Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 14, 2003
POLITICS: Race and Blair
Some commentators have argued that there's something wrong or pernicious in raising questions about whether affirmative action had anything to do with the New York Times' willingness to keep promoting Jayson Blair in the face of mounting evidence that he was incompetent and/or dishonest. There are, to my mind, two obvious reasons why this is a story:
1. It is awfully hard to explain, rationally, why he got away with this, given the huge number of people who expressed doubts or even called for him to be fired. When rational motives fail, try invidious ones. If the shoe fits . . .
2. Had this happened at a less self-righteously PC publication than the Times - say, The New Republic, for example, let alone a conservative paper like the Wall Street Journal - the race point might have been ignored by most commentators. Scam artist being black: not a story. Scam artist being black and working for a paper that loves to talk about its own 'diversity' and editorialize in favor of affirmative action: story. I guarantee that's why people like Kaus and Howard Kurtz are quick to read it this way. In that sense, conservatives have jumped on the Times for this for precisely the same reason liberal commentators jumped on Bill Bennett (albeit with the difference that a massive fraud on the public is a wee bit bigger deal than a guy spending his own money on slot machines): because the Times has been such a scold on issues of race and trumpeted its own willingness to promote "diversity," there's a natural impulse to put them on the spot when a beneficiary of such programs blows up in the paper's face.
And in one very important respect, that instinct has been dead-on: although its now-famous probe of itself referred, among other things, to the fact that "[t]he Times offered him a slot in an internship program that was then being used in large part to help the paper diversify its newsroom," the Times has steadfastly resisted the idea that any preference was given to Blair that would not have been given had he been white.
You must see the problem for the Times: the paper has repeatedly editorialized that it's perfectly OK to use even the stark racial preferences exposed in the Michigan affirmative action cases - but when pressed, the Times is unwilling to admit that it would give preference to an inferior journalist on the basis of race! In other words, when the paper's own credibility is on the line, it won't stand up for racial preferences, even when the alternative explanation is that the Times just doesn't give a damn about the quality of its newspaper.
Can there be a better illustration of why racial preferences are immoral? When even their most determined champions won't admit to them in the harsh light of day? Bill Bennett, at least, never preached in favor of gambling. The Times wants to discriminate on the basis of race - but only in secret, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. That, in the end, is a much bigger story than one reporter.