Wednesday | May 14, 2003
The truth about Jayson Blair
Like most people who write for fun and profit, I've been following the Jayson Blair story and have been both amused and amazed at the conclusions which people have drawn about this.
First, lying in print when you work for a newspaper as a reporter is a gross betrayal of trust. Nothing excuses it, and the lack of oversight from the Times editors is astounding.
Second, Blair was hardly the only black journalist to attend the University of Maryland. It has the largest black student body of any school in the United States. I think we can conclude most Maryland alums do their job when they get hired, regardless of color.
But how this has turned into an argument over affirmative action has amazed me. Blair got a looksee because he was black, just as other reporters get noticed becase they are women or Asian or speak Arabic. It didn't keep him in the job. The last thing America needs is fewer minority journalists. As it stands, 95 percent of America's newsroom employees are white and in many places this damages their credibility. The New York Post is now largely unread by black New York because of their coverage of racial issues.
It seems many on the right are using this as a hobby horse to push their ideas on the need to avoid any measure of racial equality in the workplace.
But that's not really the point I want to make.
In the Times article on Sunday, it made it clear that Blair suffered from some kind of debilitating illness. He was allowed to leave the paper and brought back. Was this because he was black? Not hardly. He was clearly suffering from some illness and his editors, because of his age and that illness, sought to keep him working. They invested in him because they didn't want to walk away. And for any number of reasons, he betrayed that trust. I think it is likely his betrayal was driven by a number of factors, some he controlled, some he didn't.
News is a fragile thing, and many of us here often debate it as if we are debating absolute truth and not impressions. The reason I mention this story here (which is being written about well on both Poynter and Atrios) is because it is important that we never lose sight of how news is made.
Nothing we call news, not even what we see on TV, is more than impression. We hope that reporters are accurate, but many times we quibble with their reporting. Blair broke that bond of trust we all have to have in the news we don't see.
With so many political issues up in the air, this is probably not an issue which would have made this site on its own. But we should never lose sight that news is fragile. We often sneer at people who think Bush is right about Iraq, never considering that they draw from the same media and come to different conclusions. News is not fact. It is not evidence. It is impression. All you can do is trust the reporter and his bosses are doing the best job they can.
Having worked on campaigns, I no longer trust anything written about politics. I laugh when I hear someone like Howard Feinman talk about their inside knowledge. Unless he's worked a campaign, he has no idea about what he doesn't know. And it's a hell of a lot. All of these campaign books written by reporters hover between fiction and rumor. The amount of manipulation of the media done in a political campaign is truly stunning. Having done it, I am impressed by the gullibility of the people who cover politics.
Maybe I'll go on at length about this one day, but I just want to say that anyone who wonders why Blair could go on for so long has to remember, newsrooms are run by trust and it is easier to violate that trust than to cheat on a spouse. Reporters assume their brethern are honest. When they aren't. they are more surprised than most. That is what will drive the caterwalling about Blair in the next week or so. But in the end, his betrayal and his bosses response probably come from illness and the road to hell which is paved with good intentions.
Steve GilliardPosted May 14, 2003 04:44 PM | Comments (57)