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Jayson Blair and the fear factor

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published March 21, 2004

I told myself I wouldn't write about this.

With serial plagiarist and fabricator Jayson Blair popping up everywhere from Larry King Live to Dateline NBC, who needs another column about a dysfunctional, professional apologist now able to weasel his 15th minute of fame from a hastily written book that wallows in the mountain of lies he published while writing for the New York Times?

But for journalists - especially journalists of color - this is the issue that won't go away, and not just because Fox News has decided to use Blair as the poster boy for affirmative action gone bad.

Indeed, there's a simple reason the story of Blair and others like him continues to bedevil modern-day journalists: fear.

Minority journalists, already worried about being taken seriously in their newsrooms, now see a new hurdle to overcome. Taught that we have to be twice as good to get half as far, we now worry there's no room for error - who wants to be caught helping a young journalist of color, when they could turn out to be the next Blair?

Before you scoff, consider the controversy now enveloping the Macon Telegraph, which recently fired a young, African-American reporter after discovering at least 20 stories he filed contained material lifted from other sources (including the St. Petersburg Times).

Some industry scolds berated the newspaper for hiring the reporter in the first place, noting he had left the Fort Worth Star-Telegram after allegations he had plagiarized there.

But I know the journalist in question - having spent time socializing with him at a regional gathering for the National Association of Black Journalists in Atlanta last May, among other contacts - and thought then that he seemed like a promising new talent working hard to learn the craft.

When news broke of his dismissal, my mind flashed back 15 years to the mistakes I made as a young reporter - particularly, a time when I clumsily handled inserting a quote from an old story into a new report. What, I wondered, would have happened to me in this post-Blair climate? Would my error have spooked my bosses into canning me, just to be sure?

There must be fear among editors, as well. For decades, the tricky dance of diversity has been in finding ways to offer opportunities to undiscovered talents while avoiding accusations of creating a double standard for journalists of color.

It's an unfortunate truth: If a black journalist turns out to be a mediocre hire or worse, the finger-pointing begins in a way white journalists rarely face.

Few people asked whether a double standard for white journalists helped mask the shortcomings of admitted and accused plagiarists Ruth Shalit, Steven Glass or Mike Barnicle (recently hired by the Boston Herald, despite a 1998 departure from the Boston Globe after questions surfaced about whether he'd borrowed material from a George Carlin book and fabricated sources in stories).

But early in the Blair scandal, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz mused on his CNN show: "Look, this was a promising young black reporter. I wonder if a middle-aged hack would have gotten away with 50 mistakes and still be at that job." (It also bugs me that, in this quote, Blair is a "black reporter" while the presumably white middle-aged hack gets no racial descriptor attached to him; it's the privilege of being generic that white culture too often enjoys).

As Blair's Apology Tour '04 has taken him past a dismissive Katie Couric on Dateline and a bizarrely complimentary Chris Matthews on MSNBC (among others) to shill for his new book, viewers are left to gape as he once again works the system to his own advantage, regardless of how the fallout impacts others.

Fear has pushed the double standard question into other areas of the media universe, as well. Editors at the San Francisco Chronicle recently took two newly married lesbian journalists off the same-sex marriage story, reasoning that their personal involvement was a conflict of interest amid fears that readers would perceive a bias in their coverage.

Given the contentiousness of the issue, critics of same-sex marriage initiatives probably would have protested a lesbian, recently married couple covering the issue.

But don't devout Catholics get to cover church scandals? Don't journalists who have participated in minority training programs (and publicly belong to pro-affirmative action groups such as the NABJ) get to cover the fight over affirmative action? Don't married women with children get to cover abortion and gay marriage?

At a recent industry training session, I was surprised to hear openly gay journalists say they were afraid to speak out too strongly on coverage issues regarding same-sex marriage, lest they be marginalized in their own newsrooms as "biased" or "pressing an agenda."

What's the point of having a diverse newsroom, if those who are different feel compelled to mute their feedback when coverage turns to a topic they know best?

And a larger question looms: Is fear of this controversy distorting our responses as journalists?

At some point, we decided to stop asking the Ku Klux Klan for "balance" when reporting on interracial marriage and desegregation topics. We generally accepted that their convictions - that mixing of the races was harmful to American society, and black people don't deserve the same civil rights as white people - was wrong, and stopped featuring it while assembling stories on such issues.

Will there come a point when gay people get the same consideration?

Anyone who has spent five minutes in a modern-day newsroom knows fear is part of the fuel that powers our daily work: fear of getting "scooped" by a competitor; fear of becoming irrelevant to the community; fear of losing profits; fear of losing our credibility.

A new, 500-page report released last week by the Project for Excellence in Journalism charts the factors feeding the fear, noting double-digit declines for both newspaper circulation and network TV evening news viewership since 1993. With an explosion of news sources available in television and print, the result is a growing number of news outlets chasing a static or shrinking audience (only online, ethnic and alternative media saw audience growth).

To balance the trend, the study said, many outlets have cut their newsrooms - reducing staff and resources while expecting those who remain to shoulder increased responsibilities, including filing reports for a variety of media.

According to the study, polls also reveal the public's opinion of news outlets has plummeted. Between 1985 and 2002, the number of Americans who think news organizations are highly professional shrunk from 72 to 49 percent, while those who think news media try to cover up their mistakes rose from 13 to 67 percent and those who think the news media are immoral rose from 13 to 36 percent.

Guess what figures like this do to the media's fear factor?

It's probably simplistic to turn Blair's rise, fall and reinvention as a cautionary tale into the embodiment of all this media fear. But I'm convinced one reason his story fascinates so many of us - especially journalists - is because it touches on so many elements of this issue, from credibility to race and beyond.

The struggle now: to make sure we media types learn the right lessons from Blair's ongoing firestorm, sharpening our journalism and weeding out the pretenders, while refusing to let fear push us into decisions that damage our most important ethical value: fairness.

- Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521, deggans@sptimes.com or through the St. Petersburg Times Web site at www.sptimes.com

[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]


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