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Ethics, not ethnicity, at heart of Blair plagiarism accusations, SPJ says



Robert Leger
, President, 417/425-9140
Sally Lehrman, Diversity Committee Chair, 650/ 728-8211

INDIANAPOLIS—The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest organization of journalists, takes issue with those media critics who link affirmative action and diversity programs to the journalistic failures of Jayson Blair, the former reporter for The New York Times who resigned over charges of plagiarism and lying in his stories.

As the misleading argument goes: Blair must have committed these heinous journalistic crimes because he was brought along too fast—because he was black. The Times was so eager to diversify its staff that executives gave unaccustomed leeway and hasty promotion to a shaky novice reporter—because he was black.

Yes, Jayson Blair is black. By all reports, he is also a troubled man. He is described as an office hotshot, a gossip and schmoozer who was adept at playing office politics. He cultivated personal connections with top editors. He was a young, competitive man in a hurry—hungry for scoops, for recognition.

Another young man, Stephen Glass—back in the news with a novelistic account of his own fabrications several years ago—made up anecdotes and whole stories for the New Republic and other fine magazines. He was described as overly ambitious, hungry, a schmoozer of his bosses who was desperate to make a name for himself. It was never argued that the color of his skin had anything to do with his offense. Glass is white.

Yet when Jayson Blair, for many of the same reasons, committed many of the same acts, his race was all that many armchair analysts noticed.

“People inside and out of our business should be ashamed of themselves for seizing the tragic Jayson Blair case as a vehicle to tarnish affirmative action and diversity programs,” said Robert Leger, SPJ president and editorial page editor at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.

“Our standards remain high when everyone’s performance is measured by the same yardstick. If anything, Mr. Blair benefited more from a buddy system with blinders than from an affirmative action development program,” Leger said. “An individual’s performance day-to-day, regardless of color or gender, determines whether he or she stays in an organization. Jayson Blair was simply a wreck waiting to happen, regardless of his color. That The Times allowed the wreck to happen tells more about the paper’s editing and management process than it does about affirmative action.”

Despite the strides made in the past 40 years, diversity efforts still are needed to open the hiring process to highly qualified minority reporters and editors. Yet when a minority reporter fails, critics cite it as proof that diversity doesn’t work. When a white reporter fails, those same critics are silent. SPJ urges the critics of diversity to note: Incompetence is an equal opportunity attribute.

“A healthy, constructive discussion on this matter would move beyond simplistic and wrong assertions,” Leger said. “It would instead address what news organizations can do to ensure they have safeguards in place to protect themselves, our work and the public from people who would act in ways that undermine the fragile public trust we have. A person’s color or gender has nothing to do what that and should not in the Jayson Blair case.”

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

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