News & Politics

No New Lessons in Blair Con Act

The only thing these scam artists teach us is that much of the media keeps a hawk like watch for the slightest whiff of celebrity scandal and sensationalist violence.
Ex-New York Times con artist Jayson Blair now says that he will tell all in a book with an asking price of seven figures. Supposedly, we will learn how and why a young and troubled black journalist did so many bad things to so many people, and the lessons that can be drawn from his journalistic carnage. A few writers and pundits have even bought into this malarkey and say that Blair's story will bring "healing" and "closure" to the sordid tale of rotten behavior, journalistic gullibility, and of course, racial manipulation.

But it has repeatedly been pointed out that Blair is hardly the first journalist to lie, cheat, and distort, make an ass of their bosses and then parlay their misdeeds into a bonanza of feature articles, TV interviews and lucrative book deals. The pantheon of journalistic frauds -- Janet Cooke, Michael Finkel, and Stephen Glass were back in the spotlight with Blair's caper.

Yet, the only thing these scam artists teach us is that much of the media watches like a hawk for the slightest whiff of celebrity scandal and sensationalist violence. This stokes the public's insatiable appetite for titillation.

That in turn boosts TV ratings and sells papers.

Blair seems to have mastered this game well, and is still playing the media like a finely-tuned Stradivarius. He has dropped well-placed tidbits with reporters that he made laughing stocks out of the New York Times editors. Then in the next breath he drapes himself in a cloak of respectability by promising that his book will tell the real story of how newsrooms teem with racists, opportunists, and authoritarian, domineering bosses. If he gets the seven-figure book deal that he's angling for, he'll laugh all the way to the bank. Let's hope book publishers don't fall for this malarkey. Again, that's the hope.

Then there's the racial issue. When the scandal broke, a bevy of conservative writers and talk show hosts instantly wagged their fingers and crowed, "See I told you so." This is the mess you get when you dump "them," i.e. unqualified minorities, and women into the newsrooms, and presumably by extension, corporations. No matter that there are hundreds of black, Latino, and Asian-American columnists and reporters working at newspapers around the country who are regarded by their peers as consummate professionals, turn out first rate, accurate stories and columns, and have won numerous awards for excellence. They were ignored, or conveniently forgotten, in the stampede to make Blair the poster boy for everything that supposedly is wrong with affirmative action.

It was probably too much to hope that the story would simply be spun as one bad guy who did bad things. The Supreme Court is poised to rule on the lawsuit by white students at the University of Michigan to dump affirmative action.

But even if Blair had never fabricated a story, cheated on his expense account, or even existed, anti-affirmative action opponents would have found some other way to play up their diversity-gone-haywire spiel in order to torpedo affirmative action.

Many black reporters instantly understood the potential long-term peril in the Blair tale. A number of them have weighed in on the scandal on the on-line, BlackAmericaWeb. They expressed fears that they, and other black reporters, would be hopelessly tainted by Blair's bad behavior. This is not a false or exaggerated fear, or racial paranoia. A survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, found that the number of minority journalists in newsrooms had dropped in 2001. But even more alarming, it found that nearly half of newspapers had no minority journalists. With the Blair shadow hovering over newsrooms, editors and publishers may fear that they could be called on the carpet for every gaffe or goof, no matter how innocent, a black reporter makes. This would make them less than gung ho in promoting newsroom diversity. There's also the fact that despite Blair's youth and relative inexperience, he was given plum writing assignments. That could make some editors think twice about awarding career-making assignments to minority reporters.

The FCC is now scheduled to vote June 2 on whether to ease the restrictions on corporate ownership of TV stations and newspapers. If the FCC votes, as expected, to ease some restrictions, this could mean more mergers. This could also adversely affect minority hiring by decreasing the number of positions in newsrooms; indeed it could even decrease the number of newsrooms.

Blair proved that one man could lie, cheat, and scam his way up the ladder, and for a time get away with it. And then when caught attain instant fame, and perhaps line his pockets. But that story has been written and played out so often that you don't need a fact checker to verify that. And that won't heal or bring closure to the thorny issues of race, and journalistic credibility.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.
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