Black journalists discuss 'Blair affair'
By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 10, 2003
DALLAS - One sentiment became increasingly clear as reporters and editors talked shop in hotel hallways last week during the nation's largest gathering of black journalists: The fall from grace of one reporter should not indict every reporter who happens to be a person of color.
They were talking about Jayson Blair, an African-American reporter who was fired by the New York Times for making up stories and committing acts of plagiarism that are still rocking the journalism world three months later. Now called the "Blair affair," the episode and its fallout were among the hotly anticipated session topics at the 28th annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists in Dallas.
Two convention events brought the Blair issue to the forefront with discussions of diversity, credibility and accountability. Many minority reporters wondered whether Blair's actions might affect future newsroom diversity and career opportunities.
NABJ co-founder Paul Brock said it's shameful that black and white journalists are not treated the same by some industry leaders and critics. As an example, he cited columnist Mike Barnicle, who was forced to leave the Boston Globe in 1998 after making up people and plagiarizing in his columns.
"Because he was white, his crime was not as bad as Jayson Blair's," said Brock, who works with the Institute for Democracy Studies in New York. "And, he's writing again" for the New York Daily News.
Currently, 5.33 percent of America's newspaper journalists are black, while minorities make up 12.53 percent of newsrooms, according to a study by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Minorities make up 31.1 percent of the U.S. population.
The ASNE has pushed to diversify newsrooms, but with limited success. Blair's actions might make that even tougher, some journalists said.
"It's going to affect us, but I don't think it's going to cripple us," said Delewese Fulton, a reporter for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. said he's still committed to diversity. Just under 10 percent of the journalists at the New York Times are black, he said during a panel on ethics and the media, but the numbers could grow. He said his newspaper's issues with Jayson Blair stemmed from miscommunication, not race.
"I don't think it's an example of how we fumble diversity," Sulzberger said. "It's an example of how we fumbled careers. We took a gamble on a promising young journalist. We will not allow Jayson Blair to poison the well."
The episode did cost one high ranking black executive at the newspaper his job.
Gerald Boyd was managing editor for the New York Times during Blair's tenure. Boyd spoke out at the convention for the first time since he resigned from the paper in June.
He accepted some of the blame for Blair's quick rise and fall. But, he said, it had everything to do with miscommunication.
"Some have suggested that I looked the other way because Jayson is black," Boyd said. "I was not the black managing editor. I was "the' managing editor."
As managing editor, Boyd said, he should have ensured evaluations of Blair's sloppy work were circulated as the reporter was transferred to various departments.
Race, Boyd said, was an issue, but not the key issue.
"The factor of the scandal that many people are not comfortable acknowledging (is) race," Boyd said. "It is disturbing and sad that people would read more into this because of our race. As soon as controversy arrives, the senior African-American editor is automatically viewed as suspect. This has got to stop and it has got to stop now."
Some think it's now time to stop talking about it entirely.
"We've discussed it and we had an industry plenary on it," said Denise Clay with the Bucks County Courier Times in Pennsylvania. "I say we stop feeding this guy's ego. The more we talk about it, the more the perception becomes reality. I'd venture to say that 99.9 percent of us do our jobs the right way."
Others feel there are unresolved issues.
"I do not think that this discussion was one that was satisfying," said Callie Crossby, a media critic with WGBH-TV in Cambridge, Mass. "The conversation could have been a little deeper. This was a time for some serious analysis."
Newly elected NABJ president Herbert Lowe, a criminal courts reporter at Newsday in New York, said, "It's not about black journalists getting over the issue."
The real work, Lowe said, lies in ensuring that newsrooms retain journalists of color.
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