[Mediapolitics] MEDIA JUSTICE: What If Jayson Blair Were Black?

Art McGee amcgee at virtualidentity.org
Fri Jun 13 04:03:01 PDT 2003


Take Back The Media

May 26, 2003


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.

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

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

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

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.


Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in
the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada)
and online at TomPaine.com, Slate and The Black World Today
(tbwt.com), 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 at popmail.firn.edu.

Copyright (c) 2003 Dennis Hans. All Rights Reserved.

More information about the mediapolitics mailing list