Wednesday, May 07, 2003
Jayson Blair, media ethics and diversity programs: I've spent some time thinking about the brouhaha regarding former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair's plagiarism. If you're not familiar with the story, head over to MediaMinded -- he's done a fine job of covering the issue.
I must confess that, while the Blair story was on my radar, it didn't really catch my interest at first. A reporter had plagiarized another's work. Troubling, yes, but probably the biggest reason it made national news was that the plagiarist worked for The New York Times -- the paper of record. Until Monday, that's all I thought there was to it.
Thanks to MediaMinded, Romensko and others I learned differently.
As Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz pointed out on his CNN show "Reliable Sources" Blair is (relatively) young, probably about 27 years old, and black.
For someone in journalism, those two facts are sure to raise some eyebrows.
According to reports, Blair was part of a Times internship program for minority journalists -- that was how he got his foot in the door. After his internship ended, he was offered a job and the rest, as they say, is history. From all indications, Blair is a talented writer and reporter. Unfortunately, he has too much drive and ambition and not nearly enough common sense or ethical standards.
I'll probably get some hate mail for saying this, but it's true, Blair would never have even had the Times job if it wasn't for his skin color. For those non-journalists out there, let me explain how a journalism career typically works.
Once you graduate from J-school, you apply for jobs at any and every paper you can find. When I graduated in 1994, the job market was pretty tight. Like Blair, I got a job offer from the paper I had interned at the summer before. Unlike Blair, the paper was the Lompoc Record, a six-day-a-week, 8,000 circulation paper. I was paid $8 an hour (for a job that required a college degree).
A couple of months earlier, I had attended a minority job fair. Now, I'm not a minority, I'm a person of pallor. Unfortunately for the people running this job fair, whoever made up their flyers failed to put the word "minority" anywhere on them. By the time I found out that it was for minorities, they already had my registration and my money -- I figured what the heck.
One of the interesting and attractive aspects of the job fair was the fact that you could request that they set up interviews for you with some of the participating newspapers. I was in need of a job, so I took advantage of that. Now, I attended with a couple of my fellow journalism students from Cal Poly SLO. With the last names of Hooper and Bailey -- each of them had 4 interviews pre-scheduled for them when they arrived. I, Matthew Hoy, had a dozen. Now, I'm not suggesting that I was more popular than most because my name sounded Asian, but...well...OK, I am suggesting that I got more interviews because the scheduler thought I was Asian. Both Hooper and Bailey thought that was the case.
In fact, as I went through the 30 minute interviews (talk about mentally exhausting), on several occasions I could tell that there was some surprise that I wasn't Asian. A couple of interviewers even asked about the origin of the name "Hoy."
Anyway, at your first job you learn the ropes. You work your butt off to get some good clips. After a year or two -- no more than two -- you start hunting for your second job at a bigger paper for more pay. You spend two or three years there, and then you start looking for your third job. At that point, you can pick and choose your opportunities.
Back in the mid-90s, newspapers like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the San Diego Union-Tribune didn't hire people straight out of college. A recruiter for the Union-Tribune at the job fair said they didn't even consider applicants with less than five years experience in the field. That's obviously changed -- and not always for the better. (To my knowledge, the Union-Tribune has not hired anyone straight out of college for anything other than a news assistant position in the 2 1/2 years I've been there. Though we have hired people in various positions with only a year or two of experience.)
Newspapers have an interest in achieving diversity in the newsroom. Our reporters and editors should reflect their communities -- both in the color of their skin and their basic values and beliefs (unfortunately, very often, the latter is ignored). However, sometimes papers, in their efforts to "look like their readership," are willing to fudge on experience -- that's where the New York Times got into trouble with Jayson Blair.
In a job interview several years ago, I was asked whether I would like journalist who was a better reporter or one who was a better writer. I answered "better reporter," because, as an editor, I can rearrange, polish and tighten copy -- if all the information is there. A great writer who doesn't know what questions to ask and therefore has huge holes in his stories is a lot more trouble. It looks to me as though Jayson Blair is a great writer (as is the woman he plagiarized), but he was also apparently a weak reporter -- instead of doing actual reporting, he made the facts up.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that Blair's ethical disaster will tarnish good, talented and honest minority journalists at the Times and other papers. Now, in an ideal world, this sort of scandal would just sully journalism in general -- certainly if Blair were white and middle-aged that would be the case. But because he's a young black man who got the job at the Times largely because he is a young black man it raises a question about the competency of other young minority journalists. Are the minority intern program's chosen few under undue pressure to perform and succeed -- with journalistic ethics on the back burner (or completely off the stove)? That's really the most insidious thing about affirmative action and diversity programs -- that the exceptions that are made in the hiring and promotion of minorities can come back to haunt the program when something goes wrong.
If Jayson Blair had come to the Times after working for ten years at a variety of newspapers then his race wouldn't even been raised by Kurtz -- or anyone else for that matter. He would have been just another cautionary tale of journalism gone wrong. But the fact is that the color of Blair's skin opened doors for him that would have been closed to white journalists.
Hopefully if Blair's story teaches newspapers one thing it will be that skin color, ethnicity or national origin isn't the most important thing when it comes to hiring a reporter -- professionalism is. For major papers like the Times, you're not going to find that in a student straight out of college, no matter how talented they are.