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Politics Mondays: Colorizing The New York Times Plagiarism Case by George E. Curry


After Janet Cooke concocted a story about a non-existent eight-year-old heroin addict, an embarrassed "Washington Post" had to return a Pulitzer Prize it had been awarded in 1981 for the bogus story.

At the time, I was director of the St. Louis Minority Journalism Workshop, a program that local Black journalists developed for high school students. And I still remember what I told a reporter from the "St. Louis American," who interviewed me about Cooke.

Essentially, I told the reporter that Janet Cooke should climb back under the rock that she had emerged from prior to writing about "Jimmy's World." My fear was that all those smart, hard-working students who had given up their Saturdays to study journalism would be unfairly tainted by Cooke's action.

The recent resignation of Jayson Blair from "The New York Times" for plagiarism did not affect me the same way. Maybe I've matured over the past two decades. At least, I hope so. Instead of rushing to defend the 27-year-old rising star at the "Times," as many of my Black colleagues have, or to condemn him as the journalistic equivalent of the "Unibomber," as some White journalists have, I've looked at this as simply the failing of one individual who happens to be Black.

Until now, I have been content to watch this one from the sidelines. After all, it was not considered a blemish on the records of White authors when Clifford Irving submitted a fake biography of Howard Hughes or when it was disclosed that Joe McGinniss, author of "The Last Brother" [Ted Kennedy] had borrowed liberally from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys."

When it was discovered that columnist Mike Barnicle of the "Boston Globe" and Stephen Glass of the "New Republic" had engaged in writing stories that contained more fiction than facts, no one indicted all White journalists for their misdeeds or blamed it on White privilege. To be blunt, they were simply thieves.

And so was Blair. He clearly stole numerous passages from other sources without crediting them and, according to a "New York Times" investigation, he wrote about scenes, places and events as though he was present when, in fact, he wasn't. What Blair did was a clear violation of all cannons of journalism and, as far as I am concerned, he can climb under that crowded rock with Janet Cooke, Mike Barnicle, Stephen Glass, Joe Mc Ginness, Clifford Irving and their ilk.

Instead of seeing Blair as the liar that he is, some White journalists want to drag race into this slimy picture.

William Safire, the resident conservative columnist for "The New York Times," wrote: "Apparently this 27-year-old was given too many second chances by editors eager for this ambitious Black journalist to succeed."

Referring to his conservative chums, Safire brings up "the affirmative action angle." He writes, "See what happens, they taunt, when you treat a minority employee with kid gloves, promoting him when he deserves to be fired."

Safire has it backwards. The only offenders to be treated with kid gloves are White. After Barnicle lost his $250,000-a-year job in Boston, he became a columnist for the "New York Daily News" and has his own radio program. Glass is about to profit on his misdeeds by coming out with a book (this time, billed as fiction) about his experiences as a liar. Meanwhile, Janet Cook has never had her career revived, and, I suspect, nor will Blair.

Unfortunately, Safire is not the only White journalist trying to colorize this sordid chapter. On CNN's "Reliable Sources," Howard Kurtz, media columnist for the "Washington Post," asked, "...Blair is an African-American. Does that suggest that, perhaps, in an effort to bring him along that he was held by the newspaper to a lesser standard?"

One panelist, Seth Mnookin of "Newsweek," answered, "I think it certainly suggests it...."

Inasmuch as these Sunday talk shows continue to mostly present White journalists, even to answer questions about race, I'll reply to them in this space. There are countless examples of young, inexperienced reporters being fast-tracked to the top because someone in a position of power wants to help their career. Was Jayson Blair one of these people? Apparently. But that has nothing to do with race; those slated for such treatment are usually White.

When I discussed this "golden boy" phenomenon years ago with Pam Myers, a colleague at the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," she told me, "The problem, George, is that you're not golden and I am not a boy."

Sadly, Jayson, the golden one, has tarnished his reputation. That should be seen as his downfall, not a result of proving opportunities to previously excluded African-Americans.

George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.


Monday, May 19, 2003

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