Leonard Pitts is a professionally irritated man.
A syndicated columnist based at the Miami Herald, Pitts often writes about race relations, an issue about which he is said to have some special insight because Pitts himself is black — a qualification about which he often reminds his readers. Addressing the predictable backlash against the affirmative action regime in his columns — couching his rhetoric in an empathetic voice to the anger — Pitts ultimately defends the politically correct race politics that institutionalize division in society.
It pays to do so. Pitts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his writing earlier this year, making him this generation’s William Raspberry.
We should not be too impressed. Such prizes serve to defend conspicuous left-leaning biases in American newsrooms (which is why most of the interesting journalism that exists today is found on the Internet). Luckily for Pitts, taking the state’s side in today’s race politics requires little deep thought. Since no two people are the same it is easy to find differences between blacks and whites, decry a double standard, and defend reforms based on the application of legal violence in the form of "civil rights" legislation.
It is equally easy — and equally dishonest — to question the motives of thinking people who criticize this approach.
Pitts did this most recently in a column decrying the public reaction to two recent journalism scandals, namely, the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley plagiarism cases. Both men were caught lifting other people’s words and making up sources and stories out of whole cloth. Both men were fired amid much public hand wringing — Blair from the overrated New York Times and Kelley from the overly-simplistic USA Today. Both are likely looking for work somewhere outside of the journalism profession (although their problems with the truth make them especially qualified for careers in politics).
Pitts, of course, believes that the public shaming of Kelley was somewhat milder than that endured by Blair because Kelley’s race was never mentioned as a factor in his actions. He asks:
Did USA Today advance a moderately capable journalist because he was white? Did some white editor mentor him out of racial solidarity even though Kelley was unqualified? In light of this fiasco, should we reexamine the de facto affirmative action that gives white men preferential treatment in our newsrooms?
To Pitts, the answer is yes. Of course, to answer otherwise, like Jennifer Harper of the Washington Times (who wrote that the Blair episode was a "case study on the effects of affirmative action in the newsroom"), is to deny yourself the Pulitzer.
But there are several reasons why Pitts is wrong, and that the Blair and Kelley cases are somewhat more complicated than he can see through his race-tinted glasses.
Forgive us for belaboring the obvious, but USA Today is not the New York Times. While USA Today can be a fun read and somewhat informative, it has made its mark by being chatty and brief. To compare it to the Times is like comparing People Magazine to Time or Newsweek. The talent and maturity needed to work at the New York Times is greater than one needs for USA Today — no matter how much its editors might complain to the contrary.
Furthermore, the executive editor at USA Today never appeared before a "white journalists" organization and pointed out Jack Kelley as being a wonderful example of hiring white people. On the other hand, former executive editor of the Times, Howell Raines, did just that when speaking to an organization of black journalists, pointing out the high profile that Jayson Blair had at his newspaper.
Yet, something about Pitts’ diatribe does ring true, as in the weeks following the revelations about the failures of Blair, people like Jennifer Harper (and one of us) raised the race issue, or, more specifically, the issue of affirmative action. Conversely, no one has gone to great lengths (until Pitts wrote his column) to point out that Kelley is white. While Pitts uses this set of circumstances to hint that the modern newsroom is full of Klansmen, in reality a typical newsroom contains a collection of "politically correct" people not to be rivaled outside a Barbara Streisand dinner party.
For many years, news organizations have engaged in something akin to a Maoist self-criticism session when discussing the sex and racial makeup of their newsrooms. They need not worry today whether or not they have the right "mix." Blacks cover "black issues," homosexual men and women cover "gay and lesbian" stories, pro-choice women cover marches for and against abortion, and Democrats cover Republicans (and Democrats as well).
As long as things go well — that is, journalists do not offend leftists — the situation is tolerable. However, when obvious affirmative action hires blow up in their faces, as was the case with Blair and with Janet Cooke at the Washington Post more than 20 years ago (the infamous "Jimmy’s World" affair), then politically-correct journalists find themselves scrambling.
In other words, Pitts is correct in that the Blair case was tied up in the politics of race, while the Kelley case was not. However, his conclusion — that this proves that white journalists are a bunch of racists — is a non sequitur. It was the Times management itself that engaged in self-congratulations when it hired Blair, and then assigned him to high-profile stories, bypassing more experienced (and talented, not to mention accurate) reporters in the process.
The whole thing fell apart only after it became so painfully obvious that Blair was writing fiction, and the Times management could not cover for him anymore. Furthermore, it was Blair himself who insisted on making the issue a racial one, penning the title Burning Down My Master’s House for the "kiss-and-tell" book he has written about this whole sorry affair. (And let’s face it, whatever Blair writes in that book is almost certain to be fiction, given the fact that he is an immature sociopath.)
No, in the end people were justified using the Blair incident to question the larger state-enforced policies of affirmative action. The management of the Times engaged in the worst kind of self-congratulations in the hiring and promotions of Jayson Blair, something that white editors at USA Today never did with Kelley. Furthermore, it is doubtful that Jack Kelley is going to be writing a book anytime soon with a title of something like A White Supremacist Journalist Tells All, or Why the Stupid White People at USA Today Who Hired Me got What They Deserved.
No, Kelley will go to the place where all disgraced journalists should go — far away from the business. (Janet Cooke ended up as a department store clerk.) Blair, on the other hand, is still writing for pay. If Pitts wishes to examine the aftermath of these incidents of dishonesty from a racial point of view, perhaps he should look at why any publisher would wish to sell Burning Down My Master’s House. But then again, if he were honest, such an introspective look would provide the answer for the question he asked — the answer he does not want to hear.
May 1, 2004
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. Christopher Westley [send him mail] teaches economics at Jacksonville State University, Alabama.