Accuracy in Media

Keith Olbermann, host of the MSNBC Countdown program, claims he has research showing that most recent cases of fraudulent reporting were committed by white people. That proves, he says, that the case of disgraced former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair has nothing to do with the fact that he is black and benefited from affirmative action. But his research is bogus and his conclusions erroneous.

On his May 12 program, he interviewed Condace Pressley of the National Association of Black Journalists and said, “There have been references today to the color of Mr. Blair’s skin. There was even an article, a column in the New York Times about this subject. We did a little research. Of the last ten prominent journalists who faked something, or plagiarized something, or got fired for things like that?from Stephen Glass in the New Republic to these two yahoos in Salt Lake City two weeks ago?six white men and one white woman. So when somebody says of Jayson Blair, ‘there’s affirmative action for you,’ you know you are hearing an ignorant person speak. But he turned cheating into a constant and the system enveloped him, it protected him. Is it possible it protected him because he was the star minority hire or was there some other reason?”

On cue, Pressley said there was some other reason. But how does his “research” showing that seven out of ten media frauds are white have any bearing on why Blair got away with his deceit? Those “two yahoos” in Utah were fired from the Salt Lake Tribune primarily because they secretly took money from the National Enquirer to assist in a story about the Elizabeth Smart case that later turned out to be untrue. So it may or may not be comparable to the Blair case. Even if Olbermann is correct, that means that three out of ten cases were non-white. That’s more than the minority percentage in the news business. The latest figures show that minorities make up 12 percent of newsrooms.

Pressley, president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), thanked Olbermann for his research and said she was “pleased” with it. She said that Blair’s problems clearly had nothing to do with his race or affirmative action. “We try to do what we can,” said Olbermann.

Olbermann or his staff undoubtedly had access to a press release from Pressley’s group, which hosted black racist Louis Farrakhan at its 1996 convention and gave him a standing ovation. But Olbermann didn’t bring that up. Time magazine columnist Jack E. White commented at the time that NABJ members “cheered enthusiastically as Farrakhan denounced black reporters who work for the white press as ‘slaves.’ Even though the overwhelming majority of N.A.B.J. members work for the white media, they gave Farrakhan a standing ovation.”

If Olbermann’s point is that white people can be as dishonest as black people, that goes without saying. If it is Olbermann’s point that standards have fallen across the board, that was clearly the case with his own “research.” The issue he conveniently failed to research is why Jayson Blair got away with so much for so long. By definition, affirmative action benefits minorities, not whites. So the Blair case has to be examined in the context of how he got his job and stayed at the Times. The Times’ own review demonstrated that he was brought to the paper through an affirmative-action “diversity” program and that, despite serious problems, he was kept on and even promoted because Times editors Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd wanted him to help “diversify” the paper’s newsroom.

Washington Post liberal columnist Richard Cohen has concluded that race was a critical factor. Explaining how and why Blair was promoted, Cohen said, “The answer appears to be precisely what the Times denies: favoritism based on race. Blair is black, and the Times, like other media organizations, is intent on achieving diversity. Sometimes this noble and essential goal comes down to a parody of affirmative action. That seems to be the case with Blair.”

If Blair had not benefited from an affirmative-action program, it might be argued that his case was essentially the same as those of white journalists who were caught plagiarizing. But the Blair case is demonstrably different.

The New York Times has also had a policy of hiring and promoting open homosexuals. That’s part of promoting “diversity,” too. Being black or gay may trump the commitment to good journalism. Other news organizations with diversity programs could suffer the same fate as the Times.

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