The New York Times refused to review William McGowan’s blockbuster book, Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism (Encounter Books, 2001). New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath said it would not be appropriate for the Times to review a book that was so critical of the Times. But such a review might have alerted Times chairman Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., and his editors, who vigorously promote "diversity" in the news business, to a well-documented exposé of the corruption that quite possibly led to the Jayson Blair scandal. Blair, a reporter who came to the Times on a minority fellowship, recently resigned after being caught copying material from a story by Macarena Hernandez of the San Antonio Express-News. Ironically, they had both been interns at the Times in 1998.
Prompted by a complaint from Express-News editor Robert Rivard, the scandal became public and led to revelations that 50 corrections had been run on Blair’s stories dating back to when he joined the Times in 1999, and that he had been warned by his editors to be more accurate. Some of the corrections were substantial, involving major national stories such as the Beltway sniper shootings case. Times executive editor Howell Raines has now assigned a team of editors and reporters to examine Blair’s past writings.
Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz has already uncovered several more questionable Blair stories that include fabricated or stolen material. He said it appears the story that prompted the resignation was just part of a "pattern" in which Blair "repeatedly fabricated material for Times stories."
"Blair not only plagiarized, but plagiarized a former colleague," McGowan said. "That shows profound contempt for his readers, his editors, the person he plagiarized from, the whole notion of journalistic trust, and contempt for the effort the Times was making to bring talented minorities into their organization. It’s a big slap in the face to Arthur Sulzberger, Jr." In 1991 Sulzberger had spoken to the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), declaring diversity was "our cause."
On CNN, Kurtz asked why Blair, "a promising young black reporter," had been able to get away with 50 mistakes "and still be at that job." The investigation could lead to Gerald Boyd, the Times managing editor who is also black. Curiously, Blair had nominated Boyd as "Journalist of the Year" in a competition sponsored by the NABJ. It seems unusual for a young reporter like Blair to have made such a nomination. Perhaps Boyd was his mentor. Whatever his role, Times editors have a lot to explain.
The Times is a "bronze level" donor to the upcoming 2003 NABJ convention, contributing a minimum of $10,000 and sponsoring a workshop on how minority journalists can "break into the big leagues" at major papers such as the Times. Blair certainly did this, even getting a job as a national reporter at the paper without having graduated from college. The questions to be discussed at the convention by the panel of reporters from the Times and the Boston Globe (a Times property) include, "What does it take to work for a big city newspaper?" and "…how can I soar and not sink?"
As an indication of how fast Blair is sinking, Michael Paranzino noted on National Review Online that the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism has already removed Blair’s name from the roster of famous alumni on its web site.
The concept of "diversity" is popular in the media and academia. Boyd had accepted the "Helen Thomas Spirit of Diversity" award at Wayne State University, where Thomas, a graduate of the institution who developed a reputation as a partisan liberal journalist, used the occasion to attack President Bush’s opposition to racial preferences in college admissions. Thomas said, "I think affirmative action is needed in this country."
Boyd apparently agreed. He told the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) that attracting "young people of color" to journalism "requires a special effort," and that he was alarmed at the number of minority journalists leaving the profession or avoiding journalism altogether. Boyd also told ASNE that his most difficult problem comes in "Deciding when to tell a staff member that his performance is not adequate and that a change is needed."
It’s not too late for the Times to review Coloring the News, which sold 50,000 copies in hardcover and has now been issued in paperback, and take into account its message. Diversity should not trump accuracy.