PBS Sets Up Minority Journalists to Complain Jayson Blair Scandal 'Wounded Newsroom Diversity'

A forthcoming PBS documentary reviewing the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal at The New York Times will feature the Latina reporter who exposed Blair to complain that the scandal that followed “gave people permission” to stop focusing on newsroom diversity.

Tim Molloy of The Wrap reports Macarena Hernandez “said that as newspapers have suffered financially, there has been far less emphasis on hiring people of color — because of the prejudicial belief that Blair’s case discredits all efforts at making newsrooms look like the communities they serve.” But will PBS ignore the role of race in Blair’s rapid ascent at the Times?

The Times itself buried an account by media reporter Jacques Steinberg then-executive editor Howell Raines confessed a racial bias to the Times staff:

Before opening the session to questions, Mr. Raines made a pre-emptive attempt to address whether Mr. Blair's race -- he is black -- had played a role in his being added last fall to the team covering the hunt for the snipers in the Washington area.

Only six months earlier, Mr. Blair, 27, had been found to be making so many serious errors as a reporter on the metropolitan staff that he had been informed that his job was in jeopardy.

"Our paper has a commitment to diversity and by all accounts he appeared to be a promising young minority reporter," Mr. Raines said. "I believe in aggressively providing hiring and career opportunities for minorities."

"Does that mean I personally favored Jayson?" he added, a moment later. "Not consciously. But you have a right to ask if I, as a white man from Alabama, with those convictions, gave him one chance too many by not stopping his appointment to the [D.C.] sniper [reporting] team. When I look into my heart for the truth of that, the answer is yes."

It’s fair for minority reporters to complain that the Blair scandal raised questions about using race as a major hiring criterion. But they can’t avoid that race played a role in Blair’s reporting errors being tolerated if not ignored. Molloy reported:

Macarena Hernandez was in a remarkable position: a former classmate and colleague of Blair, she wrote the article alerting the New York Times to his plagiarism. But she said exposing Blair led to fewer opportunities for African-American journalists, as well as Hispanic journalists like herself.

Reporters and editors, many of them resentful of Blair’s rapid rise at the New York Times, unfairly blamed Affirmative Action programs — and by extension suggested that all journalists of color somehow owed their success to their color.

“It was a very difficult moment, because we all became suspect,” said New York Times writer Lena Williams, who worked with Blair and covers race relations. “They said it was because of the Times and the affirmative action program, he should never have been there, some of us didn’t deserve to work at the New York Times. And so we were defending ourselves as reporters. We were defending the race, we felt.”

“Across the board there were reporters who felt that they were under intense scrutiny,” she said.

Blair plagiarized the work of Hernandez and others during his flameout, which included a struggle with mental illness and cocaine and alcohol abuse. His story is told in the Independent Lens film “A Fragile Trust,” debuting on PBS on  May 5.

From 2003: Brent Bozell column on "Jayson Blair, Star Pupil"

Ten years ago: Clay Waters says Jayson Blair's memoir is "pretty lousy"

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