SO HERE IT IS: the inevitable and obligatory Jayson Blair column from a newspaper columnist.
Blair is the New York Times reporter who is the latest in what (we journalist types hope) is a short line of gifted fiction writers who, for some odd reason, choose to work as reporters at newspapers or magazines. He resigned May 1. His series of miscues, fanciful inventions and plagiarism has prompted yet another round of angst from those in the business and inspired a call for truth in journalism.
Want some truth in journalism? Here's some: What was my initial reaction when I read about Blair's sins and the woes of folks at the New York Times?
Better them than us.
There. I've said it and I'm glad, because that's the truth. I'd rather have all this scrutiny and criticism aimed at the Times rather than the paper I work for, The Sun. The Times has prestige and a rep that will take this hit. The paper's sales have probably skyrocketed this week. Blair may be anathema to Times editors, but you can bet the folks in circulation want to plant a sloppy one on the guy.
The Sun and papers in places not New York (or Washington) are no journalistic slouches. For my money we're all as good as the Times or the Washington Post. We just don't have the juice or the prestige to take this kind of hit the way the Times and Post can. That's not fair, of course, but life isn't fair, as both opponents and proponents of affirmative action have said.
Affirmative action figures in the Blair matter because the Times reporter is an African-American who dropped out of the University of Maryland's journalism program who was hired by the "all the news that's fit to print" folks. Whether Blair was hired and his record of boo-boos and mishaps ignored because he is black has been brought up umpteen times in news stories this past week.
"[The Blair story] is also being cast as a story about race," Time magazine says in its May 19 edition. "Publications like the Times work hard to find and keep the best black reporters." The magazine went on to quote a Times official as saying that some minority reporters have experience that is "significantly below what we'd normally require because we wanted a lot of minority reporters."
Newsweek weighed in with its May 19 edition.
The question many were asking, according to Newsweek, is "whether Blair was given so many chances - and whether he was hired in the first place - because he was a promising, if unpolished, black reporter on a staff that continues to be, like most newsrooms in the country, mostly white."
U.S. News and World Report, also in the May 19 edition, wonders whether Blair ascended "too far [and] too fast. ... Would this young African-American's meteoric rise to staff reporter be likely for a white reporter with comparable credentials?"
The conservative National Review, never inclined toward political correctness, put it most bluntly of all:
"Blair was reassigned and promoted, often over the doubts and objections of editors, in part to honor the shibboleth of diversity - Blair, who is black, won his first job as an intern in a diversity program."
Journalists who defend affirmative action have groused that such comments are unfair, contending folks can't make Blair the poster boy for the perceived pitfalls of diversity.
But that's not what's being done. People are questioning, quite appropriately, whether Blair's faults were overlooked simply because he's black. If they were, that's just as wrong as not hiring him because he's black.
The one question not being asked is why the Times simply didn't go after a more experienced black reporter from the start. There are far more seasoned African-American journalists here at the Sun, and at other papers, who can write as well as Blair, have more years in the business and don't have a flair for fiction. The Times would have done well to seek out, and hire, one or more of them.
Of course, hiring a more experienced black reporter would have meant the Times would have had to shell out more money. In addition to the entire affirmative action/diversity debate surrounding the short but controversial career of Jayson Blair, we now have to ponder whether the Times hired him not only because he was black, but also because they could lowball him on his salary.
Liberal whites who support affirmative action and diversity had best heed the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s admonition that doing justice to black folks to compensate for past wrongs will not come on the cheap. Let that be the lesson of the day for our friends at the Times.