As newspaper editors convened emergency denial-control meetings and minority journalists circled their wagons, New York Times executive editor Howell Raines went ahead and admitted what was obvious to anyone without a blankie over his head: Of course it's about race.
Howell was talking about the Times' failure to properly handle the now-infamous Jayson Blair affair, regarding the 27-year-old reporter who fabricated many of the front-page stories he penned during his nearly four-year Times career.
A Times in-house investigation revealed that Blair had faked datelines and interviews, invented quotes and plagiarized. Even though the newspaper ran dozens of corrections to stories under Blair's byline -and despite protests by some editors -Blair continued to be promoted.
Why? Plainly, because he is African-American and The Times under Raines' leadership apparently was more committed to diversity than to truth. Which should not be construed as a condemnation of diversity by the "I told you so" crowd, but rather of the way diversity has been pursued by America's most-vaunted newspaper.
Raines' admission Wednesday during a staff meeting that amounted to a Times family "intervention," held appropriately at a movie theater, provided affirmation that truth ultimately prevails. To his credit, Raines was candid as he read from a list of criticisms provided by angry staffers, who described him as inaccessible and arrogant, a bully who ignores others' ideas and who singles out favorites.
Toughest of all the questions Raines faced was whether he had favored Blair because he was black. Again to his credit, he answered honestly.
"I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities," Raines said.
"Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the (Beltway) sniper (reporting) team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."
Magic, that word "yes," especially against the dull chorus of "no" echoing throughout the industry.
Editor &Publisher, the news industry's trade magazine, reported in its online edition that editors interviewed across the country "decline to blame race for any of the controversy, shooting down speculation that Blair might have been given extra chances because he is black or that his downfall might hurt ongoing diversity efforts."
Of course the problem of Jayson Blair was about race and diversity, but let's be clear. Blair didn't make the mistakes because he is black. His pathological dishonesty, which also included fraudulent expense accounts, doesn't dilute the goal of diversity. His race is an issue only insofar as certain editors, especially Raines, couldn't see past his blackness.
Raines is famous for his hard-scrabble coverage of the civil-rights movement, and his wonderful book, My Soul Is Rested, shed light on some of America's darkest hours. But Raines apparently got lost in his own public virtue and failed to see that his paternalistic protection of Blair was precisely what he most detests. It was racist.
That is the truth that pains most of all. Because to face that particular truth is to begin to deconstruct the bureaucratic fortress of compassionate racism that permeates nearly all our institutions. The problem of Jayson Blair isn't a black problem, or a minority problem, or a diversity problem. It's mostly a white problem. In this case specifically, it may be a guilty white Southern problem as embodied by Raines.
The nicest kind of bigotry is to assume that blacks can't be held accountable to the same high standards as others or to lower standards, as the Times did with Blair, who should have been fired long ago -or never invited to join a team he wasn't ready for. I'd be surprised to find another instance of even a smallish newspaper hiring an inexperienced young reporter without a college degree, as was the case with Blair.
But if your goal is to hire promising young minorities, you might bend the rules. And if your goal is to protect minorities even when they're not up to snuff, you might lower your standards. If you're a guilty white Southerner, you might even promote a Jayson Blair in spite of your better journalist's instincts.
In the short haul, the Blair affair has been a devastating blow to journalism. But in the longer run, this public exposure of our deep denial about race offers an opportunity to correct the variety of "nice" racism that allowed Blair to debase a great institution while permitting whites to feel virtuous even as they insulted the people they meant to help. The New York Times is just the paper to tackle such a Pulitzer-worthy story.