A bad apple doesn’t spoil diversity (Editorial)

In a profession built around truth, New York Times reporter Jayson Blair committed the ultimate sin of making it up as he went along.

The young black writer has become a public relations headache for the Times since it was revealed the 27-year-old’s career is a trail of plagiarism, lifted quotes and faked interviews. How did a chronic liar exist for years within one of the world’s most distinguished newspapers? For many observers Blair’s race is the answer.

Opponents of diversity initiatives were quick to jump on the case as an example of all that is wrong with diversity programs. Critics charge the Times favoured Blair and overlooked signs of trouble because he was black.

The Times, which has launched a probe of management and practices, maintains race is not a factor, that the Blair saga is simply a case of a “young journalist intent on journalistic fraud.”

If the Times indeed gave Blair leeway because it wanted to encourage diversity, critics should wonder why a paper of this size still feels the need to coddle a young black male. Aren’t there enough black males in the business to fill the the newspaper’s ranks? If there isn’t, doesn’t this reinforce the need for diversity initiatives?

Interestingly, Blair’s self-confessed alcohol and drug problems have garnered far less attention. Critics who jumped on the race issue could just have easily been asking, “What does this say about the ability of corporations to spot addictions in their ranks, and refer staff to employee assistance programs?”

In the bigger picture, whether or not the Times favoured Blair because of race is not the issue. It is the use of Blair as an example of diversity gone wrong that is the concern.

By linking a management gap at the Times with the principle of diversity in the workforce, those who would use Blair as the anti-quota system poster boy disparage equity initiatives on flimsy evidence. It’s also an unfair slight to minority journalists and other minority professionals everywhere. One rogue reporter is hardly representative of anything.

The moral argument for diversity has been backed up by other positives such as being able to draw from a larger labour pool, and better understanding and connecting with a broad-based clientele.

The case for developing a diverse workforce is far removed from an incident in the Times newsroom. Building inclusive workplaces shouldn’t be derailed by a frenzy of media critics harping on the failings of one reporter.

UPDATE FROM THE SEPT. 8, 2003 EDITOR'S NOTES: June 16’s Editor’s Notes examined the case of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair. Blair was found to have made up interviews and plagiarized others, putting a spotlight on the paper’s editors and processes. Because Blair is black, many critics suggested the Times’ editors ignored signs he was problematic because the young writer was an outward symbol that diversity was alive and well in the newsroom.

Canadian HR Reporter offered the opinion that, “Building inclusive workplaces shouldn’t be derailed by a frenzy of media critics harping on the failings of one reporter.”

Two senior editors at the Times, including managing editor Gerald Boyd, resigned because of the Blair scandal. Boyd, who is also black, recently spoke about the case at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Dallas. The Washington Post ran the following excerpts from his speech.

“Some have suggested that I looked the other way because Jayson is black. That is absolutely untrue.

“What no one knew was that we were managing a deeply troubled young man whose problems took us away from core journalistic values.

“If the legacy of the Jayson Blair scandal is that people will be slowing down, cutting back or taking a tougher look at diversity in the newsroom, then it will be a tragedy beyond the pale.”

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