|Jayson Blair, the RPI and APA Heritage Month|
By Emil Guerrero
San Francisco Chronicle
May 20, 2003
They show how complicated race is in America these days and how things aren't always what they appear.
It's a threesome that would have given Carnac the Magnificent fits.
Too young or hip to remember Johnny Carson's Carnac? Let me update a joke I found on the Carson Web site.
Carson would wear a big turban, place a hermetically sealed envelope to his head, divine an answer, ridicule Ed McMahon and then say something like, "Firestone, Tuck and Jayson Blair."
He'd then rip open the envelope, blow in it, and read his prophetic answer's actual question -- in this case "Name a tire, a friar and a liar."
Much already has been said about Blair, the New York Times reporter forced to resign for repeated plagiarism.
But what surprises me are all the attacks aimed at affirmative-action programs in journalism, as if affirmative action is to blame for the Times' journalistic sins.
Frankly, before the Times' big mea culpa last week, I had never seen Blair, and I thought of him as I do most print reporters -- as some kind of font style. In print, Times New Roman is as close to an ethnic classification as it gets. It's the beauty of print journalism. You can't tell one's race, or when someone's having a bad hair day.
If I had to guess, I would have assumed Blair was white. Why buck the odds? But no, he's black.
Newsrooms in America are roughly 87.5 percent white and 12.5 percent minority, according to the latest American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) survey.
The ASNE puts the Times' newsroom at 83 percent white, 17 percent minority.
If there's evil in the Jayson Blair story, it's not from affirmative action, which, by the numbers, hasn't worked so well in journalism. Consider that a highlight of ASNE's 2003 diversity report card is how the number of papers with no minorities dropped from 471 papers to 373. Just imagine, only 373 newspapers with all-white staffs in modern-day America! Hip, hip, hooray!
The ASNE first realized something was wrong back in 1978, when it determined newspapers should mirror our country's diversity by 2000. But when that year came, they were so far off the mark, a more realistic time frame was established -- another 25 years. By 2025, newspapers hope to reach ideal staff diversity: about 31 percent minority.
It's been a long, slow crawl to parity.
(In the latest survey, here's how a few papers fared in the great, diverse state of California: The Chronicle's staff is 16.1 percent minority, and the Los Angeles Times' is 20.1 percent. But The Sacramento Bee was close to the ASNE goal, at 29.6 percent, and San Jose's Mercury News had exceeded the "ideal" level, at 33.2 percent -- but not like Salinas' Californian, at 44.4 percent).
Considering the state of diversity in the newsroom, I can see why people might feel the Times was trying to improve its diversity totals. But in a report in Editor and Publisher, Times Managing Editor Gerald Boyd flatly denied Blair's minority status had anything to do with the second or third chances granted him. Boyd, an African American, told the trade publication that the same recruitment program actually promoted more white reporters to staff positions than minorities.
No, affirmative action isn't to blame in the Blair case. What we have here is a snowball of poor choices by an individual and by managers who created their own brand of office politics. You were in, or you were out of, the ol' boy network. And your location wasn't based on race.
A student in a journalism class I teach asked, "Can the Times really investigate itself?"
Hmm. Anyone for an independent counsel?
If race does play a factor in this story, it could very well appear in the postmortem.
Newsweek writer Seth Mnookin said on the Today show that Blair had been recuperating in a hospital setting for what friends said was "alcoholism, cocaine abuse and mental illness." But as Mnookin, who talked to Blair via cell phone, said, "Everything with Jayson is slippery."
Another report has an agent looking for book and television possibilities for Blair. (What do you think? Maybe he could host a journalistic version of "To Tell the Truth"?)
I certainly would like to see how the world treats Blair once he resurfaces. Especially now that even more doubts have been raised about his work when he freelanced for The Boston Globe in 1998.
By coincidence, Blair was at the Globe the same time veteran columnist Mike Barnicle was caught in a plagiarism scandal.
Barnicle (who is white), was accused of taking material from comedian George Carlin's book "Brain Droppings." He escaped with a suspension. But when it was revealed he also made up a column in 1995 about two children with cancer, one black and one white, the Globe, a New York Times paper, was forced to let Barnicle go.
But it wasn't an isolated case. There were many more Barnicle droppings, some that went back to 1973. All are well documented in the Boston Herald and Boston's Phoenix and on Salon. Some of his exploits resulted in lawsuits and out-of-court settlements.
But somehow he always kept his newspaper job and was never forced into the late shift at a Dunkin' Donuts.
What's the "disgraced" Barnicle doing now? Like Monica Lewinsky, he fell up. He's working as a columnist for the New York Daily News, has his own radio show and appears often on cable.
I wonder if Jayson Blair will get similar treatment?
Or will his fate be a new addendum to the familiar minority journalist's lament, "Last hired, first fired."
Will Blair "stay mired"?
Look for race as a factor not in the commission of the sin but in the absence of redemption.
I'd say Blair will grow barnacles before he gets the same breaks as the ex-Globe columnist.
I admit to being color-blind on the Jayson Blair story until some commentators insisted race was an issue.
But that doesn't mean color blindness is always a virtue. Race is all too often relevant. Just look what happened to Ward Connerly when his pet issue came before the UC Board of Regents last week.
Connerly, the main backer of the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI) -- the proposal that would ban government from collecting information on race -- was soundly rebuked when the regents voted overwhelmingly to oppose the measure.
"The RPI" is the common name for the March 2004 ballot measure known as Classification by Race, Ethnicity, Color or National Origin.
I actually heard someone try to make that into an acronym. CRECNO?
Bad policy is bad enough. But a bad acronym is the kiss of death.
Ward Connerly has been trying to sell the RPI as the final chapter to Proposition 209, the so-called Civil Rights Initiative, which was passed by voters and which ended affirmative action in education, employment and contracting. Supporters believed fairness and equity could be achieved without any government intervention. But that wasn't good enough. The RPI was Connerly's way of ending any possibility of a revival.
His thinking: Affirmative action can't exist if it's illegal to get information about race. Now that's color-blind, wouldn't you say? Most people can't stand filling out those boxes on government forms anyway. RPI looked like a shoo-in.
But now it turns out even the color-blind can't agree. Thomas Wood, the co-author with Glynn Custred of Proposition 209, actually believes you can't enforce 209 without getting statistics the RPI would outlaw. After all, how can you tell racial equity is happening without the government's help if you aren't measuring it?
He's apparently not quite the conservative ideologue Connerly is.
Wood is so against the RPI that when I talked to him a few weeks ago, he was ecstatic that the Field Poll put its support at just 48 percent -- the same level it had a year ago. Wood said such a low figure with a year to go assured the RPI was as good as dead.
So now Connerly has Proposition 209 supporters and detractors, both conservatives and liberals, working on the same side against him.
And, he, as one of conservative America's most famous African-Americans, finds himself in a different kind of minority.
Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month
Finally, May is more than half over. Did you know it was Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month? It's not just National Hamburger Month!
So why do people seem color-blind to APA Heritage Month? Why isn't anybody celebrating?
The month actually started as a week back in 1978 and was signed into law by Carter. President George H.W. Bush then made it a full month in 1992. But now, even after 25 years of some form of official observance, the month seems to have all the traction of a set of old tires.
Not once has anyone stopped me to say, "Happy APA Heritage Month!"
Nor has anyone sent me a Hallmark card.
As an Asian American myself, I like the month. But I usually get resentment from non-Asians who wonder why there's a need for it. "Aren't we all Americans?" they ask.
And this year, I actually heard some Asians suggest a boycott of the month.
Their reason? They identify ethnically as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, etc., and are offended by that made-up umbrella term that lumps them all together -- with other Asians.
OK, maybe having a month mandated by the federal government gives it a "You veel enchoy zis celebration!" kind of feel.
Any celebration that's good for you has all the appeal of spinach.
But APA Heritage Month is a good way to explore the differences among all those groups under the big umbrella term that make up not just Asian-Pacific America, but our new America.
Do you really know the difference between a Mien, a Hmong and a Lao? Or a Palauan, a Fijian and a Samoan? Here's a way we can get to know them and each other.
There's no ideology here. It's not even a Carnac joke. It's just a real desire to truly celebrate diversity. And that's no lie.Quote this article on your site