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Black, white and red-faced

May 17, 2003

A stuffed moose made an appearance last week at the big New York Times staff meeting (held in a Broadway movie theater) to deal with the uproar over the fraudulent reporting of Jayson Blair, the young black Times reporter who has resigned. To the Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the moose is a variation of the elephant in the living room that nobody wants to talk about. So Sulzberger brought along the stuffed moose to encourage staffers to be candid.

OK. In the spirit of the moose, let’s be candid. Yes, we need more minority reporters and editors. But when applicants don’t meet the usual standards of their publications, those publications are signing on for big trouble.

Because many newsrooms employ quota systems, many inexperienced, unprepared blacks and Hispanics are hired there. Some are almost guaranteed to be in over their heads. Often these underqualified editors and reporters are there because the company wants to look racially progressive or avert mau-mauing from people like Jesse Jackson — not because of an abundance of confidence in the people it hires, as should be the case.

Since they are hired under double standards, if they don’t produce, they cause resentment in some newsrooms. Some are essentially isolated and abandoned by their white bosses or consigned to a marginal role in the office, rarely trusted with major assignments.

Hiring underqualified people to meet quotas duplicates what some elite universities have done: get the admission rates up, and hope people don’t notice the higher dropout rates. It’s a system that does minorities no favors.

The pressures to relax standards are rising. The American Society of Newspaper Editors is leaning heavily on papers to meet a goal of 38 percent minority employees by 2025. The figure is 11.5 percent today. The newspaper industry is a declining business with concerns about its ability to hold minority employees. Under those conditions, can newspapers triple the percentage of nonwhites in two decades while maintaining standards? What are the papers willing to do about the low SAT verbal skill scores posted among minorities it wishes to sign up in big numbers? (And doesn’t the ASNE plan leave very little room for the hiring of whites?)

One white reporter at the Times told me that years ago he languished at the top of the “white list” of candidates, waiting for the paper to find a nonwhite employee to balance him with. One-for-one hiring apparently no longer exists at the Times. But don’t bet that it won’t show up at many other papers.

There’s another problem newspapers must face: the impact on coverage when the publishers and owners of newspapers sign on to the spreading ideology of “diversity.” Times publisher Sulzberger talks constantly about his paper’s deep and enduring commitment to diversity and once made the preposterous statement that “diversity is the single most important issue” facing the Times.

Diversity, which has morphed into a quasi-religious civic ideology, is a broad belief system, one that Times reporters and editors can’t examine with ordinary journalistic skepticism. As author Peter Wood writes in his new book, “Diversity: the Invention of a Concept,” the diversity movement is an attempt to alter the root assumptions on which American society is based, chiefly by downgrading individual merit and common standards in favor of separatism and group rights. In other words, diversity is a political position, not just a feel-good term or a call for hiring more minorities.

By committing itself so strongly to one side of the argument over diversity, the Times undermines its mission to present news disinterestedly. One black reporter said at the Times’ mass meeting that there are two important views on race among whites in the Times newsroom, Upper West Side liberalism and Southern guilt. She has a point about the white liberal monoculture of the Times. It is hard for staffers to buck the paper’s ever-hardening party line on racial issues, built around affirmative action, group representation and government intervention.

Reporters do not thrive by resisting the deeply held views of their publisher and editor (in this case, Sulzberger and Alabama-born, lifelong racial penitent Howell Raines). When opinionated publishers are heavily committed to any cause, the staff usually responds by avoiding coverage that casts that cause in a bad light. Credibility fades. It’s happening at the Times now, and at other papers, too.

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