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Sign of the Times

“So Jayson Blair could live, the journalist had to die.” Thus spake the New York Times’s ex-prodigy, laid low for a record of prevarication lesser liars could barely match in a lifetime, much less a few short years.The apogee of the Blair disaster, however, wasn’t the writer’s poetic fare-thee-well. Rather, it was the resignation of Times executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd on June 5, five weeks to the day after Blair’s deportation from journalism’s Mecca.The Times said little of their departure, although publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. acknowledged the pair thought it “best for the Times that they step down.” Best indeed, given what transpired.The postmortem on Blair opens a cadaver of smelly facts about modern journalism. Chief among them, papers such as the Times focus on a priority far from what most readers might think. That priority is diversity, or bringing more “journalists of color” into the newsroom, as opposed to what it should be: getting the story straight.

Published weeks before the two editors jumped ship, a titanic confession in the Times explained how a cub reporter conned the smartest editors in the business. Blair, who began his comedy of errors at the Boston Globe, amassed more than four-dozen corrections and plagiarized copiously. More than that, he simply concocted stories. A plagiarized writer at another paper finally blew the whistle. Blair’s undoing was fiction about the war in Iraq, but he also spun yarns about the D.C. sniper shootings. This curt, pre-sniper warning, from a Times editor in April 2002, appeared in the paper’s windy apology: “We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now.” Having reported that, the same corrective story quotes a Times spokesman: “When considered over all, Mr. Blair’s correction rate at the Times was within acceptable limits.” Some Times editors, apparently, are pro-choice on truth and accuracy, but at any rate the Times’s problems are such that they appointed a 20-man committee to untangle Blair’s web.If the committee wants to do a thorough job, it should look beyond Raines, Boyd, and Blair to William McGowan’s Coloring the News, How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism.

For the committee’s benefit, a few facts:

Gannett, which owns USA Today, used to “comb” stories for the number of minorities represented, using computers that “coded sources by race and gender.” The company backed off in 1997, but the hare-brained policy called “mainstreaming” continued. Today, editors still order writers, even on simple stories unrelated to race, to quote a person of color.

In 1996, the Boston Globe abandoned a minority internship program after a white college senior filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The paper told him he could not apply.

Most importantly for the Times, at journalism’s “Diversity Summit” in 1992, Sulzberger said diversity is “the single most important issue facing the paper,” a prophecy of where the Times’s priorities would lie while Blair was defrauding the paper.

Diversity shenanigans at the Times include not identifying the race of murderous criminals at large. Like other big dailies, it follows the Hollywood script on stories about criminals of color and white, “racist” police. The Times also avoided documenting the result of lowering standards at New York’s police department to boost minority ranks. The result was incompetence and violent criminality among some of the rookies. The Times, McGowan reports, “did not bring up the diversity subtext either in its initial reporting or subsequently.”

And the Times is just one influential paper obsessed with diversity. The Washington Post, New Republic writer Ruth Shalit wrote in 1995, was ever embroiled in racial contretemps that warped the news. Although the Post cited 40 alleged errors in Shalit’s piece, it contained enough quotes from internal documents and journalists to prove Shalit’s point: “diversity” was wrecking the paper.“Resistance to affirmative action,” she reported, quoting an internal Post report on diversity, “is to be dispelled through re-education” and “diversity training.” White reporters were told they could not apply for certain jobs, she wrote, and “many Post staffers allege … the paper has been forced to hire … reporters who lack the skills to do daily newspaper work competently.” One writer told Shalit, “[I]t’s definitely a huge advantage in this business to be a minority. If you’re black, they recruit you, they plead with you, they offer you extra money.”Unsurprisingly, reporters fear honest discussion of affirmative action, even for stories. “It is taboo … in the newsroom,” a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle told McGowan, “[to] ask questions about racial preferences.”

In journalism, diversity is a religion, and even McGowan’s detailed treatment is an incomplete exegesis. A steady stream of propaganda, including flyers and videotapes, lands on editors’ desks. Minority job fairs and internships are urgent business. Editors get surveys to determine the race and sex composition of newsrooms. If an editor doesn’t answer, he gets another.

Web sites prominently display diversity links to “re-educate” editors and teach them to play the race card. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, for instance, links to its newsroom census: “We count the number of journalists, their gender and race.” It also features the “Time-Out For Accuracy and Diversity” project to “help newsrooms think about diversity.”

Looking for a diversity conference? The journalismjobs.com site has links to a rainbow coalition: the national journalism associations for Blacks, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, South Asians, Native Americans, and Gays and Lesbians. Needless to say, the National Association of Straight, White, Christian Male Journalists, awaits charter members.

For the last seven years, this writer has attended professional conferences, in particular those of the Virginia Press Association. VPA is an outstanding state press organization that never shrinks from frankly discussing the weaknesses of newspapers and why the public distrusts them. At this year’s conference, a veteran journalist suggested papers need more political diversity, i.e., more conservatives in the newsroom. If newspapers must push diversity, the speaker said, they must push it across the board, and that means hiring a few right-wingers who bring a different set of assumptions to a news story. Still, VPA holds diversity education workshops at conventions and professional education seminars. It sponsors minority job fairs and pushes minority internships. Point is, from national to local levels, journalism organizations keep editors abreast of their diversity duties. All this sanctimony is meant to recruit minorities. Problem is, the wagging fingers don’t dirty their nails in small-town journalism. Most editors and reporters toil in the vineyards of school-board meetings and city councils. They are not drinking the wine of the Moscow bureau or Senate Finance Committee or even the lesser dregs of the big-city Metro desk. Most papers aren’t the New York Times or Washington Post.

Why is that important to the diversity debate? Editors at small newspapers have neither the resources nor the time to wait for minority applicants. For one thing, few apply. The big papers scoop them up, as the Times scooped up Blair. For another, the demagogues of diversity don’t know, or don’t remember, what an open slot at a paper with just eight or 10 reporters means. If the New York Times leaves a slot open for months to find a racially correct candidate, it simply means one vacancy amid hundreds of slots. At the small paper, a vacancy can amount to 10 to 12.5 percent of the staff. If a writer hammers out six or seven stories a week, a position empty for just a month means news content drops between 25-30 stories. That is a significant blow to the paper’s all-important local coverage, as well an increased strain on editors trying to fill space when the paper has fewer advertisements and more open pages.

High turnover plagues the low end of the business; anxious editors must sometimes cull dozens of résumés to find a candidate who is not only qualified but also can move quickly; if possible, before the person he is replacing leaves, to allow for overlap and training.This truth, of course, does not address simple fairness. In the old days, jobs were supposed to be open to all; the most qualified candidate who showed up first got one. Diversity ideology says some jobs must be reserved for those with a politically pleasing complexion. This is unfair and unjust, and as the Boston Globe learned, perhaps against the law. Indeed, they used to call it racial discrimination. Journalism officialdom does not agree.This racial agenda is the background against which the Jayson Blair drama played out. Yet some writers were in denial. “Why is it that when white reporters commit similar acts … no one in the establishment media launches breathy social commentaries about … white privilege and entitlement in the newsroom?” Washington Post columnist Terry Neal asked.Neal cites the disgraced Stephen Glass, who passed fiction off as fact in the New Republic, and Ruth Shalit, the author of the aforementioned indictment of the Post, who was accused of plagiarism herself. Then there’s Mike Barnicle, the disgraced columnist for the Boston Globe. “It seems only the transgressions of black journalists,” he wrote, “evoke the race card.” Maybe that’s because no one suggests these three were promoted, hired, or favored because they were white. Right or wrong, observers make precisely that charge about Blair, i.e., that the Times hired and promoted him because he was black. Everyone suspects it.

Listen to Raines: “Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts he appeared to be a promising young minority reporter,” Raines said, meeting with staff members after the Blair affair exploded in his face. “I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities. Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the sniper team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes.”Many of those in denial, including Neal, wrote before that meeting. They jumped to diversity’s defense, not knowing Raines would fess up. But he didn’t come clean completely. “One chance too many?” Not so. By all accounts, Blair was a clown. He proved that at the Boston Globe before the Times hired him. It shouldn’t have, and Raines and Boyd should have fired Blair long ago. Sulzberger should have fired Raines and Boyd. Then again, diversity, not truth-telling, was “the most important issue facing the paper.”

Perhaps diversity must die so journalism can live.

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R. Cort Kirkwood is a syndicated columnist and managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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