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Dennis Hans: What If Jayson Blair Were Black?

What If Jayson Blair Were Black?


Maybe the reason white professors and editors adored and promoted Blair is that, aside from skin hue, he was a lot like them
By Dennis Hans

What if Jayson Blair were black?

It’s the one question I haven’t seen raised in the many analyses I’ve read on what went wrong in the case of the young New York Times reporter with the vivid imagination and shaky grasp of ethics.

Now you might say that no one has raised the question for a very good reason: Blair is black.

I concur, but only in part. If I were assembling a cross-section of Americans to illustrate the diversity of our skin colors, I would include Blair as a slightly lighter than average African-American. But if I were assembling a newsroom staff that reflected the experiences and attitudes of our multitude of races, ethnicities and cultures, I would count Blair as a lilywhite suburbanite. Like me.

This is not a matter of who is or is not “authentic.” I consider everyone authentic, from Pat Boone to Eminem, from Clarence Thomas to Malcolm X. I’m authentic and so is Blair. But Blair is an authentic black man who grew up in an upscale white neighborhood with upscale white friends, doing things that white kids do in white settings, going to school with white classmates and learning from white teachers.

His parents inhabited white working worlds — Mom as a school teacher in wealthy Fairfax County and Dad as the Smithsonian Institution’s inspector general — and chose to raise Jayson in a wealthy, white environment. And why not? I can honestly say that I’ve never met a rich white person I didn’t like or wouldn’t want living next door. It’s not the Blairs’ fault that the best schools and the safest, most kid-friendly neighborhoods are in upscale suburbs where few blacks can afford to live.

We’re all a mixture of nature and nurture, and those are some of the authentic nurturing experiences and influences that shaped the way Blair would come to walk, talk, act and think. And maybe even smoke and drink.

[Subhead in bold] Real and fake “diversity”

News media managers who take the idea of “diversity” seriously are looking for a newsroom that reflects the greater community — town, city or nation — it serves. The thinking goes that such a newsroom will be more in touch with the happenings, trends and concerns of the various ethnicities, cultures and sub-cultures in the area. Just as important, reporters and editors from diverse backgrounds will benefit from the daily rubbing of shoulders and newsroom give-and-take. Understanding will increase as preconceived notions are contradicted and, in some cases, confirmed. A diverse staff bodes well for the future, as kids of all backgrounds see people reporting the news who look and sound just like them, which lets them know that journalism is one more career option.

Diversity does not mean a newsroom of straight, white, middle-of-the-road males whose diversity is expressed in the ties they wear. Nor does it mean a multi-hued newsroom comprised of people who share — or have adapted to — the values of straight, white, middle-of-the-road males. Diversity is not just about skin color and ethnicity. It’s about gender, sexual orientation, religion or lack thereof, ideology and other things I could think of if my own thinking weren’t limited in ways of which I myself am unaware.

Media managers who are serious about diversity might well hire a Jayson Blair (assuming they were clueless about his pattern of prevarication dating back to high school). They just wouldn’t count him as black. Maybe he’d be the paper’s designated “chain-smoking, alcoholic, Christian-conservative schmoozer.”

[subhead in bold] Young Blair in black and white

Blair attended Centreville High School, where he was a non-jock who hung out with students who belonged to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, reports Paul Farhi in his fascinating story tracing Blair’s upbringing and early career (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A57448-2003May14?language=printe r).

One of the few African Americans at Centreville, Blair nevertheless fit right in. Lucas Wall, who was a year behind Blair, told Farhi, “He was really well liked and respected.”

Even before Blair joined the school newspaper, he regularly wrote letters to local papers. One that made it into print, Walls recalled, “was a condemnation of homosexuality.” Thus, it shouldn’t have been too surprising that Blair’s first stop after high school was Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. He spent a semester at that mostly white school before moving on to the mostly white University of Maryland. “He seemed to have little interest in movies or music,” Farhi reports. “He apparently had no hobbies, either. He liked to smoke and eat Funyuns, a snack food.”

Nothing in Farhi’s story indicates that Blair had any interest in black culture or developing real friendships with black students or colleagues:

“Perhaps worse was his habit of undercutting other young reporters, particularly African Americans with whom he served on internships at the [Boston] Globe and Times during the late 1990s. When a young black reporter, who'd just joined the Times, made a mistake in one of her stories three years ago, Blair made sure to point it out to her editor, a friend of the reporter says. ‘There was definite tension between Jayson and other young black reporters,’ says a reporter who was a Globe intern in 1996, the same year as Blair. ‘I think he felt there was competition, and he wanted to be the best among his colleagues. He wanted to be known as “the good black” to the senior editors.’”

If that intern’s assessment is on the money, Blair might best be described as “anti-black.” He apparently didn’t feel comfortable with black people and had no sense of solidarity, no attitude of, “Let’s spur each other on so we’ll all shine. There’s room in these newsrooms for all of us.” Rather, this was a chance for Blair to separate himself from a black pack he wanted no part of.

If that is the type of young, seemingly black journalist who easily wins the hearts and minds of white teachers, professors and editors (virtually all of Blair’s promoters were white), the big problem isn’t with Blair. Nor is it with the noble yet unfulfilled objectives behind affirmative action. The big problem is with those particular teachers, professors and editors. They’re nearly as messed up in the head as Blair, but they do far more damage because of their collective clout. That is one of the sobering lessons of the Blair Affair.

# # ENDS # #

©2003 by Dennis Hans

Bio: Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and online at TomPaine Slate and HoopsHype, among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu.


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