Blair Glitch Project 

Race at The Times

Race at The Times

The matter of Jayson Blair at The New York Times is a compelling reminder that race in America is one of those things (like democracy and exercise) that we talk much better than we walk.

Blair is the now-former reporter who parlayed youthful ambition, ethical infirmity and an unknowable stew of psychodynamic frailties into a position as the newspaper’s fabricator and plagiarist in residence. Following Blair’s departure earlier this month, The Times self-flagellated with several thousand words of narrative and rectification aimed at explaining what happened and setting the record straight. Observers in the journalism world have generally given the paper solid marks for coming clean in a broad and public way.

But it turned out to be a story as much about race as journalism: Blair is black, and the Times is committed to affirmative action. Questions inevitably arose about how the pursuit of newsroom diversity might have factored into the Blair saga, and on this the comments of Times brass fell somewhere between slippery and inept.

In the paper’s 14,000-word dissection of the whole thing two Sundays ago, the word “race” appeared once and the phrase “affirmative action” not at all. It quoted the paper’s managing editor Gerald Boyd: “To say now that his promotion was about diversity in my view doesn’t begin to capture what was going on. He was a young, promising reporter who had done a job that warranted promotion.” This was distinctly unpersuasive. Elsewhere in the same printed account, Blair’s initial hiring is said to have occurred through an internship program “used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom.” The piece also documented many warning signs that surfaced about the quality and accuracy of Blair’s journalism.

A few days later, the Times took another stab. In a newsroom meeting oddly described as “closed to news coverage” but subsequently reported by one of the paper’s own writers, executive editor Howell Raines said “I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities.... You have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many.... When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes.”

Some conservatives read this mildly cloying apologia as an urgent indictment of affirmative action writ large (and an auspiciously timed one at that, given an impending ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on the closely watched University of Michigan case). It’s what you get, the argument goes, when racial preferences trump merit or performance—an underqualified black guy is coddled and promoted all the way to self-destruction. Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker charged the Times with being “more committed to diversity than to truth.” The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley pitched race-conscious affirmative action not only as the proximate cause of Blair’s situation, but as a broadly destructive force that tends to “strip blacks of their individuality, their pride, their humanity.”

The counterargument is that Blair betrayed his integrity, his employer and his profession, but not the whole fabric of racial justice. As Washington Post writer Terry Neal put it, “Journalists of all stripes and hues—black and white, men and women—have been accused of fake reporting, but it seems only the transgressions of black journalists evoke the race card.” Condace Pressley, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists went further: “I don’t think diversity had anything to do with why Jayson Blair was there for so long.... Bad management has everything to do with it.”

The truth, as cliché would have it, lies somewhere in between. Claims that the politics of diversity are a red herring in the Times fiasco are just as flimsy as assertions that Blair’s downfall somehow crumbles the logical foundation of affirmative action. His story neither reinforces nor undermines the significance of integrating the nation’s newsrooms, boardrooms, universities or other essential social enterprises. For all but the most self-absorbed adherents to a fantasy of America as a colorblind meritocracy, race seems unlikely to fade into our collective demographic background unless there is diverse access to educational and social capital that enables participation in society’s key institutions.

Until that day comes, a newsroom cannot expect to genuinely cover a country that is almost one-third non-white with an all-white stable of journalists. There’s much more to building a plural workplace than just making a few minority hires; it means looking for ways to act affirmatively to chip away at subtle barriers that perniciously separate entry from achievement. Perhaps this is what Blair’s editors thought they were doing when they gave him more slack than his erratic performance seemed (in retrospect) to justify. Unfortunately, they lost sight of the distinction between loyalty to your people and allegiance to your core principles. Both are crucial and ordinarily compatible. But when the two collide, as they did here, principles should win the argument every time, and race truly does become a red herring.

In the final analysis, it’s clear that Jayson Blair is a troubled soul and the architect of his own collapse. But his story reminds us that if touting diversity is easy and reasonable, actually doing affirmative action “on the ground” is very hard work—worth the effort yet fraught with risks and unintended consequences.

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