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Blair Witch-Hunt Project Heats Up New York Times

Tuesday May 20, 2003

One week ago The New York Times published an astonishing article. It was the story of Jayson Blair, a rogue reporter who repeatedly lied, plagiarized and conned his way onto the front page of the country’s leading newspaper. The paper claimed that a breakdown in communication among its top editors caused them to miss a hailstorm of signals that Blair, a troubled young black reporter with a long trail of bad work, was not the right person to cover some of the year’s most important stories. The Times placed the story of Blair’s “Long Trail of Deception” on the front page above the fold and continued it inside for four full pages. That kind of space is usually reserved for superpower summits or tectonic shifts in national policies. 

The journalism community is buzzing over the bizarre Blair scandal. And race and diversity are at the center of the fingerpointing. As a black journalist who spent several years as a Times reporter, I’ve watched with disbelief as this scandal has unfolded and been used by racist commentators as a broad indictment of blacks in journalism. Supposedly, black journalists are pulling down the high standards white journalists have built up. I don’t know which is more absurd: The idea that America’s newsrooms are under siege from unqualified minority journalists because the media company executives — bamboozled by affirmative action — are determined to elevate black employees; or, the top editors of the Times claiming their management blunder was really just a failure to communicate with each other.  

I spoke with several people at the Times this week to get a sense of the mood and the thinking in their newsroom. It isn’t pretty. The mood was described as “nasty,” “angry,” “vindictive” and so forth. One reporter said, “This is not over. It’s just beginning. Someone’s going to pay for this.”  

The same reporter said many of his colleagues are betting that Gerald Boyd, the second in charge at the Times and the paper’s first black managing editor, would pay the heaviest price. Apparently Boyd is seen as Blair’s sponsor although Howell Raines, the executive editor, admitted giving his stamp of approval. Now that Raines has stumbled, Times reporters have been more open in their criticism of his autocratic management style, but Boyd is seen as the real heavy. 

Who is really responsible for the Times’ mess and how could it have happened? Few readers would have missed the flat-footed way the Times’ editors used the blowout coverage to run from their own disastrous mistakes. It’s clear that Raines, Boyd, and national desk editor Jim Roberts share the responsibility for what Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., called “a huge black eye.” But you would hardly have known it from reading the Times’ account.  

The top guys at the Times still don’t seem to understand that they have failed on two different fronts: first, by not attracting more qualified non-white journalists to diversify the Times’ newsroom and, second, by giving a young reporter with a dreadful track record bigger and bigger stories supposedly as a way of helping black journalists.  

The Times article had the top editors dodging behind talk of not being fully briefed on Blair’s track record or thinking that he had suddenly reformed enough to be put on the Washington sniper case. Sulzberger, whose family has controlled the paper for more than a century, summed up the editorial posture by warning against placing blame on Raines and his deputies. “The person who did this is Jayson Blair,” Sulzberger said in the Times’ own account. “Let’s not begin to demonize our executives…” 

That must have been the mantra when the editors brought the full weight of the most powerful paper in the country down on this 27-year-old cub reporter who, they imply, has a drinking problem. The Times went to great lengths to crush Blair by describing him as a “study in carelessness” whose sloppiness was on display in many aspects of his life, including his clothing and his diet — Scotch and Cheez Doodles accompanied by cigarettes. 

A few days after the article, Raines held an unusual meeting of hundreds of the Times’ editorial staff where he offered a mea culpa for the Blair episode. He said that as a white man from Alabama who believes in diversity in the newsroom, he must admit that when he looks into his heart for the truth he realizes that he gave Blair one chance too many because he was black.  

What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means that Raines still does not get it. He and Boyd seem not to understand that diversity in the workplace does not mean showing black people who are bad at their jobs greater leniency than whites would get. Diversity programs at their best provide greater access to institutions and workplaces that have a history of excluding qualified minorities. And by that measure, the New York Times newsroom definitely needs to be diversified. 

Did Raines have to look into his heart to pull out another chance for this underperforming journalist because there aren’t any high-performing minority reporters out there? Some people would love to believe that that’s true. But it isn’t. Many talented minority journalists have left the Times in frustration over the years and they have gone on to success elsewhere. I met many great journalists (black and white) when I worked for the Times. And I know there are few minority journalists there who think the paper’s management gives them the same high regard or opportunities that it more commonly offers white journalists. 

The simple truth is that The New York Times has never been seriously committed to diversity in its newsroom. The Blair disaster shows that the top people don’t even understand what diversity would look like. 


Richard Hylton, a former New York Times reporter, lives in San Francisco.