Saturday, May 10, 2003

A popular blogosphere topic these days is the story of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who was found to have engaged in large-scale plagiarism and outright fabrication. From the right, Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus are crying, "affirmative action!", pointing out that the Times hired Blair, who is black, in spite of his substandard qualifications. From the left, Kevin "Calpundit" Drum and Matthew Yglesias argue that since plenty of white reporters (Stephen Glass being one of the most famous examples) manage to compile similarly spectacular records of egregious fraudulence, Blair's race should be irrelevant.

It seems to me, though, that all of the above participants have misunderstood Blair's story as analogous to that of Glass. In fact, as Sullivan notes, Blair's poor journalistic practices were detected by his editors at the Times:
His mistakes became so routine, his behavior so unprofessional, that by April 2002, Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, dashed off a two-sentence e-mail message to newsroom administrators that read: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now."
On the one hand, this revelation reinforces the suspicion that race may have been a factor in his preferential treatment, if only because his extra breaks clearly went well beyond hiring, and are thus harder to explain as mere personal favoritism. On the other hand, it recasts the whole story as an enormously heartening vindication of modern journalistic practices. After all, it would not be entirely ridiculous to wonder, after a scandal like the Stephen Glass affair, whether today's journalism isn't so rife with fabrications that Glass had to be a veritable Scheherazade just to get caught. But at the Times, at least, journalistic malpractice is apparently at least detected and dealt with, barring only racial politics--or something else equally corrupting.

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