John Leo

Another factor is that preference programs carry an implication that lower-quality work will be tolerated. Max Frankel, the former executive editor at The New York Times, admitted this in 1990, though minus the clear reference to preferences. Since blacks are "a precious few" at the Times, he said, "If they were less than good, I'd probably stay my hand at removing them too quickly."

He obviously meant this to be tolerant and generous, as part of an effort to make up for the long years in which blacks were totally absent or very rare in the newsroom. But he increased resentment all around -- blacks knew they were being demeaned in a kindly way; whites heard an announcement of double standards.

It seems as though the Times was inordinately tolerant of Blair. His bosses say they leaned on him repeatedly about his inaccuracies. Fair enough. Blair said recently his work was hampered by "recurring personal issues." Earlier he told his bosses he suffered from the shock of losing a relative in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

But sources at the Times say Blair's problems go back well before 9/11. One source said the charge that Blair was making up quotes goes back to his earliest days at the paper. Two reporters said protective staff members would do Blair's reporting for him when he didn't show up for work. Another reporter, who refused to work with Blair any longer, told the metro desk about his erratic behavior. My assistant here at US News, Margaret Menge, turned up a Boston Globe article by Blair (April 18, 1999) that contains quotes nearly identical to those published in The Washington Post a week before.

Alarm bells should have been going off at the Times years ago. Or perhaps we should say that the bells were going off, but the Times seemed unwilling to hear or to do anything about what it knew. Last week, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post interviewed a Times editor who said that the paper had come to realize that Blair was compiling a substandard record.

The Blair scandal is not just evidence that reporters can go off track. It's a reminder that diversity programs can undermine the standards that made great institutions great.

John Leo

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

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