John Leo
A stuffed moose made an appearance last week at the big New York Times staff meeting (held in a Broadway movie theater) to deal with the uproar over the fraudulent reporting of Jayson Blair, the young black Times reporter who has resigned. To the Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the moose is a variation of the elephant in the living room that nobody wants to talk about. So Sulzberger brought along the stuffed moose to encourage staffers to be candid.

OK. In the spirit of the moose, let's be candid. Yes, we need more minority reporters and editors. But when applicants don't meet the usual standards of their publications, those publications are signing on for big trouble.

Because many newsrooms employ quota systems, many inexperienced, unprepared blacks and Hispanics are hired there. Some are almost guaranteed to be in over their heads. Often these underqualified editors and reporters are there because the company wants to look racially progressive or avert mau-mauing from people like Jesse Jackson -- not because of an abundance of confidence in the people it hires, as should be the case.

Since they are hired under double standards, if they don't produce, they cause resentment in some newsrooms. Some are essentially isolated and abandoned by their white bosses or consigned to a marginal role in the office, rarely trusted with major assignments.

Hiring underqualified people to meet quotas duplicates what some elite universities have done: get the admission rates up, and hope people don't notice the higher dropout rates. It's a system that does minorities no favors.

The pressures to relax standards are rising. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is leaning heavily on papers to meet a goal of 38 percent minority employees by 2025. The figure is 11.5 percent today. The newspaper industry is a declining business with concerns about its ability to hold minority employees. Under those conditions, can newspapers triple the percentage of nonwhites in two decades while maintaining standards? What are the papers willing to do about the low SAT verbal skill scores posted among minorities it wishes to sign up in big numbers? (And doesn't the ASNE plan leave very little room for the hiring of whites?)

One white reporter at the Times told me that years ago he languished at the top of the "white list" of candidates, waiting for the paper to find a nonwhite employee to balance him with. One-for-one hiring apparently no longer exists at the Times. But don't bet that it won't show up at many other papers.

John Leo

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

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