A dubious diversity

Posted: May 19, 2003 12:00 AM

It's Asian-Pacific American Month at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C. I don't know what that means exactly, but the banner proclaiming this diversity celebration is pretty big, so I'm thinking it must be very important. Not that every celebration of diversity isn't important. An elementary school in Somerset, Md., recently celebrated "Share Our Diversity Night," which reminds us why our Founding Minters thought to label American currency with that inspirational motto, "E unus pluribum" -- Out of one, many.

Maybe that's not exactly what it says, but my ears are still ringing from the medley of diverse songs (Trinidad and Newfoundland's greatest hits) shared on Somerset's Diversity Night. This luscious little town, by the way, is a veritable Olympic village of million-dollar homes flying United Nations flags. Correction: In the interest of reportorial accuracy, it must be said that only one Somerset home flies the robin's-egg blue banner recalling the locale of Dominique de Villepin's grand snits in the Security Council; a human rights commission headed by Libya; and a disarmament conference led by Iraq. The flag on that house, however, makes quite a diverse impression particularly if you don't know that a pair of all-American golden retrievers lives there.

Accuracy and diversity have been in the news a lot lately following revelations that top editors at The New York Times ignored increasingly emphatic warnings about the veracity of national reporter Jayson Blair: accuracy, because Blair was incapable of it (said to be a bad thing); diversity, because in today's climate of multi-culture-consciousness, Blair, a black man, exemplified it (said to be a good thing). As the old Gray Lady seeks to "out, out" this new spot by airing all the dirty linen that's fit to print -- 7,000-plus words on Sunday about Blair's fabrications -- the more interesting questions emerging from the scandal may pertain less to accuracy and more to diversity.

Why? Because there lurks the very, very, strong suspicion that Blair -- whose articles required 50-plus after-publication corrections before a final-straw bit of plagiarism -- was selected for plum beats to serve the cause of diversity. In the color-blinded eyes of The New York Times' top dogs, publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, diversity appears to have come before accuracy.

This is not only bad for the newspaper, it is bad for all the other minority reporters who might or might not have been recruited for this same cause (and these include, in diversity-speak, non-white men and all women). Regardless of excellence or mediocrity, they must all go home at night wondering whether the boss chose them for the color of their skin or the content of their clip file. And that stinks, but it's an old story, and it never has a happy ending. Manipulating human beings to realize any utopian dream, from Marxism to diversity, is always a nightmare on some level. Treating people as symbols, as colors, as trophies, is ultimately dehumanizing. As we examine (via the revelations of the Blair case) the fanaticism of journalism's drive to "diversify," this should become obvious.

Which should lead to some tough questions: Exactly what is "diversity," and why has it become an end in itself? One definition of diversity comes from Newsweek's Seth Mnookin, who recently lamented that The New York Times hasn't immediately declared it "will continue its commitment to making the paper's reporters better reflect the world they write about."

Is that what this diversity is about -- reporters who better reflect the world they write about? Such a state of journalistic affairs would relegate middle-aged white women to the Hillary beat, black men to cover the NBA and Secretary of State Colin Powell, Asian reporters to SARS -- and they could all flip for multi-racial Tiger Woods. And what in diversity's name was Jayson Blair doing writing about former POW Jessica Lynch's family (white), anyway? In a word, such "diversity" is absurd. It is also deeply depressing. For its devotion to identity politics, presumes that human beings are incapable of reaching across race and sex -- a fallacy belied, thankfully, by centuries of more expansive hearts and imaginations.

Mnookin also writes of the media's "responsibility to reflect different viewpoints, to report on varied cultures, to shine lights in places we might not tread ourselves." That sounds more like a decent day's work, although I wonder if diversifiers realize it doesn't require anything special -- not race, not sex -- besides shoe leather. And I wonder if they could ever accept "different viewpoints" -- conservatives, say -- in their newsrooms. There's the kind of diversity -- none of this skin-deep stuff -- that has always been too rich for their blood.