The forbidden truth about Jayson Blair

It's the issue nobody at the New York Times wants to discuss: Were a reporter's flagrant abuses overlooked because he's black?

Published May 15, 2003 9:48PM (EDT)

In 2000 the New York Times published an ambitious 14-part series, titled "How Race Is Lived in America," examining racial attitudes and experiences as told through the lives of ordinary Americans. The project, produced by a team of 34 staffers over 14 months, ran for six weeks and won the Times a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. It seemed to be just the latest in the long line of historical contributions the family-controlled newspaper has made in its effort to improve race relations in America.

"We hoped the series not only showed people how difficult it was to talk about race, but got at why," project co-director Gerald Boyd said at the time. The following year Boyd was appointed the newspaper's first black managing editor.

Today, in the wake of the newspaper's sprawling scandal involving disgraced reporter Jayson Blair, a rising black star in the newsroom who perpetrated journalistic fraud on a massive scale while working under editors who were at best inattentive, the Times finds itself struggling with the issue of race in its own newsroom. Frustrated staffers as well as critics outside the newspaper are asking what role, if any, the combustible matter played in the Blair affair.

The Times, trying to navigate its way through what it calls a "low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper," on Wednesday scheduled a rare company-wide meeting to let employees air their many grievances. The meeting signaled continued tension at the Times, no doubt compounded by reports that federal prosecutors were considering the almost unheard-of step of filing criminal charges against the former reporter. For top executives such as editor Howell Raines, the injection of race into the story is only making things more stressful. As the Times documented in "How Race Is Lived in America," blacks and whites in America often come away with opposite conclusions from the same circumstances -- a dynamic very much at play in the Blair controversy.

The question of race lingers even after the paper published an exhaustive and humiliating 7,000-word explanation in last Sunday's edition. In detailing the damage Blair had done, the Times largely positioned itself as the victim of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by a troubled but enterprising reporter. The race debate was almost inevitable because the Times exegesis, for all its detail, still did not resolve a central question: How did Blair get away with his errors and with fabricating facts, quotes and scenes for so long, while working among what may be the best news staff in the world?

As one New York Times writer tells Salon: "This really is a story about race." Underlying the comment is the suspicion that a reporter with a well-documented history of inaccuracies and erratic behavior was able to not only keep his job but also secure plum promotions, because the Times, in the interest of newsroom diversity, was committed to a fault to attracting, and retaining, black journalists.

"You would have to be a fool to read the Sunday piece and think race wasn't a factor," says William McGowan, the author of "Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism," a controversial book critical of the effects of newsroom diversity.

Diversity's defenders are in the difficult position of trying to prove a negative -- that race was not involved. They insist the Blair debate has followed a predictably depressing path, with race coming to the forefront of any examination surrounding a minority journalist caught breaking the rules. They cite Janet Cooke, who fabricated a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for the Washington Post in 1981 about an 8-year-old heroin addict. But, they say, when it's a white reporter accused of plagiarizing or fabricating published work, there's never speculation about whether the unethical reporter really should have been hired in the first place. And they ask, if black reporters have it so easy at the New York Times, how come so few of them boast prestigious beats?

"Anytime a black reporter is found guilty of a transgression we somehow make it racial," complains Pamela Newkirk, author of "Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media." "If we're not making the race argument when a white reporter gets caught, then why are we making the case only when black reporters get caught? I don't get it."

Times metro editor Jonathan Landman, who tried to warn fellow editors at the paper about Blair's increasingly erratic behavior, says the truth lies somewhere in the middle. "There are two conventional wisdoms out there [about the Blair scandal]," he says, but "neither one of them is right. It's not a morality play about race and affirmative action, as some would like to suggest, and it's not a story that has nothing to do with race. Race was one factor among many in a subtle interplay."

One of the many ironies in the Blair story is that it's damaging the reputation of a newspaper that has a history of championing civil rights. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. has been at the forefront of attempts to diversify America's newsrooms. As deputy editor in the late 1980s, Sulzberger deemed diversity to be "the single most important issue" the Times faced, warning managers, "We don't have much time to get our white male house in order." In the early '90s, Sulzberger in quick order appointed Gerald Boyd as assistant managing editor, making him the first black to appear on the Times masthead, while hiring the paper's first black columnist, Bob Herbert, and its first black critic, Margo Jefferson. Despite the push, the Times, like many other major dailies, has made little headway in recent years in assembling a newsroom that reflects the diversity of the nation.

It's doubtful Blair's memorable trail of infamy will help change that. Between last fall and this spring, the Times team of investigators found, Blair published 73 articles; 36 of them contained "problems." They ranged from factual errors to plagiarism to pure fabrication. In some cases he purported to file stories from cities without actually traveling to them.

The speculation about race was first raised by reports that Blair enjoyed mentoring from Boyd who, according to the Times' own reporting, seemed to come to Blair's aid in the newsroom time and again. It's easy to see why the two might form a bond. Like Blair, Boyd got his break in journalism thanks to a college internship program and also benefited from a newsroom mentor who reached out to minorities. Blair returned the favor in 2001 by nominating Boyd for the National Association of Black Journalists' Journalist of the Year award; in verbal scrapes with editors, Blair was not above mentioning his friendship with Boyd. The managing editor has since denied he had a close relationship with the young reporter.

In an odd way, the Times' own Sunday exposé, with its detailed behind-the-scenes reporting about how Blair was able to survive warning after warning, only added to the suspicion that race was a factor in protecting him. Yet the story itself danced around the topic, with just a couple of perfunctory quotes from top editors denying race's significance.

"It could have been addressed more thoroughly, yes," says Susan Tifft, coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times." That squeamishness, along with the subsequent near silence that's emanated from the newspaper's West 43rd Street headquarters, has led to a simmering controversy about the controversy.

"It's a journalistic train wreck and it certainly is legitimate to ask about race," says McGowan, who accuses the Times of being in "institutional denial about the role of race, and the climate set by its obsession over diversity."

He says that by failing to deal with the issue in the Sunday story, the paper "added another dimension for the chattering classes out there to debate." Indeed, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote that the answer to the question of why Blair was protected, "appears to be precisely what the Times denies: favoritism based on race." Former New York Daily News columnist Jim Sleeper charged that Blair was hired and kept on in order to "to assuage white managers' moralistic enthusiasm and guilt." They're white, but there are African-Americans with a similar point of view. Robert L. Jamieson Jr., a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote Wednesday that the Times, under pressure to improve newsroom diversity "coddled and promoted" Blair when he got into trouble. "The Times, which has so few young, male, African American stars, wasn't about to let this one crash and burn," Jamieson wrote.

Jim Dwyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Times, dismisses charges that Blair was the product of newsroom affirmative action gone awry as "a crock of shit." He insists, "You can go crazy trying to explain everything through the prism of race."

"Jayson had talent. He had drive. Some people found him charming. That ought to carry you somewhere in this world," says Dwyer, who is white and who had no direct working relationship with Blair. "It carried him further than his skin color did, in my opinion."

Dwyer notes the idea of redemption, as attempted for years with Blair, is hardly unique within the newsroom business. "I've worked at six newspapers and seen alcoholic shipwrecks and drug shipwrecks, and people who've fallen apart through nervous breakdowns, and they're all brought back and given a second chance. I've seen it happen to people of every race," says Dwyer.

He also claims critics, including Cohen at the Post, are playing loose with the facts when they express astonishment that the Times did nothing after metro editor Landman sent his now famous two-sentence e-mail to his colleagues in the spring of 2002: ""We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." Says Dwyer: "Anybody who says nothing was done is reading right over the inconvenient fact that Jayson Blair was shut down [in the spring of 2002] and brought within an inch of being fired and put on a probation that he worked himself out of. Then events accelerated [when he was moved to the national desk], and unfortunately he did what he did when given a bigger chance." (Landman declined to discuss specifics of the Blair case with Salon.)

But skeptics such as McGowan point out that Blair went from a serious probation to being considered for a permanent slot on the Times' prestigious national desk within a matter of months. That, they say, suggests something strange was going on at the newspaper. "The pattern is this guy had editors talking about his performance, his erratic behavior, his drinking, yet he still got promoted," says McGowan. "He slipped through every safeguard, and there's got to be a reason why."

McGowan suspects a newsroom atmosphere of lenience toward blacks led to Blair's advancement. "I think the relationship he seems to have had with Gerald Boyd was probably something that inhibited editors from coming forward and pushing the issue [of job performance] as strongly as they would have with somebody else."

He also notes that after Blair came off his probation and was sent to the national desk, Boyd never told Blair's new editor about the reporter's checkered past. That's information national editor Jim Roberts says he wishes he had while dealing with the controversial work Blair did on the D.C. sniper case last year.

Black journalists agree that delinquent Times editors fell down on the job, but say that had nothing to do with the color of Blair's skin. "They haven't dealt with their own culpability, of how they let Jayson Blair get away with this," says former Times national correspondent E.R. Shipp, now a columnist for the New York Daily News. "It's about getting hoodwinked. It's not a race issue."

Others insist a newsroom culture of rewarding productivity explains Blair's pampering at the Times. "He was clearly a schemer who was rewarded for being prolific, being able to turn a phrase, having no life outside of the Times newsroom, and catering to the whims of his superiors," says Newkirk, author of "Within the Veil." "What editor is not going to fall for that, no matter what the person's race?"

Newkirk complained about the double standard that's applied when newsroom fraud stories break involving white journalists, such as Mike Barnicle at the Boston Globe, or Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit at the New Republic. The scale of abuse in those cases may not have been as grand as what Blair did, but that doesn't explain why questions about race or cronyism were never raised then, she says. (Interestingly, in 1998, New York Times executive editor Howell Raines, then overseeing the paper's editorial page, penned a column attacking the Boston Globe for not immediately firing columnist Barnicle over charges he'd lied and committed plagiarism.)

A more recent example came two years ago, when a white graduate student at Northwestern University's journalism school was accused of fabricating facts in perhaps dozens of stories he wrote while interning at the San Jose Mercury News and the Philadelphia Daily News. After internal reviews of his work, both newspapers informed readers they could not confirm that people the reporter quoted actually existed. "During the whole investigation, no one ever said, Was he treated this way or allowed to continue on because of his race," says Bryon Monroe, the Mercury News' former deputy managing editor and currently a vice president for the National Association of Black Journalists.

"Look across the board at very unfortunate instances of plagiarism or fabrications. Most involve journalists not of color," says Monroe. "So for race to be brought up in this situation seems inappropriate and myopic."

Like so many other topics dealing with race, diversity in the newsroom has been an explosive one over the years, in part because of the press coverage it has generated. McGowan's "Coloring the News" book was condemned by the National Association of Black Journalists, which protested when the National Press Club recently gave the book an award. Sparks flew in 1995 when Shalit wrote a controversial 13,000-word missive in the New Republic attacking the Washington Post's push for diversity. The Post claimed Shalit had lifted parts of her work from others, while Post publisher Donald Graham attacked TNR as overly exclusive, even suggesting a new motto for the magazine: "Looking for a qualified black since 1914."

The argument in favor of newsroom diversity suggests not only that it makes up for decades of exclusion -- an industry-wide survey from the 1950s revealed just 38 blacks were working among the nation's 75,000 newsroom employees -- but also that a newsroom more closely resembling the general population can attract a wider readership. And "diversity" does not just not mean "black"; it means more Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, gays, women, disabled people and younger people.

In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors decided 2000 was the year that the percentage of minorities in newsroom jobs should match the percentage in the general population. Back then, just 4 percent of journalists were people of color, while the minority population in the United States stood at 17 percent. By 2001, newsrooms included 12 percent journalists of color, but the national minority figure had jumped to 30 percent, and ASNE announced it had pushed back its goal of diversity parity to the year 2025.

In 2002, the average percentage in the nation's newsrooms inched up to 12.5 percent. With the recent advertising slump taking its toll, some newspapers have cut back on the money they spend recruiting minorities. Still, some top news managers know the more minorities they hire, the bigger their year-end bonus will be. At the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, as much as 15 percent of a publisher's bonus is tied to minority hiring success in the previous year, according to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review. Gannett, the country's largest newspaper company, reportedly includes a paper's coverage of minorities when considering publishers and editors for bonuses. And during the '90s, Time Inc. magazines instituted a bonus policy for its managing editors in which 10 percent is linked to how much success the managing editor of each magazine has had in hiring and promoting minorities. According to a Times spokesman, the company does use minority hiring success when reviewing job performance for managers, but there is no direct financial incentive.

It's no surprise the Times has been a leader in newsroom diversity, in keeping with the Sulzberger family's long liberal tradition. Half a century ago, Sulzberger's father, Arthur Sr., overseeing the family's Chattanooga [Tenn.] Times, supported the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court case on segregation, which won the paper enemies. Sulzberger soon ordered that the daily do away with the segregated obituaries, which were common throughout the South; 3,000 readers promptly canceled their subscriptions.

According to "The Trust," the definitive history of the Times co-written by Tifft and Alex Jones, the senior Sulzberger was also among the first big-city publishers to try to hire blacks in his newsroom. "The Trust" recounts one failed attempt that offers odd parallels to the Blair controversy. In 1945, the Times hired Fisk College graduate George Streator as its first black reporter. Streator, though, had no formal training and had difficulties at the Times. His correction file quickly expanded along with his unsatisfactory performance reviews. Soon editors discovered he was fabricating quotes, and Streator was fired.

Although the Times was championing civil rights in its news and editorial pages, the paper's newsroom did not reflect that inclusive philosophy. In 1961, a confidential memo to Sulzberger Sr. revealed the paper employed just one black copyeditor and only three black reporters.

To a degree, that same schism still exists between the Times' public pronouncements and the reality of its own payroll. A decade after Sulzberger Jr. set diversity as a top priority, the newspaper's track record for employing and retaining blacks is less than spectacular. The paper reported to the ASNE this year that 17.1 percent of its newsroom staff members are racial minorities. And most of the newsroom's top-ranking editors are white men. "The Times does seem like a place that suffers from a lack of diversity in important jobs," concedes Dwyer. "I don't know why that is, because I know they try."

It's the notion of trying hard that's led to the speculation on whether Times managers tried too hard to keep Blair. And whether editors -- before the fraud became apparent -- may have been reluctant to be tagged as the one who chased Blair into the arms of the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post.

In recent days, the Times has tepidly tried to address the issue of race, with Boyd telling industry trade magazine Editor & Publisher that Blair "was not pushed or promoted for diversity reasons." Boyd, who declined to comment to Salon, noted the scholarship program Boyd used to enter the Times has actually promoted more white reporters to staff positions than minorities. That account differs somewhat from the Times' Sunday reporting, which stated Blair was "offered ... a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify the newsroom."

According to the Times' account of the company's closed door meeting on Wednesday, Raines told employees, "I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities. Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

The question now is: Will the scandal cause the Times, or other newspapers, to scale back its commitment to newsroom diversity? "There's a lot here that tarnishes the diversity agenda as it's practiced right now," warns McGowan.

Shipp disagrees. The Blair affair, she says, is "a black eye for young journalists trying to get ahead too quickly, for journalism professors who don't teach ethics, and for editors at the New York Times. It's not about race or lowering standards to engage in affirmative action. That's bullshit."

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Race The New York Times