- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

We have a new breakfast suggestion in the newsroom where I work: Cheez Doodles and booze. We call it “the Jayson Blair diet.”

Scotch, cigarettes and Cheez Doodles are now reported by some of his former editors and colleagues at the New York Times to have been the now-infamous 27-year-old reporter’s preferred forms of self-medication during his employment there. Mr. Blair’s brief career is now stained by plagiarism, fabrications, numerous errors in facts and outright lies about his locations and expenses, particularly since last fall.

Many outside observers immediately accused Times executives of “affirmative action run amok,” saying they had given Mr. Blair, who is black, extra breaks that none of his white counterparts would have received.

Key Times executives denied, at first, that race was a major factor. That was not hard for me to believe. After all, the record of white fakers and plagiarizers in print and broadcasting far outnumbers that of blacks or other minorities.

Still, I concluded a column on the matter with: “It is important that the Times dig a little deeper and tell us, if race is not the reason for the Blair snafu, what is?”

The next day, editor Howell Raines faced his staff to answer questions like that one during an unprecedented meeting in a Broadway moviehouse. He later e-mailed me a copy of his opening statement, although Mr. Raines was avoiding interviews.

As factors go, it turns out, Mr. Raines admits that race was a big one. Too big.

“Was [Jayson Blair] hired in the first place on a race-based preference?” he wrote. “Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts he appeared to be a promising young minority reporter. I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities. To me, to consider the alternative is not acceptable to our organization or to me as a person because it puts us in a position of perpetuating historical inequity …

“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.”

This was a reference to last fall’s District-area sniper case, to which Mr. Blair was assigned as he was coming off of a probationary period sparked by verbal and written reprimands for his high error rate. Freed from close supervision, he slid into his most flagrant binge of journalistic fraud.

“When I look into my heart for the truth of that,” Mr. Raines continued, “the answer is yes. It was a terrible mistake that harmed our paper, and I apologize for it. I was guilty of a failure of vigilance that — since I sit in the chair where the buck stops — I should have prevented.”

And so we add to our menu the “Howell Raines Breakfast”: coffee and crow.

I have long admired Mr. Raines, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who began his newspaper career in Birmingham in 1964, a year after four little black girls were killed there in an infamous church bombing. Civil rights has been one of his passions over the years, along with his family and fly fishing.

But, smelling the coffee now, Mr. Howell surely knows he did not do Mr. Blair any favors by easing standards in judging the young man’s qualifications. Sure, corners often have been cut over the years to benefit the preferred sons and daughters of the privileged. But there is no good reason for the Times to risk its mighty name and resources on one questionable Cheez Doodle-munching oddball, no matter what his color.

All of which raises a couple of other relevant questions: Is diversity worth the trouble?

And can we promote racial and ethnic diversity in our newsrooms without sacrificing standards?

To the first question, the answer is yes. To better serve the communities it tries to cover and to whom it tries to sell its product, the news business must try to build staffs that reflects the same diversity of peoples and views.

Can we do it without sacrificing standards? Yes, again. In fact, we must.

Some critics actually have complained that the American Society of Newspaper editors has set a goal of achieving racial and ethnic parity with the general population in our newsrooms by 2025. They should be comforted to know that a similar goal was set for 2000. When the industry failed to reach it, there was much disappointment expressed, but no hard quotas were set.

Instead, newspapers are supposed to be doing what other businesses, workplaces and universities should do: Look harder.

No applicant should be unfairly cut out because of race, but neither should any be unfairly overlooked.

And once we are in the door, we journalists who happen to be minorities should not strive merely to meet the same standards that everyone else does. We should strive to exceed them.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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