Jayson Blair and the Tragedy of Affirmative Action

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As one who has both detested and admired the New York Times for many years, I find the latest show of angst at the once-great newspaper to be tragic and amusing, a veritable Theatre of the Absurd. The New York Times, which for years has been shilling for affirmative action finds itself bitten by the underside of its limousine liberal policies — and there now exists a permanent blight on what was seriously considered "the newspaper of record."

The facts of the story have been everywhere, but they are worth repeating. The Times hired Blair at age 23, who was the editor of the daily student newspaper at the University of Maryland (although he was never graduated from college) and showed a promising flair for writing and reporting. The nice thing about his apparent journalistic talents was that Blair was black, and publications like the Times are always on the lookout for good talents who also are racial minorities.

However, it was not long before the wunderkind began to demonstrate flaws, lots and lots of flaws. As one might expect in the ideologically charged environment that characterizes the Times, Blair’s conscientious colleagues and immediate supervisors realized that for all his talents, Blair was sloppy, unreliable, and notoriously inaccurate. They did what all conscientious employees do: complain to their supervisors.

Blair, unfortunately for those journalists who take their work seriously, had an insurance policy, as he had become the Poster Child of Affirmative Action for Howell Raines, the Times’ increasingly unpopular editor. Raines is an Alabama native who is forever stuck in a 1963 time warp of George Wallace "standing at the schoolhouse door" and is convinced that every white Alabamian has a white, hooded sheet in his closet. Raines saw Blair as his great trophy and nothing, not even reports of Blair’s troubles with the truth, was to be permitted to disturb what can only be called Raines’ religious beliefs.

Once the whole thing became unraveled, however, not even Raines could save his own monstrous creation. As for now, Raines still has his job, but his reputation is forever ruined, and the Times will have to climb out of a hole just like the Washington Post had to do 22 years ago when the "Jimmy’s World" scandal blew up in their faces.

An interesting tie between "Jimmy’s World" (where the Post had to return a Pulitzer Prize because the winning story turned out to be pure fiction written by Janet Cooke) and the latest meltdown at the Times is that the perpetrators of the journalistic hoaxes both were Affirmative Action employees. Cooke, who like Blair rarely had a close relationship with that thing called Truth, was attractive, a good writer, and, most important to the Post management, was black. And like Blair, Cooke found her "creative" work scrutinized by her peers but was protected by her superiors, including Bob Woodward and Ben Bradlee, because they wanted her to succeed and would not hear otherwise.

I need to make it clear that these fiascos do not by themselves discredit policies of Affirmative Action. At one level, I can understand the desire of employers to be able to hire qualified people of all races. Contrary to what we may read on the New York Times editorial page, white employers are not all vicious racists who believe that racial minorities should be relegated to cleaning toilets.

That being said, I believe that Affirmative Action is thoroughly bankrupt in every way possible, and I say this from a different vantage point than what comes from most people. I have two adopted sons from Ethiopia, and no doubt in the future there will be all sorts of opportunities available to them because of their race — and I can understand it if they take advantage of them. However, I would rather they not, since I think that in the end taking advantage of "minority opportunities" ultimately will retard their growth.

There are many reasons, I believe, why we should oppose Affirmative Action policies, but the most important, in my opinion, is that they ultimately sets back progress for those who are protected by it. Yes, it promotes inequality under the law, and I am aware of other arguments in opposition to it, but I wish to concentrate on one area in this limited space.

Let us look at the case of Blair, who at age 27 will be forever banned from journalism — and for good reason. (More than a decade after her public sins, Cooke was working as a $7 an hour department store clerk, never again to enter a newsroom.) Blair, for all his faults, is a talented writer, but by hiring him at age 23, the Times all but guaranteed he would be a failure, although no one could have predicted just how spectacular his fall from grace would be.

Few 23-year-old males are prepared for the rarified atmosphere of the New York Times newsroom. While I may not like what often comes from that newspaper, I must admit that the writers at the Times are very talented and hard working. Furthermore, for the most part they are mature adults, and they demand their colleagues act in a way that is more appropriate to the workplace of a prestigious newspaper, not a fraternity house.

I believe that one of the great tragedies of Affirmative Action is that it all but ensures that many talented people who are racial minorities will not advance as far as they would were such policies not in place. For example, in the academic world a teacher gains tenure by compiling a record of adequate-to-good teaching and a list of academic publications. All too often, however, racial minorities face lower hurdles to tenure because colleges and universities are desperate to hire and retain them. Therefore, they are tenured despite the fact that they did not have to be as productive as white or Asian colleagues.

However, by permitting an easier path to tenure for some minorities, colleges and universities also are guaranteeing people in such categories will not have to develop the requisite skills needed to go farther in their chosen area of work. What that means professionally is that while the hurdle from assistant to associate professor might be relatively low, the bar to full professorship is much higher and people who have not learned their craft well in their early years are less likely to reach the top rungs on the ladders than those who have had to survive the full process with all of its unfairness and arbitrariness. Thus, one can say that the so-called glass ceiling for minorities might very well be the result of Affirmative Action policies that do not require them to learn and develop important skills needed for later success.

On the case of Blair, had he started like other reporters at a smaller newspaper, he would have been forced to learn not only the skills of accurate reporting but also would have had to learn proper behavior — or hit the road. No doubt, someone of his personality would have learned some hard but not fatal lessons had he been forced to go through the same processes that others must experience.

Instead, we have a young black man who believed that his status as a minority protected him from the rules that bound all of his colleagues, and for a while it did. However, in the end, even Howell Raines could not ignore the obvious and when Blair fell, he did so in a spectacular and fatal fashion. Had he committed some of the same errors at the Podunk Times, he could have learned and recovered, as his name would not have been nationally known as the Big Liar. Instead, his obvious immaturity drove him to engage in egregious errors in a national setting, thus destroying his career and probably his life.

Supporters of Affirmative Action most likely would counter that without such policies, minorities never would get a fair shake, and the Jayson Blairs, while embarrassing to those minority employees who have done well within the system, still do not undermine the necessity for the government to be looking over the shoulders of employers to make sure they hire their "fair share" of those who are not white males.

It is hard to know what would have developed in the past 35 years in the absence of Affirmative Action. No doubt, some minorities have been hired because of such policies, but they also have a way of backfiring, I believe. For example, the latest protests because the University of Alabama did not hire a black coach to fill the spot of the recently-deposed Mike Price actually will make it more difficult for black coaches to make it to the top spots.

That is because race-based policies make it much more difficult to fire black workers than white workers. Coaching at high levels is a difficult enterprise and coaches are fired all the time. It would not be difficult to fire a white coach who compiled a mediocre record at Alabama, but the scrutiny the university would face for firing a black coach whose teams went 7-4 for two consecutive seasons would be enormous, and most administrators do not want to play that losing game. Football fans and players, after all, want their team to win, period, and they do not want their team to be used as a social experiment.

Despite Raines’ protestations, Jayson Blair was a product of Affirmative Action, which ultimately helped to ruin his career. Raines says that Blair is to blame for everything, and at one level he is correct. A person should be responsible for his or her conduct. However, by hiring a young man who clearly was not ready or mature enough for the job at hand, Howell Raines ensured that his slavish devotion to Affirmative Action would help to forever sully the reputation of a proud newspaper.

Will Raines and supporters of Affirmative Action learn anything from this? I doubt it, as the religion is very strong, and should these folks reject it, they have nowhere else to go. It is too bad that this will ultimately be laid at the feet of Blair, as I think there is much blame to go around. Instead, the supporters of these flawed policies will circle the wagons and get ready for the next disaster that Affirmative Action brings upon them, all the while blaming the whole mess on others.

May 16, 2003

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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