The Saboteur: How Jayson Blair Destroyed Newsroom Diversity

Jayson Blair made the job tougher for every other Black journalist.

(This is a column I wrote in 2003 in the aftermath of the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at The New York Times.  Blair resigned in disgrace, but  not before he became the symbol of how wrong-minded affirmative action had blinded The Times to his deceptions and fabrications.)

There is a widely held assumption that the news media has a liberal bias, but if one of the tenets of liberalism is respecting and encouraging diversity then those of us who work in journalism can tell you there is no such bias.  If newspapers reflect the communities they serve, what’s staring back from the mirror is a White reflection.

According to a survey conducted by the Boston Globe, the newspaper industry had a net increase of four minority journalists in 2002, and the percentage of minorities in newsrooms increased to 12 percent.  Almost half of the nation’s newspapers employ no minority reporters, photographers or artists.

Whenever a Black journalist gets a hot job in the field or wins a Pulitzer Prize, their personal accomplishment feels like a small win for all the others trying to get on the up escalator.  This is why the now-notorious Jayson Blair betrayed not only his employers, his readers and his profession, but he made life immeasurably more difficult for every other Black journalist.

Blair’s name will become a fixture in future Journalism 101 classes.  He will become the embodiment of how one manipulative and deceitful individual can mislead his editors when determined to do so.  It’s news when any reporter’s misdeeds compels a newspaper to issue a front page explanation of his “crimes of journalistic fraud.”  It’s news of historic proportions when it is a reporter for the New York Times.

Even before to his ignoble fall from grace there were multiple warning signs that while Blair was an accomplished liar and plagiarist, he wasn’t a very good reporter.   The great irony of his deception is that it wasn’t his any of the esteemed editors at the Times who brought an end to his reign of error to an end.  It was a former Times intern, Macarena Hernandez, who had worked with Blair and gone on to work at the San Antonio Express-News and would discover a story of Blair’s was awfully similar to one of her own.

In his book, Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Crippled American Journalism, William McGowan sneered at the thought of bringing more Blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans into newsrooms.  “After 25 years of trying, the newspaper industry needs to give itself a break and say, ‘This isn’t important,” McGowan wrote,  “and focus on having accurate and truthful coverage, which it doesn’t have now.”

Macarena Hernandez: one of the good guys in a story without enough of them.

In his wildest fantasies, McGowan couldn’t have conceived of a Jayson Blair coming alone to prove him right.   Everyone who criticized the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ 26-year-old goal of making newsrooms as racially diverse as the communities they cover suddenly had powerful ammunition.

A chilly blast at diversity came from Slate columnist Mickey Kaus.  “The NYT story’s part line—that the underlying problem appears to have been communications—is a defense euphemism worthy of Nixon.   Everyone at the paper seems to have communicated quite clearly in January 2001.   Rather, the Blair disaster appears to (in large part) to be a fairly direct consequence of the Times’ misguided race preference policy.  Plenty of other factors were involved, but without ‘diversity’ it wouldn’t have happened.”

If Blair were a White liar instead of a Black one, would Kaus be suggesting papers stop hiring White people?  Why is it only people of color whom have to carry the sins of the few on the backs of the many?

“Jayson doesn’t represent me,” Hernandez said.  “I worked my ass off for everything I’ve ever got, and he doesn’t [represent] any of the minority journalists I know who have worked their asses off every day.”

Breaking into the bastion of Whiteness that is the typical American newsroom has never been easy, so it is fair to blame Blair for being in the back of the mind of the interviewer when a brother or sister doesn’t get the job?   Probably not, yet a small voice in the back of their mind may whisper as they dejectedly pick up their rejected resume to leave, “Did they turn me down because they’re afraid I might be another Jayson Blair?”

Bob Herbert, a Times columnist, fired back at those who would hold Blair up as proof of the failure of diversity efforts.  “There’s a real shortage of Black reporters, editors and columnists at the Times.   But the few who are here…don’t deserve to be stigmatized by people who can see them only through the prism of a stereotype.”

“The problem with American newsrooms is too little diversity, not too much,” Herbert said.  “Blacks have always faced discrimination and maddening double standards in the newsroom and they continue to do so.   So do women, Latinos and many other groups that are not part of the traditional newsroom-in-crowd.”

The tragedy of Jayson Blair is not a tragedy simply for Black journalists.  It is a tragedy for journalism as a whole and his skin color is irrelevant to his bad acts.  Blair didn’t commit his fraud because he is Black, but because he is a deeply flawed and troubled young man.  Eventually the system did work and he was caught, but the Times has some serious work to do in overhauling its fact-checking system and needs to do a better job in evaluating talent.

Former Times national correspondent E.R. Shipp was quoted in an Salon article rightfully placing the failure on delinquent editors and and a drug and alcohol addled reporter.

“It’s about getting hoodwinked.  It’s not a race issue,” Shipp said.  “It’s not about race or lowering standards to engage in affirmative action.   That’s bullshit.”

Blair never quite explained and never really apologized.

Shipp is right.  If it’s too much to ask one person to carry the weight of a entire race’s aspirations, it’s equally unfair to smear an entire race due to one person’s crimes.  Blair’s sins are his to bear and his alone.

Who gets the blame for what Jayson Blair did?  Start with Jayson Blair.

Originally published 2003 in a different form in Columbus Alive