John Leo
The New York Times has acted honorably in dealing with the wreckage of the Jayson Blair scandal. It published corrections, 54 in all, on Blair's inaccurate reporting. When at last it became obvious that Blair was plagiarizing stories, making up quotes and filing stories from places he never visited, the Times applied pressure and Blair resigned. And at this writing, the Times is preparing a long article detailing Blair's checkered career. This is the way newspapers are supposed to behave -- put it all out on the table.

But there is an issue that the Times may not be ready to discuss: whether racial preferences are implicated in what went wrong. Blair was editor of the University of Maryland student newspaper. After dropping out of college as a senior, he was installed as a Times reporter at age 23, with little experience, just some free-lancing and brief internships at the Times and The Boston Globe. Question: Isn't this too far, too fast, and would this meteoric rise to staff reporter be likely for a white reporter with comparable credentials?

Mickey Kaus, writing at slate.com, raised the preference issue by offering this analogy: Let's suppose, to promote commerce in Utah, federal trucking standards were relaxed on Utah trucks and a disastrous crash occurred when a truck's brakes failed. Would the press, politicians and the public say, "But non-Utah trucks crash all the time," or "You haven't proved a direct causal connection between the Utah-preference program and this crash"? No, Kaus wrote. They would just demand that preferences be abolished so that all trucks everywhere would have to meet the same standards. This has to happen in journalism, too.

Everybody knows that this argument tends to trigger cries of "Racism!" Let's stipulate that the overwhelming majority of plagiarism cases and journalistic scandals have been the work of whites. As a reminder, look who is back in the news -- Stephen Glass, retired fabricator of gripping but totally false news stories for The New Republic.

But once you create preferences, you run the risk of increasing the number of screw-ups among the preferred group. Relaxing standards or pushing an unprepared candidate into a high-pressure job tends to increase the odds of trouble. All of us figure this out rather quickly when the preferred group is relatives of the boss, or people who went to the boss's college. It's true of identity groups as well.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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