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Word Up

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 5/28/2003

On May 1, when Jayson Blair resigned from The New York Times, it was clear that the reporter had lost his journalistic mind. During his four-year tenure at the venerable newspaper, the 27-year-old intern-turned-star reporter had committed egregious professional sins. Assigned to major news stories like the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and sniper shootings last fall, Blair wantonly fabricated quotes and scenes, plagiarized text from other news media, and even faked coverage (reporting from his Brooklyn apartment when supposedly traveling on assignments).

In a 14,000-word opus published on May 11, Times top brass (through their investigative underlings) outlined Blair's career and how he eventually got cold busted for his unethical work. Briefly, too briefly, Times execs also asked tough questions of themselves: How did such a thing happen? Who dropped the ball and who should have caught it? What sick urge made Blair, a talented and driven guy, self-destruct?

A cacophony of questions, and attempts at answers (Blair is a substance abuser who was in over his head professionally, etc.), have kept the Who's Who in national media hopping. Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times chairman and publisher, publicly seething over Blair's betrayal, has refused to "demonize" the paper's editorial executives. Editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd, trapped in the belly of a beast called Damage Control, have flatly denied coddling Blair, who's black, due to the paper's diversity initiatives--an assertion that's gotten Boyd, who's also black, all but pelted with tomatoes, and has prompted seemingly contrite confessions by Raines.

In the May 26 issue of The New Yorker, columnist Hendrik Hertzberg quotes Raines' remarks at a special Times editorial staff meeting soon after Blair resigned:

"I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities." A moment later, [Raines] added, "Does that mean I personally favored Jayson? Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many. . . . When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

Anyone who knows their ABCs can guess what happened next: All across the country, ink flowed about affirmative-action and diversity programs--the social-hand-out equivalent of giving heroin addicts deeds to poppy fields, say detractors; an absolute necessity for the always outnumbered, always outgunned ethnic minority, supporters argue. Other points of view on the matter--written with butt-naked honesty by Miami-based syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and with eloquence by Boston-based journalist Amy Alexander--take issue with how race often foreshadows (good or bad) acts by minorities, while whites who commit similar acts (like disgraced journalists Stephen Glass and Mike Barnicle) suffer less scrutiny and stir less public debate.

"Race is its own planet. The pull it exerts warps perspective and distorts truth," wrote Pitts in a May 16 column. Alexander pointed out that while Blair's actions couldn't help but spark a media-driven debate on hiring practices, he's still a young individual who "suffered from psychological issues that led him to deceive his bosses, his readers, and himself."

Professionally, I have to hand it to journalists like Alexander and Pitts. Never, not even if you promised to give me Laurence Fishburne wrapped inside a Tiffany's gift box, could I write--at least not for long, as you can see--about the Blair episode with any objective aplomb. Whether he's drugged out or just plain stupid and selfish, I'm too through with that young man--precisely because anybody who's been in corporate America long enough to get a paper cut can tell you how Blair's actions will intensify back-room second-guessing among executives at the Times and other newspapers when minorities next come knocking. And let's not talk about what current employees, whatever their race, must be feeling beneath that new, barely invisible managers' spotlight.

It is under such auspices that more stories will be written in the months and years to come about Blair and the media fallout his fall from grace provoked. Oh, and let's steel ourselves for what's already being bantered about as a probable seven-figure book deal where Blair will unleash upon us his "true" story, excuses and all--or not. I can imagine a few quotes suitable for chapter epigrams, like from Talib Kweli's "Get By": "This morning, I woke up/ Feeling brand new and I jumped up/ Feeling my highs, and my lows/ In my soul, and my goals/ Just to stop smokin', and stop drinkin'/ And I've been thinkin'--I've got my reasons."

Or, from Freeway's "Alright": "I'm drunk again/ I'm high again/ I just might fly a kite/ To my niggas upstate knocked off in the pen/ They booked in a jail; I'm booking a flight."

Or, if Blair's rehab or other therapy really sticks, maybe something from TLC's "Waterfall": "Don't go chasing waterfalls/ Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to/ I know that you're gonna have it your way/ Or nothing at all/ But I think you're moving too fast."

Ultimately, any honest account from Blair would signal an attempt to get and stay real, a necessity in the media industry. Speaking of which, I've got a (playful) suggestion for other cub reporters who might try and fill Blair's shoes at the Times. When the would-be bosses start in on Blair's transgressions, hit 'em with Field Mob's "Sick of Being Lonely": "Ahhh, don't finish yo statement/ You alone call me, I'll be yo replacement/ Put me in the game, coach, you can let that lame go."

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Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.

Om (5/5/2004)
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.

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