The Jayson Blair scandal has most of the elements of the modern American classic. There's a celebrity angle, a race dimension, a drug and alcohol excuse, and hypocrisy in high places. The only missing element so far is sex. No doubt when the TV movie of the story is done, it will add a curvaceous girlfriend to round out the plot.
Let's start at the end. Here's a little quiz: After plunging himself and his newspaper into a major credibility crisis, 27-year-old Jayson Blair met with a) his pastor, b) his parents, c) a defense attorney or d) a literary agent.
The correct answer is, of course, "d." According to Canada's National Post, Blair, a cocaine and alcohol abuser, has signed on with David Vigliano, who also represents Britney Spears, to negotiate book and movie deals. Ah America, where there is no shame and being a nasty, lying creep gets you a lucrative afterlife in books and movies.
So that's the celebrity bit. Now for race. Here is where a tiny morsel of poetic justice is to be found. It is not altogether unpleasant to see the pompous, bombastic and self-righteous New York Times accused of racism by a clearly disreputable young man. This is, after all, the paper that denounced, among many others, Texaco Oil Co. for supposed racism in its personnel policies. The Times ran a front-page story in 1996 that relied on a plaintiff attorney's tapes purporting to show that Texaco executives used the word "nigger" in private conversations and referred to black employees disparagingly as "black jelly beans."
The national response to that story was fast and ferocious. The NAACP called it "the functional equivalent of the Rodney King video," and The Washington Post editorialized that "bias in corporate America was alive and well." Except that the tape turned out to be quite innocent. The word "nigger" was never uttered, the speaker was actually talking of "St. Nicholas," and the reference to "black jelly beans" came right out of the special "diversity management" training sessions all employees were urged to attend. (For a comprehensive examination of the effects of political correctness in the press, read William McGowan's Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity has Corrupted American Journalism.)
The Times did correct itself in that case, but the editors' over-eagerness to believe the worst about other Americans' racial attitudes is always on display. Now they themselves stand accused of racism. Blair, an admitted liar and plagiarist, says that being black at the Times "is something that hurts you as much as it helps you. Anyone that tells you that my race didn't play a role in my career at The New York Times is lying to you. Both racial preferences and racism played a role, and I would argue that they didn't balance each other out. Racism had much more of an impact."
Now I don't believe for a minute that The New York Times is populated by racists making life bitter for black journalists. But if the accusation were lodged against the Bush administration or Citibank or Fox News, who doubts that The New York Times would believe it and broadcast it to the world? So how do you like them apples, Mr. Raines?
Much ink has been spilled over the question of whether Blair got special treatment because he was black. Columnist William Raspberry, among many others, has argued that many white journalists have committed similar transgressions. Very true. But there has never, to my knowledge, been a case in which a white reporter was repeatedly reprimanded for errors and mistakes but nonetheless promoted and given plum assignments. You needn't be a mind reader to guess that editor Howell Raines is determined to see black reporters succeed -- no matter what.
I hate the condescension inherent in that liberal pose. There are hundreds of black journalists at the top of their field -- Thomas Sowell, Gwen Ifill, Keith Richburg -- to name just three. Black journalists (doctors, lawyers, accountants, educators, etc.) require nothing more than that we ignore their race. To treat them as hothouse flowers is so insulting. It is also unjust to others.
Though The New York Times will be the last institution to understand this, the moral of the Jayson Blair story is simple: You do not put an end to racial injustice by reversing it.