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mb Quick Take: William McGowan on Jayson Blair

The author of Coloring the News talks about the Jayson Blair case.

May 13, 2003

Your book Coloring the News made the argument that American newsrooms, in their quest for diversity, were corrupting their ultimate news product. Is what happened with Jayson Blair at The New York Times exactly what you were warning about?
Well, it's not exactly, but it's pretty close to it. I actually placed the emphasis in Coloring the News more on the corruption involved with coverage and the ideological slant that the coverage takes on due to this emphasis on diversity. I say that the diversity effort in theory is good, because it has opened up the door to talented minorities and widened the radar screens of many news organizations.

But you also addressed news organizations' internal practices.
I did. I looked at the whole swirl of contention over the issue of double standards in hiring, promotion, and discipline. I did not get into anything as egregious as the Blair scandal, but certainly in future editions of the book, I'll be addressing it. The evidence that I had at the time made it very difficult to kind of argue conclusively one way or the other who gets hired and who gets promoted, and whether there's a racial favoritism. Since the book was written two years ago, I would say we've seen that there is a very pernicious double standard at many places and The New York Times is exhibit A. I think that Blair was coddled, he was indulged, editors knew he was a walking journalistic train wreck, and because of careerist anxieties tied to diversity, and to blatant double standards in terms of the Times's commitment to diversity, wanting to promote this great reporter of color, this golden boy, I think that they really left themselves open to horrible, horrible deceit, manipulation, and fraud.

But can't these things have just as easily happened if it was a white reporter who was pathologically committed to…
It wouldn't have lasted as long. In the Times's post-mortem, which was excruciatingly and embarrassingly detailed yet still reflects denial over diversity, there are a couple of quotes—there's one from Jonathan Landman, who is the metro editor and was Blair's boss for a couple of years. And when Blair got promoted to full-time reporter from probationary reporter, Landman didn't express his misgivings, and he said he didn't express them principally because the publisher and the executive editor had shown their commitment to diversity and that Blair's promotion was tied to that. And there were other instances, too, where you had editors who clearly wanted him to succeed and therefore didn't speak out or share information among themselves. And I'll make the statement: I don't think a white reporter who worked at the Times, a 27-year-old white reporter, male or female, who worked at the Times for four years who had that long a record of inaccuracy, shady, dodgy behavior, and arrogant confrontations with administrators, that reporter would not have been able to keep a job at the Times, much less get promoted. And be covering sensitive stories like the sniper case.

Two years ago you wrote a book warning that these things were out there. What sort of reaction did the Times have then?
Any time I brought this up with the Times when I was doing the reporting for Coloring the News I was met with nothing but condescension and rejection. When I interviewed Gerald Boyd quite a while ago for the original article that the book grew out of, Gerry Boyd flatly told me at the end of the interview that he thought my questions were unhealthy and unhelpful. When I talked to Arthur Sulzberger I got condescension and flak. When the book came out, the Times refused to review it. They reviewed my first book exceptionally well. But when this book came out, they refused to review it and [Book Review editor] Chip McGrath went on the record to the San Francisco Chronicle saying the reason why he wasn't going to review it, one of the reasons, was that it was too critical, it was inappropriate for a newspaper like his to review a book that was so critical of a newspaper like his. Basically, I was too critical of them, and they blacked it out.

Do you think they'll take a second look at your book now?
Well, I'd like them to take a look at it. The book just came out in paperback, it has a new epilogue called "Covering Terrorism," it's about coverage of immigration and national security issues since 9/11, and I think they certainly couldn't lose anything by reading it and reviewing it. I think that they owe it to their readers to inform them of timely and well-done books that bear on important issues. And certainly, if they devoted four pages to a post-mortem of the Blair scandal, I think they can devote a little bit of space in their newspaper to a book that somewhat predicted that kind of scandal erupting someplace, if not there.

Jesse Oxfeld is the editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com

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