- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

A colleague at The Washington Times reminded me that I once had an occasion to reprimand Jayson Blair, the much-maligned reporter for the New York Times charged with plagiarism, among other offenses.

It seems that the young Mr. Blair was seated in The Washington Times’ newsroom with his feet propped up on a desk and he was leaning back. He was “just chillin,’” as they say.

Imagine my horror. Here was this young, black University of Maryland intern, who was doing a brief stint for the journalism school’s Capital News Service, seated in the midst of a conservative medium, yet he was acting as if he were John F. Kennedy Jr. and had it made in the shade. I would have none of that slacker image. Not here. Not that day.

In no uncertain terms, I told the child (to me) that I had better not ever walk into the newsroom and see him looking like a caricature of Steppin’ Fetchit gone fishin’. I sternly suggested that he’d best “get busy,” or at least look like he was attempting to earn his keep to get ahead. Read the news wires, if nothing else.

As I had done countless times with other cub reporters, I started into my old-school speech: “You know ‘we’ have to be twice as good and run twice as fast just to keep up.”

Excuse the ebonics, but “we” be the generation of pioneering blacks whose elders refused to allow us to use excuses, even about acknowledged racism, when breaking through former color barriers. So what? they said about prejudicial treatment. Find a way to fight it and go around it to get to your goal. I instilled the same “keep your eyes on the prize” philosophy in my children and my charges.

Yes, a double standard will always exist in American culture. We see it played out even with this exploding embarrassment of press plagiarism, which the careless Mr. Blair mainly brought upon himself.

But it would be less than honest to put the full blame for this debacle totally on Mr. Blair’s bent shoulders. Where were his editors? The New York Times’ editors were woefully remiss in their duties not only to their staff, but more importantly to their readers, as the gatekeepers of the news.

As I’ve always said: The best writer needs an even better editor.

The First Amendment grants the Fourth Estate freedoms not expressly endowed to any other industry in this country. It is therefore the solemn oath of every member of the press to uphold the standards set forth by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics to honor our awesome responsibility to keep the public informed so they can make the best decisions about their governance.

This is not to excuse Mr. Blair in any way. He was wrong. Indeed, being in this business is like being in a pressure cooker and we play a daily game of “Beat the Clock.” But I don’t know a single person in this profession who has survived 50 printed corrections in a career let alone in five years. Mr. Blair’s demise speaks as much about the editing process — or lack thereof — at his newspaper as it does about his personal character.

The aforementioned Washington Times colleague also remembers that Mr. Blair was put on a very short leash during his short tenure here. He was made to pull up a chair next to Vincent McCraw, a former assistant editor on the Metro desk, who combed through the intern’s copy line by line. This is not an uncommon practice at this newspaper.

Mr. McCraw, now an editor with the Detroit News, said yesterday that he was not impressed with Mr. Blair because he was arrogant and that “he knew it all even then.” He also recalled that “we could never find him,” which seems to be a problem he didn’t outgrow.

Mr. Blair’s infractions are the work of one man at one newspaper. But there are always those who would take advantage of an isolated situation for their own political agenda. So it is appalling that the uproar about the lapses of a single reporter and his editors is being co-opted by those who would use this as a weak example of affirmative action gone awry. It is no such thing. In my decades of experience in the print and broadcast media, I have seen the editors’ star system at work. And, the “rising star” rarely looks like Jayson Blair.

What is really appalling is that a 2003 newsroom “census” by the American Society of Newspaper Editors showed that the 55,000-member national print-press corps includes 2,919 blacks, 1,435 Asian-Americans, 2,212 Hispanics and 289 American Indians.

So much for affirmative action run amok in American newsrooms, Jayson Blair notwithstanding. Diversity be damned.

And the double standard? As another colleague stated, “in all these cases, look what happens when black folks are involved, they are vilified and their careers end.” Janet Cooke, formerly of The Washington Post, and Patricia Smith, formerly of the Boston Globe come immediately to mind.

“But when it’s white reporters, they lay low for a while, then they get TV jobs on cable or write books.” He was referring to Mike Barnicle, also formerly of the Globe, and Stephen Glass and Ruth Shalit, both formerly of the New Republic.

I remember well the Janet Cooke days, when I was a relatively young reporter at the Washington Star, and found myself unfairly taunted for her fabrications in The Post. Today, it is just as unfair to tar and feather all black reporters with a broad brush by reducing our entry and existence in newsrooms to the color of our skin rather than to our demonstrated talent and ability against all odds.

Most of us are ever-mindful of those old-school rules.

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