times did nothing after metro editor Landman sent his now famous two-sentence e-mail to his colleagues in the spring of 2002: ""We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
Says Dwyer: "Anybody who says nothing was done is reading over the inconvenient fact that Jayson Blair was shut down [in the spring of 2002] and brought within an inch of being fired and put on a probation that he worked himself out of." (Landman declined to discuss specifics of the Blair case.)
But skeptics like McGowan point out that Blair went from serious probation to being considered for a permanent slot on the Times's prestigious national desk within a matter of months. "I think the relationship he seems to have had with Gerald Boyd was probably something that inhibited editors from coming forward and pushing the issue [of job performance] as strongly as they would have with somebody else."
Black journalists agree that delinquent Times editors fell down on the job, but say that had nothing to do with the colour of Blair's skin. "They haven't dealt with their own culpability, with how they let Jayson Blair get away with this," says former Times national correspondent E.R. Shipp, now a columnist for the New York Daily News. "It's about getting hoodwinked. It's not a race issue."
Others insist a newsroom culture of rewarding productivity explains Blair's pampering. "He was clearly a schemer who was rewarded for being prolific, being able to turn a phrase, having no life outside of the Times newsroom and catering to the whims of his superiors," says Newkirk. "What editor is not going to fall for that, no matter what the person's race?"
According to the Times's account of a company closed-door meeting last week, executive editor Howell Raines told employees, "I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities. Does that mean I personally favoured Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."
The question now is: will the scandal cause the Times, or other newspapers, to scale back its commitment to newsroom diversity? Shipp says no. The Blair affair, she says, is "a black eye for young journalists trying to get ahead too quickly, for journalism professors who don't teach ethics and for editors at the New York Times. It's not about race or lowering standards to engage in affirmative action."