When Is a Good Liar Better than a Good Reporter?

When I heard about Jayson Blair, the 27-year-old black reporter at the New York Times who made up at least half of his recent articles, I knew that the spin would be about race. Blair was a minority recruit. Now, according to some critics, he's a poster boy for the repeal of affirmative action.

To its credit, the New York Times hasn't published such drivel. Editors claim that race wasn't a part of the problem. On that score, I think they're wrong.

Race is always an issue; one that, if you live long enough, will work both for and against you. As America gets more diverse, the total number of black and of-color newspaper reporters has stagnated from year to year, in some cases dropping. The failure of America to have a truly integrated media does two things: 1) reinforces racial essentialism (i.e., all black reporters are held accountable for the sins of one; not so for whites) and 2) gives people who really want to play the race game a wide open field in which to do it.

Racial essentialism means that whites are thought of as having no race, and blacks (and to a lesser extent, other non-whites) are thought of as only seeing the world via race. This skewed perspective leads to the assumption that whites are "objective" when covering race (because they are somehow neutral, or raceless) and blacks are biased. It also means that white people don't have to apologize for famous plagarists like the Boston Globe's Mike Barnacle and Ruth Shalit (who penned a controversial article on race in the newsroom for The New Republic). Blacks apparently do.

Journalism is like any profession. There are a smattering of people who make us look bad, including the reporter caught stealing gold from Iraq and the two paid $10,000 each by the National Enquirer for lying about Elizabeth Smart's family. Many examples of journalistic misconduct never make it public. One minority reporter I know received a severance package because his boss, who was white, plagiarized his work. The supervisor was not fired, and the incident was not made public.

Now that we've established journalists aren't perfect, let's get to the bigger issue. News organizations -- hell, all organizations -- like their employees to fit into the culture. That's not bad when there's some flexibility. But too much conformity leads into the trap that Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes in her now-classic "Men and Women of the Corporation." The people who advance the quickest in a company tend to look (usually white and male) and act the most like their superiors. Blair wasn't white, but I suspect he was a skillful mimic who used his knowledge of the corporate culture to get by.

Liars like Blair are shapeshifters who spend at least as much time ingratiating themselves with others as they do on their work. Since his days on the college paper, Blair was known as someone who used his charm to get by. (One wonders, given the outrageousness of the stunts he pulled, exactly how much ass-kissing he had to do.)

This type of charming liar possesses qualities that, at least in the short term, are very appealing to editors. No assignment is too difficult, no request off-base. Real reporters get stuck, or at least find out that the story they uncover is different from the one assigned. Liars don't have this problem.

The best reporters today -- including the best black reporters -- follow the story, not the assignment. This tends to be problematic for many black reporters whose editors challenge their independence, particularly on stories of race. Talented reporters of color who see important story suggestions get shot down too often are branded "troublemakers" and leave the business. That's one reason that the biggest diversity challenge news organizations face is not hiring reporters of color, but retaining them.

There are countless reporters of color with proven track records looking for new opportunities. The question is whether outspoken, honest journalists of color are a better fit than con artists like Blair.

Farai Chideya is the founder of PopandPolitics.com.

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