Jun 1 2003

The Blair Witch Trial

The story of Jayson Blair–a New York Times staff writer who was caught making up quotes, plagiarizing and pretending to report from places he never visited–has become the media scandal of the year, resulting in the resignation of two top Times editors. Blair is black, a fact that several white pundits have implied or asserted is the explanation for his ability to commit these journalistic misdeeds: As Mickey Kaus put it in Slate (5/11/03), the story of Blair is about how “an underperforming and unready reporter was promoted…over the objections of one of the editors who knew him best, because of his skin color.”

Newsweek‘s Seth Mnookin (5/19/03) also presented the story as an indictment of affirmative action: “Internally, reporters had wondered for years whether Blair was given so many chances–and whether he was hired in the first place–because he was a promising, if unpolished, black reporter on a staff that continues to be, like most newsrooms in the country, mostly white.”

Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz used similar language on his CNN show Reliable Sources (5/4/03). “Look, this was a promising young black reporter,” he said. “I wonder if a middle-aged hack would have gotten away with 50 mistakes and still be at that job.” Kurtz brings on more employees of the National Review than people of color on his show, according to a year-long study of his guestlist (Extra!, 3-4/03), but he’s still willing to suggest that being black gives you an advantage in U.S. media.

In fact, as a few commentators have noted (e.g., Calpundit, 5/10/03; WashingtonPost.com, 5/13/03), there have been several “white Jayson Blairs” discovered in journalism–none of whom provoked much discussion of whether the color of their skins helped them get away with reportorial wrong-doing. When Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle, for example, was caught both stealing and fabricating, he was fired–eventually–by the Globe, but was picked up by the New York Daily News and is now a regular on MSNBC; he’s probably a bigger media star since his “disgrace” than he was before.

Writers Ruth Shalit and Stephen Glass got away with plagiarism and fabrication, respectively, for years at The New Republic without anyone suggesting that their ethnic background had anything to do with the protective treatment they got from editors. (When this writer wrote in December 1996 to the magazine’s then-editor, Michael Kelly, to suggest that Glass’s reporting might be deliberately distorted, I received a reply calling my warning “dishonest, wrong-headed and clearly motivated by devotion to ideology rather than by any concern for truth or accuracy in reporting.”)

Ironically, Shalit wrote a notorious piece for the New Republic (10/2/95) about how cushy blacks had it in the Washington Post newsroom. It’s doubtful that any black Post reporter could have withstood four separate public accusations of stealing other writer’s words before being let go–but Shalit could.

Much of the focus on Blair’s race is premised on the assumption that such things don’t usually happen at the New York Times–the paper that supposedly provides the gold standard for U.S. journalism. But these sorts of incidents are not unheard of at the Times; in 1991, Boston bureau chief Fox Butterfield was busted borrowing five paragraphs from a Boston Globe article on, of all things, plagiarism. Butterfield was given a week-long suspension and kept his management position.

More recently, in February 2002, freelancer Michael Finkel was caught basing a story for the New York Times magazine around a character who didn’t actually exist; after the fictionalization was discovered, Finkel’s contract with the Times was severed, but he continues to work in journalism.

The most significant examples of New York Times malfeasance, however, involve not plagiarism or outright fabrication, but simply deceptive reporting that–the Times‘ role in our culture being what it is–sometimes has lasting consequences for national politics.

Take Jeff Gerth, a European-American whose March 8, 1992 front-page story launched the Whitewater scandal–a story that distorted facts and ignored evidence in order to create an appearance of wrongdoing (Extra!, 11-12/96). Gerth was also largely responsible for creating the Wen Ho Lee story, where the Times for months smeared an apparently innocent man as a spy for China, largely based on his ethnicity (Extra! Update, 12/00).

Helping to fabricate two major national scandals hasn’t hurt Jeff Gerth’s career; he’s still considered one of the Times‘ top investigative reporters. A racial preference? Perhaps. But not one corporate media is particularly interested in discussing.