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My Diversity Story

In a mostly white trade-pub newsroom, one editor learned the value of affirmative-action programs—and the danger of too much racial cautiousness.

- June 4, 2003

My diversity-in-the-newsroom story isn't as scintillating as the Jayson Blair saga at The New York Times, which may yet mark the beginning of the end for the paper's executive editor, Howell Raines. In fact, my diversity story is pretty garden variety. But that's precisely what makes it so relevant to the current discussion about the value and execution of policies designed to help integrate newsrooms.

I was the managing editor of a trade magazine that has since gone out of business. Our newsroom, which included several related publications, was, like most newsrooms, overwhelmingly white, and among the staff were good reporters and not-so-good reporters.

To its credit, the publishing company that owned us made a genuine effort to diversify the staff. The result? Stop the presses: Some good reporters and some not-so-good reporters.

While I was there, we ended up with one terrific reporter who we wouldn't have had otherwise. But we also got stuck—does this sound familiar?—with a reporter who should have been dismissed long before her actual departure.

I didn't hire the African-American woman in question, but I probably would have. She was an Ivy League graduate in her late twenties, intelligent and attractive.

There was only one problem: She wasn't a very good journalist.

Her writing was poor, often contained grammatical mistakes, and was sometimes incoherent. When assigned to a story, she often didn't ask the right questions or talk to the right people, or enough of the right people. She missed deadlines.

I edited her copy scrupulously, and gave her back detailed red-lined versions pointing out where she had gone off-track and what she needed to do. When I gave her assignments, I wrote out detailed memos explaining what we needed for the story, who she should talk to, and what she should ask. I talked to her as often as I could about her stories, her work, and the importance of making deadlines.

It didn't work. Her raw copy barely improved, she didn't know how to structure a story, and she didn't have a feel for news. Even worse, she continued to hand in stories late.

When her work and punctuality were criticized, she became increasingly resentful and hostile. She implied she was being singled out because she was the only black woman on staff.

I reached a breaking point when I missed a production deadline because one of her stories was not only late but also so poorly written I had to take time from my other responsibilities to rewrite it. I had had enough. The situation had been going on for more than a year, and things were getting worse. Some people simply aren't—and won't be—good journalists. This woman, I'd become convinced, was one of those people.

I told the editor I thought she was incompetent and shouldn't be on the staff. He knew we'd be much better off without her, but he didn't want to do anything about it beyond rewriting her stories himself. Terminating her was too hot a potato. I don't think he ever said the words "Charlie, if we try to fire her we'll get sued because she's a black woman who's made it clear she'll use her race and gender as a defense," but he didn't have to. We were both thinking it, and he gave me a knowing, defeated look and sadly shrugged his shoulders.

I took the matter up with the editor-in-chief of our division. I brought many examples of the staffers' unpublishable work and recounted the damage caused by her missed deadlines. None of it mattered. I don't remember exactly what words the editor-in-chief used, but she clearly she didn't think the fight was worth the effort.

I could have gone to the publisher, but I didn't. Even though I thought it was eminently worthwhile to replace a lousy writer with a good one, I didn't think I could persuade him to risk a potential lawsuit. And I knew that to stick my neck so far out would hardly be a good career move—a conclusion obviously already reached by the editors above me.

So I gave up. I assigned the woman as few stories as I could, and what she did hand in I passed along to the editor. By the time she really screwed up, I think he had read one too many of her stories. She didn't show up one day, and when the editor checked his voicemail and discovered that she had taken a business trip to California—without his authorization—he hit the roof.

I'm not sure exactly how it went down, but when she returned from California, she met with upper management, and was soon gone. And there was no lawsuit.

So does this prove the point for William McGowan, author of Coloring the News: How Political Correctness Has Corrupted American Journalism? Is his right-wing anti-diversity crowd on target? Do episodes like Blair and the one I witnessed mean that the publishers should abandon or "re-examine" their diversity efforts, as McGowan argues?

Despite what happened, I don't think so. For one thing, the company was reluctant to dismiss other incompetent staffers, all of whom were white. And that's half the point: I don't know about you, but I've seen plenty of unqualified white people keep jobs they had no business having, especially when they had the right relatives or friends.

Much more important, we wouldn't have benefited from the work of one of the best journalists on the staff, a young African-American man recruited through an explicit outreach program. He'd needed a lot of work when he started, I was told—which of course never happens with young, white reporters—but he proved to be a quick study. His copy improved, he built up an enviable list of sources, and he taught himself the ins and outs of the business he was covering.

By the time I became the managing editor, he was a consummate professional. He knew everybody, worked sources as deftly as a skilled surgeon, was an authority in the field, and could write like a dream. I know, because I edited his raw copy, and hardly changed a word.

So, yeah, this guy got a break to get in the door. But so what? I've gotten breaks, Ivy League "legacies" get breaks, people with the right last names get breaks. Just ask the president. Or the Times's publisher.

My guy got a break because he was black—but then he earned the right to stay. And if had not gotten that break, I wouldn't have had one of my best reporters.

Sure there's a problem when people won't admit there's a problem, or are afraid to do anything about it because of guilt or fear. Hell, it's a big problem, and it can really harm a paper, as I saw in a minor way, and the Times is now seeing in a major way. But the answer, it seems to me, is relatively easy—and rooted in common sense: Facts are facts, something is true or isn't, and someone is either where they said they were or they weren't.

The kind of masochistic denial the Times went through with Blair and the kind of paralyzing fear I saw at my publication are both regrettable. If an employee is given many chances to improve but remains incapable of performing credibly, of course there should be consequences. If they can't cut it, they should be cut loose.

But I think that's a separate issue from giving someone a break in the first place—especially someone whose skin color historically would have not only kept him from getting a break but, actually, would have prevented him from getting an opportunity to work in a place like a newsroom.

It just seems disingenuous to argue that the gains of the last 40 years, while substantial, make everything OK and even the score over the last 400 years, that all the harm inflicted by racist policies has been eradicated or that racism really doesn't exist anymore.

The uncomfortable truth about race in the United States should be especially honored by journalists and their publishers, who, after all, are in the business of telling the truth.

Because, really, all you have to do is walk around most newsrooms, and you'll see that truth in black and, mostly, white.

Charles Paikert has edited magazines and newsletters, and he contributes to newspapers including The Star-Ledger, The New York Law Journal, and, yes, The New York Times.

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