Racial Reverberations in Newsrooms after Jayson Blair: 'The Coverage of the Scandal Showed Once Again That African Americans Are Still Not Allowed to Be Seen as Individuals When They Fail.'

By Henry, Neil | Nieman Reports, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Racial Reverberations in Newsrooms after Jayson Blair: 'The Coverage of the Scandal Showed Once Again That African Americans Are Still Not Allowed to Be Seen as Individuals When They Fail.'


Henry, Neil, Nieman Reports


The e-mail messages came from journalists around America, more than a few containing the line "you don't know me, but ...." All were commenting about racial reverberations in their newsrooms stemming from the scandal of Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old black reporter who resigned in disgrace from The New York Times in May after admitting to systematic plagiarism and fabrication during his three-year career.

An African-American copyeditor at a Midwestern daily wrote that she was humiliated to hear three white male colleagues openly criticize affirmative action policies for lowering "journalistic standards" across the country, policies under which the editor herself had been hired only a year earlier.

A second message came from a nationally recognized black reporter, who confided that the Blair scandal had reignited in her a long suppressed rage and bitterness stemming from her early reporting career in the 1980's, when white editors--spurred by a similar scandal involving a disgraced black reporter, Janet Cooke, at The Washington Post--baldly questioned her veracity after she turned in a terrific piece of investigative work. The reporter was unsettled, she wrote, by how deeply the racial pain still cut more than 20 years later.

But among the most heartfelt messages came from a young African-American reporter in the early months of his career at a top newspaper on the East Coast. The reporter had graduated five years earlier from a leading school of journalism and excelled in two previous jobs at smaller newspapers before being hired by the big Eastern daily.

"Nothing in this business has angered me like this situation," he wrote. "From Blair's misdeeds, to the reaction of some of our editors, to these assaults on diversity--I'm just perpetually [furious] about my business and my newspaper, the one I learned to love while [in] school. I feel like we are in for some stormy months, if not years. Though I have not sensed any extra eyes on my work or had anyone question me, I am mentally preparing for it."

Understanding the Racial Fallout

It's big news when a journalist admits lying to the public. It's even bigger news when that journalist works for a newspaper as trusted and influential as The New York Times. But because Blair was young and black, and the product of a training program aimed at increasing the racial diversity of the news staff, the scandal and its national news coverage became freighted with an added dimension of race, provoking pain and fury that was especially keen to blacks and other minorities in the industry.

Did the scandal represent--as some conservative white critics charged--the dangers and failures of such diversity programs, which many news organizations have adopted in the decades since 1968 when the Kerner Commission urged the press to hire more minorities and women to better serve the public interest? Were Blair's misdeeds overlooked for too long precisely because of his race, as the same critics maintained? What ramifications would the scandal present for race relations in America's newsrooms?

Such questions spurred me, a journalism educator, to write an essay amid the heat of the Blair scandal to my black former Berkeley students now working in the news media across the country. Even though these former students had nothing to do with the disgrace, I knew they would feel hurt and outraged by the critics and likely bewildered by a strange press focus on Blair's race that made it seem as if the young man's color had more to do with the reasons behind the scandal than his distinct problems of character.

I had several aims for the essay, which was also published in The Chronicle of Higher Education: to Prepare young people emotionally for racial fallout in the workplace that might include increased scrutiny by white superiors because of their skin color; to remind them of the historical imperative for diversity programs in a field in which blacks were effectively excluded as recently as 35 years ago, and to reassure them at a time of anger, pain and emotional insecurity that they indeed had earned their right to practice their talent and skill with the best in the country. …

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