I was up late on a Saturday, checking the news before I turned in for the night, when I stumbled across some details about Jayson Blair. Until that moment, I cared only peripherally about this guy. The young New York Times reporter had faked a bunch of quotes, invented people and stolen from the work of other journalists. It was the sort of thing that had happened many times before at other publications. It would pass.
But then I saw that Jayson Blair was black, 27 years old, and that he had come into the industry through diversity programs. I winced.
I’m black, 26 years old, and I also came into the industry through a diversity program. But I long ago dismissed the notion that I got where I am because I’m an ethnic minority. In my four years at DePauw University’s student newspaper (where I worked alongside the editor of this magazine), I was maybe the only black news writer who contributed regularly, and I was the only black editor in chief.
We black people live in a world that the rest of America gets to only glimpse, and usually those glimpses come in caricatures and figureheads – Cliff Huxtable, Oprah Winfrey, Buckwheat, Jayson Blair. One of the truest testaments to this came in the late 80s, when urban teenagers took to wearing t-shirts that said, “It’s a black thing – you wouldn’t understand.”
That slogan was a declaration of our culture-defining coolness as black youth; but if we’re to be honest, it was also a confession. I would argue that there are lots of “black things” that we as black people don’t fully understand ourselves – like why we read about an armed robbery in the paper and hope the suspect wasn’t black. Or why, when we see a black person getting interviewed on the six o’clock news, many of us silently pray he doesn’t ruin his verb tense – as if the progress of African-Americans in the 21st century hinged on whether Tyrone Jackson from 53rd Street can hold it together. That is an unfair amount of pressure to put on him, and on the rest of us.
The same principle applies to Jayson Blair. Some in the industry would use Blair as a caricature, a figurehead to attack the diversity programs that attract talent to the news industry – talent that might otherwise go into marketing, or finance, or consulting. To me, that seems like a bad idea.
Jon Fortt is mobile technology reporter for the San Jose Mercury News.