May 21, 2003
Many words have been spilled over the Jayson Blair affair, including 14,000 of them by the New York Times. But from what I've been reading and hearing from many media pundits, the issue boils down to one word: race.
Blair, a black New York Times reporter, resigned on May 1 after being found to have plagiarized or fabricated material in at least 35 articles and committed "frequent acts of journalistic fraud," according to the Times.
A 27-year-old native of Fairfax County, Va., Blair had shown a flair for journalism since his high-school years. At the University of Maryland, he served as editor of the student newspaper while interning both for the Boston Globe and the Washington Post. "But while Blair was charming the powerful adults, he was alienating virtually everyone he worked with," wrote Newsweek recently in a long cover story on Blair. During his college days, Blair began gaining a reputation for sloppiness and unreliability.
He was hired as an intern by the New York Times in the summer of 1998 and continued to charm the adults in charge. Although he had been cautioned several times about sloppy reporting and taking leaves of absences to help get his personal life in order, Blair was promoted to the national desk by 2002, where he covered some of the nation's most significant stories.
His rapid descent and the issues surrounding it have been grist for talk-show and cable-TV bloviators. They place much of the blame on the New York Times' quest for diversity and the liberal dogma of political correctness. How else, they ask, could an African-American reporter with a history of mistakes and erratic behavior secure such coveted promotions were it not for Times' blind commitment to newsroom diversity?
But black journalists and editors still are relatively rare in the Times' newsroom. And nationwide, African-American journalists make up just 5.3 percent of newsroom professionals, according to the latest newsroom census by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). It is an embarrassing ratio and one that the ASNE has vowed to improve. Still, many commentators have used the Blair affair to condemn even those paltry attempts to bring together newsrooms that reflect American diversity.
The Blair affair, however, is not about race but human nature.
I don't know the man, but I definitely know his type. I think we all do: talented teachers' pets who will exploit every advantage for self-aggrandizement.
Blair's fall was a descent foretold. Race was just the frame in which this universal saga unfolded. The theme is timeless: an obsequious acolyte whose self-centered ambition earns his leaders' favor but clouds his moral vision and invariably leads to ruin.
Blair is more an archetype -- well assayed and explicated in Western literature -- than a stereotype. He suffers an elemental character flaw and casting him as a poster child for the ills of political correctness obscures the more useful and enduring truths of this incident.
Rather than prove the error of affirmative action, the Blair affair proves the continued need for it. The fact that so many pundits rushed to blame this scandal on the Times' efforts to add some much-needed color to its staff reveals that even informed white Americans remain unfamiliar with their fellow black citizens.
Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of In These Times magazine (www.inthesetimes.com), a Chicago-based publication, and a contributing writer to the Chicago Tribune.