Fall 2003

Racial Reverberations in Newsrooms After Jayson Blair

‘The coverage of the scandal showed once again that African Americans are still not allowed to be seen as individuals when they fail.’

By Neil Henry

The e-mail messages came from journalists around America, more than a few containing the line “you don’t know me, but ….” All were commenting about racial reverberations in their newsrooms stemming from the scandal of Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old black reporter who resigned in disgrace from The New York Times in May after admitting to systematic plagiarism and fabrication during his three-year career.

An African-American copyeditor at a Midwestern daily wrote that she was humiliated to hear three white male colleagues openly criticize affirmative action policies for lowering “journalistic standards” across the country, policies under which the editor herself had been hired only a year earlier.

A second message came from a nationally recognized black reporter, who confided that the Blair scandal had reignited in her a long suppressed rage and bitterness stemming from her early reporting career in the 1980’s, when white editors—spurred by a similar scandal involving a disgraced black reporter, Janet Cooke, at The Washington Post—baldly questioned her veracity after she turned in a terrific piece of investigative work. The reporter was unsettled, she wrote, by how deeply the racial pain still cut more than 20 years later.

But among the most heartfelt messages came from a young African-American reporter in the early months of his career at a top newspaper on the East Coast. The reporter had graduated five years earlier from a leading school of journalism and excelled in two previous jobs at smaller newspapers before being hired by the big Eastern daily.

“Nothing in this business has angered me like this situation,” he wrote. “From Blair’s misdeeds, to the reaction of some of our editors, to these assaults on diversity—I’m just perpetually [furious] about my business and my newspaper, the one I learned to love while [in] school. I feel like we are in for some stormy months, if not years. Though I have not sensed any extra eyes on my work or had anyone question me, I am mentally preparing for it.”

Understanding the Racial Fallout

It’s big news when a journalist admits lying to the public. It’s even bigger news when that journalist works for a newspaper as trusted and influential as The New York Times. But because Blair was young and black, and the product of a training program aimed at increasing the racial diversity of the news staff, the scandal and its national news coverage became freighted with an added dimension of race, provoking pain and fury that was especially keen to blacks and other minorities in the industry.

Did the scandal represent—as some conservative white critics charged— the dangers and failures of such diversity programs, which many news organizations have adopted in the decades since 1968 when the Kerner Commission urged the press to hire more minorities and women to better serve the public interest? Were Blair’s misdeeds overlooked for too long precisely because of his race, as the same critics maintained? What ramifications would the scandal present for race relations in America’s newsrooms?

Such questions spurred me, a journalism educator, to write an essay amid the heat of the Blair scandal to my black former Berkeley students now working in the news media across the country. Even though these former students had nothing to do with the disgrace, I knew they would feel hurt and outraged by the critics and likely bewildered by a strange press focus on Blair’s race that made it seem as if the young man’s color had more to do with the reasons behind the scandal than his distinct problems of character.

I had several aims for the essay, which was also published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: to prepare young people emotionally for racial fallout in the workplace that might include increased scrutiny by white superiors because of their skin color; to remind them of the historical imperative for diversity programs in a field in which blacks were effectively excluded as recently as 35 years ago, and to reassure them at a time of anger, pain and emotional insecurity that they indeed had earned their right to practice their talent and skill with the best in the country.

I felt somewhat qualified to issue such advice because I, too, was a beneficiary of diversity efforts in their early days at The Washington Post in the 1970’s. As a young man, I had welcomed the special chance to prove my mettle, not least because I considered such affirmative action a long overdue bridge to opportunity in mainstream journalism that had been denied black people for centuries. I also had been present at the Post as a staff writer during the Janet Cooke scandal in 1981 (when the 26-year-old black reporter was fired after admitting she had fabricated a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature about an eight-year-old heroin addict) and was startled and hurt by the reaction of a few of my white editors and reporter peers. They had seemed emboldened in the scandal’s aftermath to question not only the ability and trustworthiness of African-American reporters but also even our right to work there.

Still, all that was more than 20 years ago, and as I typed out the essay to my former students a part of me assumed that the climate in America’s newsrooms had improved in the years since with greater diversity and integration.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the volume of response I received from more than two dozen journalists and citizens of all color after the essay was published, many containing anecdotes written with raw emotion and reflecting the exact sort of apprehensions, fallout and racial typecasting I had feared. “Right after the [Blair] situation blew up,” wrote a minority New York Times reporter whose identity, like the other letter writers, I am protecting, “I found myself having to defend to many of my white colleagues the right of the Times to hire reporters of color, as well as young reporters, and pointing out that such reporters were expected to perform to the same standards set for everyone.”

Another minority reporter at the Times wrote that he, too, was startled and outraged by having to defend the diversity training program under which he was hired, while a third confided that the Blair episode had sparked awkward tensions even among some minority reporters. The rift seemed to be between those who argued that all minority reporters had a responsibility to lash back at the criticism of diversity, publicly and often, and those who felt it was more prudent to focus on work and to let the scandal blow over.

The reactions seemed similar across the country. “I am surging with rage about every single story that talks about race as being such a player [in the scandal] and why diversity programs are at fault,” wrote a journalist in northern California. “It sickens me.” Added another writer from Tennessee, “The tragedy of this obviously talented, charming yet highly disturbed and self-destructive young man is being used by people in the industry who do not wish black journalists well to undermine [our] hard-won progress. This is an abomination. They’ve spun this and made it all about race, in the words of Frederick Douglass, ‘to put thorns under feet already bleeding. …’”

Diversity in Newsrooms

The New York Times, like many U.S. newspapers, has actively pursued a diversity hiring program aimed at improving the paper’s credibility in local communities and its coverage of the world by making its newsroom more reflective of the American population. According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), minority journalists today make up about 12.5 percent of the workforce in the nation’s newsrooms—a marked increase from four percent in 1978. But the rate of increase has slowed drastically during the past decade, and some fear that the Blair scandal may hurt this limited progress even more.

ASNE has stood by its stated goal of making the nation’s newsrooms more truly representative of American society. The industry’s leading professional organization has urged 38 percent minority staffing of newspapers by the year 2025. From today’s vantage, though, such goals seem as distant as ever. While blacks represent about 12 percent of the American population, for example, barely more than five percent of newspaper staffers are black. African Americans in upper newsroom management remain miniscule in number and tragically lost a key player in New York Times’s managing editor Gerald Boyd, who resigned in May along with executive editor Howell Raines after the Blair controversy.

If the scandal, its news coverage, and the racial reverberations in newsrooms were any guide, the progress made in the years since Kerner appeared very delicate indeed.

“I live and work in southwest Georgia, in the heart of the Black Belt,” wrote a white educator. “Our population is 60 percent black and 40 percent white. We would never have a Jayson Blair incident at our regional newspaper, because it consistently has no black journalists. Period. The few who are hired refuse to stay because of the backward culture of the news organization. It’s a shame.”

Pamela Newkirk, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at New York University, who authored “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media,” a 2000 book examining the experiences of black pioneers in the mainstream press, believes the Blair scandal says more about the greater need for diversity programs in the culture of American journalism than it does about any inherent flaws in such programs as they exist.

Newkirk said she was “appalled” by editorial commentaries and news coverage of the scandal, especially “by the suggestion that somehow Blair’s disgrace should reflect on all African-American, Asian-American, Latin American, and Native American reporters, or have an effect on diversity efforts.” She said she received numerous calls from reporters seeking comment from her in the days after the Blair scandal broke, and nearly all of the questions focused on the merits of diversity efforts. “I’m still shocked by that story line,” she said.

But more significant to Newkirk was this: “The coverage of the scandal showed once again that African Americans are still not allowed to be seen as individuals when they fail,” she said. “When they succeed, yes. When they win Pulitzers and earn Nieman awards, they are individuals, exceptions in our society. But when they fail, it’s failure all around, failure for the race.”

Such attitudes are particularly sad and shocking, Newkirk added, for young journalists, “who perhaps thought we had gone a lot farther in our industry and society.”

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court, supported by briefs from numerous companies in private industry, including the news media, issued a significant ruling upholding the right of universities to factor race into admissions decisions with the aim of improving diversity and career chances for minorities. But with the decision the court also cautioned that such affirmative action programs will likely not be needed after 25 years or so. The justices believe that by then the nation effectively will have become “color blind” due to progress in bettering race relations and leveling access to schooling and jobs.

Whether that bright change will indeed come within the court’s 25-year time frame, in colleges or in newsrooms for that matter, remains to be seen. But the timing of the decision certainly seemed ironic in light of the controversy and attacks on diversity sparked by the Blair scandal. What appears certain for now is that such progress within the American press, at least, remains incipient and fragile, at best, with success ultimately dependent on the work of today’s pioneers, who often have to be as strong of conviction inside the newsroom as they are fearless in their pursuit of the news outside of it.

“When something like this happens, it can shake your confidence,” wrote the young African-American reporter quoted earlier about the Blair disgrace, who is working for an eastern daily on an exciting beat he dreamed of covering all his life. “I think it did mine for a few days. But no longer. I have been at this paper and in this business long enough to know that there are prima donnas and grinders and workers and liars and bitchers and moaners of every stripe.

“Me?” he went on. “I’ll put my name and talent up against anyone in the building.”

Neil Henry, a former staff writer for The Washington Post and Newsweek, is a journalism professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of “Pearl’s Secret: A Black Man’s Search for His White Family.”


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