The unexpected side effects of a diversity program

October 05, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Journalism about journalists bores almost everyone, except in Washington, where The New Republic has recently given a lot of important people serious heartburn by publishing a long earnest piece about racial tensions on the news staff of the Washington Post.

Though tedious to read, the dull story has had interesting repercussions. A galvanic response by top Post executives made it clear that the piece had struck a nerve, and drew the attention of some of us who might otherwise have passed it by.

The magazine article itself, by Ruth Shalit, said nothing Post staffers of all races haven't gossiped, argued and even laughed about with each other for years.

It noted that race is an ever-present issue in filling key newsroom jobs at the paper, suggesting that sometimes the quality of writing, reporting and editing may have suffered as a result. And it remarked on the Post's on-going efforts to make its coverage of its majority-black city seem less reflexively ''white,'' suggesting that perhaps over time the paper has been too easy on Marion Barry, the city's disreputable mayor.

Ms. Shalit went on for some 13,000 words, but that was really the heart of her article. No big deal, you might think. Yet since its publication she's been excoriated, personally and professionally, by Post writers from editor Len Downie and publisher Don Graham right down the line. Most thought she had produced, in Mr. Downie's words, a ''polemic against diversity'' -- and we can't allow that, apparently.

I didn't think a polemic was her intent. I thought she wanted to show that the Post's decades-long effort to build a truly diverse staff has had some unexpected and not always positive side effects, and that lately the paper hasn't always been candid in talking publicly about such setbacks.

As the Post is an important institution, and affirmative action is a policy now under review by our society at many different levels, it seemed to me that Ms. Shalit had perfectly reasonable grounds for doing the article. The news executives must have thought so too, because many of them talked to her and her tape recorder on the record.

The Post's affirmative-action efforts are of special interest to me, because I worked there for eight years when those efforts were getting under way. As time passed I watched them make the newsroom change, sometimes uncomfortably, much as other institutions would soon change too. I didn't question those efforts then, and on the whole I don't now.

In 1965, when I was first hired, there weren't many black employees in the Post newsroom, but the ones who were there sure weren't tokens. Like the first black big-league ballplayers not too many years earlier, they had to be better than everyone else -- and they were.

Bill Raspberry had just started writing his column, four times a week on the local page. Bob Maynard, a brilliant man with an edge and an attitude, was doing wonderful work on the national staff. Chet Hampton, on the copy desk, was the complete professional. Matt Lewis was a great photographer. Jesse Lewis, with whom I covered the riots in Baltimore in 1968, was about to be assigned to the Middle East.

The price of getting there

Soon there were many new minority hires. One, Don Graham's erudite Harvard friend Herb Denton, was obviously a keeper. So was a big tough-looking kid named Leon Dash. But many weren't. A few, including some I interviewed during a brief sojourn as an editor, were truly, ludicrously, awful.

But just as the goal of a genuinely integrated staff was almost universally accepted in the newsroom in those days, so was the belief that such failures were part of the price of getting there. I still believe that, although I guess others, maybe including Ruth Shalit, no longer do.

A lot has happened since those more optimistic times. Have some blacks at the Post -- and countless other institutions -- received special treatment because of their race? Well, of course they have. Lots of times, in ways large and small. Sometimes it has worked out well, sometimes not, but to deny it is silly and embarrassing.

As Ben Bradlee makes clear in his new autobiography, ''A Good Life,'' if young Janet Cooke had been white her totally phony story about an 8-year-old drug addict would have been much more carefully checked before publication. But it wasn't, which ruined her career and forced the Post, in humiliation, to give back her Pulitzer Prize.

Yet in a perverse way, the Janet Cooke debacle was a triumph for the Post. It made the paper look at itself in the mirror, and made it become, not more timid as some of its critics say, but more thorough. It made it better.

Don Graham, Len Downie and the others who've set policy and built the staff at the Post in the years since Janet Cooke have been incredibly successful. If they've made little mistakes, they can afford to admit them. But it's odd and a little disconcerting to see them so frantic about The New Republic's 13,000 words of well intentioned gossip.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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