Monday, May 12, 2003

Black and Blue in Black and White

Black and Blue in Black and White
Commentary by Sanford D. Horn
May 12, 2003

While the once vaunted New York Times licks its wounds and attempts to restore both its dignity and its reputation as the leader in American journalism due to the Jayson Blair scandal, it must attempt to restore the faith of its readers as well as answer some difficult and embarrassing questions.

The oft-asked question over these past days is how this could have happened in the first place. The this is that a relatively unknown freelance reporter and University of Maryland dropout rose to prominence at The New York Times despite a less than stellar performance level. In just three and one half years Blair’s work received roughly 50 red flags citing inaccuracies or inadequacies – more than one a month.

It has since come to light that Blair’s indiscretions were far worse, damaging the trustworthiness of the trade with his outright lies and plagiarism – stealing from his colleagues. Little sympathy should be given to Blair – his shortcuts and sloppiness led to his ultimate downfall. It will be hard for him to repair his own damaged reputation. Even less sympathy should be given to Blair’s former employer. The answer to the question of how this could have happened is that The New York Times allowed this to happen. They are as much to blame as Blair.

Did Blair’s resume say that he attended or graduated from the University of Maryland? That question alone should have prevented the Blair situation from occurring in the first place. If the resume contained the word attended, Blair should not have been hired in the first place. Why he didn’t graduate, is a question that should also be asked. If his resume indicated that he graduated, clearly a harbinger in and of itself, it would naturally be incumbent upon The New York Times do something that is common in the newspaper business – check the facts. That could have been the first and only interaction between The New York Times and Blair. The Washington Post [May 11] is quoted as saying that  when Blair joined The Times in 1999 “everyone assumed he had graduated from the University of Maryland – he had not…” And people know what happens when one assumes.

Instead, in the interest of furthering diversity at The New York Times, openly admitted by metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman, Blair rode the fast track that enabled him to cover such recent stories as the Washington, DC metropolitan area sniper attacks and domestic aspects of the war against Iraq. Blair’s inadequacies and ineptitudes were regularly overlooked. Internal memos about Blair by his superiors regarding said shortcomings went unheeded.

Liberalism and The Times’ own desire to perpetuate an obsolete affirmative action can be cited as major causes for the sticky wicket in which The Times finds itself. (Although, to be fair to The Times, it is airing its own dirty laundry publicly within its own pages.) Chances are, had the reporter in question been Caucasian, this situation would not have occurred. The Times felt a desire to carry Blair in order to fulfill its own prophecy. Had The Times not been on such a politically correct crusade, this situation could have been avoided. Unfortunately, there is an absolute double standard and a fear involved. Fear that to be critical is an act of racism. Fear that to dismiss someone, even for cause, could bring a lawsuit.

What suffers, aside from Blair’s reputation, which at best is on life support, is the faith placed by the public on not just The New York Times, but the medium in general. There is, after all, no governing body to police the journalistic community. People will think twice about whether or not to believe what they read. Readers will question the truthfulness of the words written by the reporters, and not just for the long-time bias newspapers have exhibited over the years. Some may even question whether or not certain reporters are affirmative action scribes – and that is unfortunate. There are plenty of eminently qualified and award-winning minority journalists who come by their skills through hard work and perform their hard work honestly. The late Sam Lacy of Baltimore’s Afro-American is a sterling example.

Jayson Blair should not be held up as the rule, but rather the exception where minority journalists are concerned. Nor should Jayson Blair be viewed as the example of what the University of Maryland School of Journalism is all about. Granted, there is some bias by this writer, a Maryland alum – but not from the School of Journalism. Those entrusted with the faith of the public ought to be held to higher standard. These standards and ethics should be taught in schools of journalism nationwide. There is a moral responsibility that journalists at all levels – from The Diamondback at the University of Maryland to The New York Times must maintain. If not, then stop the presses.

Sanford D. Horn is a freelance writer and political consultant living in Alexandria, VA and is a graduate of the University of Maryland.

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