By Michael E. Ross Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/19/2004 10:38:58 PM ET 2004-02-20T03:38:58
COMMENTARY

The case of Jayson Blair, the often-invisible man of American journalism, has fueled a new debate over two abiding American preoccupations — news and race, what we know and what we believe.

Interviews with black journalists suggest the complexity of the Blair episode. For some, the Blair affair points to how a newspaper’s hermetic, multilayered bureaucracy can lead to abuse by a talented but unscrupulous young reporter.

Another view suggests it’s a problem properly addressed in the classroom — before journalists even become journalists. But the ferocity with which some in the media have addressed it as a racial issue points to the continuing racial imbalance in American newsrooms — and a continuing frustration among minority journalists.

Blair, as media watchers know, resigned from The Times on May 1 after being found to have plagiarized or fabricated material in at least three dozen articles. The Times published a 7,500-word story Sunday detailing what it called “frequent acts of journalistic fraud” by Blair in reporting national stories from last October through April.

National dialogue
In the article, The Times cited several reasons for not detecting the problems, including a lack of communication among editors and Blair’s ability to cover his tracks. What's followed has been a national dialogue on newsroom authority and the impact of race in journalism.

True, the fallout from the Blair affair shouldn't be a racial issue, as one veteran journalist points out. "It ain't about affirmative action," said E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Daily News and a 13-year veteran of the Times. "Jayson Blair is not a black issue, it's a young-journalist-trying-to-get-ahead-fast issue. It's bigger than Jayson Blair. I don't see this as an African-American issue."

"It's about working the system, and he seems to have known how to do it," Shipp said. "I'm personally offended that it's [seen as] just being black and getting ahead. He got ahead because he could talk about food and Scotch with his editors in Times Square."

Times columnist Bob Herbert thought much the same. "It's easy to make it a racial situation, but it’s not," Herbert said Monday on CNN's "Newsnight" program. "But you get used to that. Race is a big problem in this country and a lot of people like to see things in a racial context."

'A systemic problem'
Agreeing with Herbert is another journalist, a former editor for an East Coast newspaper, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think it's absurd to tie this to race," she said. "Had it been a woman, people wouldn't be saying, 'It was because she's a woman.' There are thousands and thousands of black journalists who've never done anything like this. Hundreds of them have worked at The New York Times and have never done anything like it. It's a systemic problem. You don't get away with those things unless some of your editors are derelict. These are things that do not happen in newsrooms."

But to insist that race isn't a factor in this humbling of an American journalistic icon is disingenuous. Like so many other facets of American life, the Blair affair is being viewed through the prism of color.

Consider the energy with which some of the media's professional opinionators seemed all too ready to go beyond scrutiny of one man's actions. The idea of ethnic balance in the newsroom became a target of opportunity for columnists at the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, who said the Times brought this on itself by placing too much attention on ethnic diversity, but seeming to indulge in chastisement just short of schadenfreude. CNN, in unfortunate TV shorthand, called the episode the Times' "black eye" — as did Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, publisher of The Times, in the Sunday story.

In the furor over Blair, what's escaped naysayers about diversity outreach programs at U.S. media outlets is the fact of their necessity. A wakeup call told American media this 35 years ago, a call the media has addressed in fits and starts ever since.

In 1967 the Kerner Commission report — authorized by President Johnson in the wake of America's urban rioting — noted the complicity of the American media in the nation's "moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."

"The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world," said the report, taking the media to task for "repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflect[ing] the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America."

'Brave new plantation'?
The 2003 Newsroom Census of the American Society of Newspaper Editors found that the overall percentage of minority journalists in newsrooms inched higher incrementally, from 12.07 percent in 2002 to 12.53 percent in 2003.

That figure, the society said, was still well below the percentage of minority residents in the United States —  more than 31 percent. The figure also lagged behind the society's own objective: achieving parity of newsroom percentage and population percentage by 2025.

These minuscule gains have led some journalists to a throw-up-both-hands frustration that years ago led one of my number, in a moment of profound bitterness, to call the American newsroom "the brave new plantation."

Some sense how Blair's actions made them unwitting proxies for Blair, whose deceptions led the nation's pre-eminent newspaper into what The Times itself called "a low point in the 152-year history" of the newspaper.

Claudia Perry, a reporter at the Newark Star-Ledger, said, "What it's going to do is this: For every editor who harbors racist suspicions about all minority employees, this is gasoline on that fire."

Perry, a journalist for more than 20 years, came to the conclusion other minority journalists arrived at almost the moment the news about Blair broke: His transgression wasn't specific to black reporters. "Anyone remember Stephen Glass?" she asked.

Shattered Glass, and others
Glass, a writer for The New Republic, performed his own Blair-like embroideries on the truth when he fabricated all or part of more than two dozen stories for that magazine, even conjuring Web sites and story sources.

Cashiered in 1998, Glass is now in the process of rehabilitation. He's reportedly seeking admission to the state bar in New York. And he's the author of "The Fabulist," a fictionalized memoir of his experiences just out from Simon & Schuster. Sure as night follows day, the six-figure movie deal will not be far behind.

Glass has had company over the years:

Ruth Shalit, another young New Republic writer, admitted plagiarism in stories published in 1995 and 1996.

Earlier this year, New York Times sportswriter Ira Berkow, in a story on celebrated North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith, was found to have borrowed language, without attribution, from a similar story by Bonnie DeSimone at the Chicago Tribune.

In August 1998, Mike Barnicle resigned from The Boston Globe amid allegations of fabricating a column about two children sick with cancer — this after he was caught borrowing jokes by George Carlin and after suspicions surfaced of his lifting work by A.J. Liebling without attribution. But there was a second act in his professional life: Barnicle now works as a commentator for MSNBC, a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.

A drive-by on trust
Deception, it seems, is an equal opportunity employer. "Blair's level of ambition and his ability to cut corners without being called to task by the editors really crosses color lines," Perry said.

What Jayson Blair committed was more than just wrong. It was, in the words of The Washington Post's Terry Neal, "an affront to journalism." But even more, even worse: With story after story, Blair undermined the bedrock that journalism is based on: facts and accuracy. With uncommon bravado and a novelist's flair for invention, Jayson Blair committed a drive-by on the trust between America's journalists and America itself.

What remains is the need for a self-correction that goes beyond The New York Times, one that begins in the nation's journalism schools and colleges.

"He's hurt an entire generation of news consumers," said the East Coast editor who spoke on condition of anonymity. "All of us — we have to start talking to kids about ethics, integrity, how journalism is supposed to work. There are millions of minority journalists who just want to go out and report the truth, what's actually happening."

'Just get the facts right'
"The real danger is not what happens to journalists — it's what happens to people's faith in journalism," she said. "If you can't believe what's in The New York Times, why bother to read a newspaper?"

And that self-correction has to continue through the professional ranks of our craft — so editors and reporters of long standing think better of castigating newsroom diversity programs that shouldn't be necessary, but are.

When I became a reporter, back in the Jurassic period of the 1970's, I recall an editor telling me something that's stuck through the years: "The truth is hard to come by. Just get the facts right."

The truth of the damage Jayson Blair has caused to America's confidence in its journalists will take time to be fully known. But some of that truth will come home in the future — every time a minority job applicant at a newspaper gets that extra-skeptical second glance from the HR supervisor, whenever the inability to reach a reference on a resume is misread as a fabrication, the next time the automatic experts call into question the much-needed efforts to correct the way America's newsrooms get the news — and who they send to get it.

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