TCS Daily

The Road to Howell...

By Radley Balko - May 13, 2003 12:00 AM

When I first read of the Jayson Blair fiasco now unfolding at the New York Times, I didn't pay much attention. "Dumb reporter, ruined his career," I thought, and went on to other reading. What's unfortunate - and what I'm loathe to admit - was my reaction when, a couple of days later, I saw his picture. "He's black," I said as a foul thought emerged from the darker corners of my thinking: "probably an affirmative action case."

I'm not proud that that thought occurred to me. And I didn't write about it, or really even discuss it with friends at the time, because it's just not something we're permitted to think these days. Blair is a reporter who did precious little reporting. He ought to be shamed out of journalism for that, and his race ought not enter the fray.

As it turns out, my first, more shameful conclusion was correct. Race had everything to do with this story - and not because bigoted people chose to exploit Blair to further some hateful agenda. Rather, it's because open-minded, well-intentioned people used Blair's race to put him in a position he wasn't professionally prepared for. And in so doing, those open-minded people lent a bit of ammunition and a small sense of validation not just to hate mongers, but to those pestering, nagging thoughts about things black and white like the one that occurred to me when I first saw Jayson Blair's picture.

Nearly everything about the Blair case came about because of affirmative action, or at least from the entitlement mindset that comes with support for affirmative action. In its 7,000-word correction printed over the weekend, the Times itself admitted that Blair was originally hired with little professional experience. Metropolitan Editor Jonathan Landman told Howard Kurtz that the Times was aware of Blair's "substandard record" at the time of his hiring. Yet Blair was not only hired, he was quickly elevated through the paper's ranks (and I do mean "was elevated" - he certainly didn't elevate himself).

National Public Radio then revealed over the weekend that Times Editor Howell Raines, in a 2001 speech to the National Association of Black Journalists, held Blair up as an example of the Times' commitment to diversity, a commitment Raines then asserted was more important than its commitment to quality. Slate's Mickey Kaus points out that when Raines gave that speech, he was already aware of problems with Blair's reporting.

To sum: Jayson Blair was hired despite a substandard record, was promoted despite high correction rates, and - most unfortunately - held up as an example of a "commitment to diversity" by an editor who knew at the time that he wasn't delivering.

The result of all of these professional handouts, hand-ups, and professional mulligans? Blair eventually rose to become the Times' top-billed reporter covering the Washington, D.C. sniper case last fall. He then filed report after erroneous report from the nation's capital and its suburbs, filling the press wires and airwaves with misinformation - information that could hamper the criminal prosecution of suspects John Lee Malvo and John Mohammed, and that will almost certainly contaminate the jury pool when they go to trial.

In a grand attempt to showcase his newspaper's commitment to diversity, New York Times editor Howell Raines confirmed every affirmative action critic's worst suspicions, and he did it on a national scale, and with immediate, real-world consequences.

Of all the sound arguments against affirmative action, this case illustrates what I think is the most compelling: affirmative action does far more damage than good for the groups it purports to help.

The real damage policies like Raines' do goes beyond arguments for viewpoint diversity, meritocracy, or the rights of any theoretical white reporter who was passed over for promotion in favor of Jayson Blair. The real damage comes from the stigmatization stories like Blair's impose on qualified, talented black professionals who forever fight the perception that every black professional's success comes not from merit, but from the charity of benevolent white managers like Howell Raines.

Every young black reporter with a string of professional success must now burden himself with the Jayson Blair albatross.

Had the New York Times not endorsed a public quota-driven "commitment to diversity," had Howell Raines not championed his fast-rising black cub reporter in a public forum, had affirmative action not been so celebrated on the Times' editorial pages, Blair's race would never have been an issue. No one can suspect affirmative action benefited a black reporter at a newspaper that doesn't believe in affirmative action.

The blatant, zealous bigots in today's society have been largely been pushed to the margins, where they belong. Spout racist rhetoric in a public forum today and you can expect across-the-board ridicule and the loss of all potential to be taken seriously - whether you're a sports commentator, an academic, a major league relief pitcher or Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate.

It is the well-intentioned - not the blatant racists - who today do the most damage to the prospects of black Americans. My own black friends have told me that they suspect most white professionals are immediately suspicious of successful blacks - they feel the first white reaction to a black Harvard grad is almost always, "it was probably affirmative action."

My personal experience I think bears that out - that is generally my first reaction, and certainly was this time, much as I'd like to think otherwise, much as that assumption has been wrong in the past. And so long as race-based preference policies are in place, I think white America will always be plagued by those darker, regrettable first inclinations.

Except in this case, those inclinations were right. And that's what's most unfortunate (and typical) about the Jayson Blair case: It's another example of an altruistic effort to offset white misperceptions about black professionals that, in the end, only reinforces them.

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