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GUILTY OF LYING WHILE BLACK

So apparently, Jayson Blair's biggest crime is not that he cheated and misled. It's that he cheated and misled while black. That's the unmistakable implication of much of the criticism that's been leveled at the young man in recent days.

Not that he doesn't deserve condemnation. As you may have heard, Blair lied and plagiarized his way through dozens of stories in the course of nearly four years as a New York Times reporter.

Last Sunday, the Times cataloged the sins of its now ex-employee in a grim four-page report. In it, we learn that Blair claimed to have reported from places he had not been, claimed to have interviewed people he had not met and claimed as his own, passages he had not written.

The magnitude of the transgression is magnified by the stage upon which it unfolded. Blair wasn't working for just any old fish wrapper but for the most venerated newspaper in the country. Yet somehow, its editors allowed themselves to be snookered by a 27-year-old.

Journalists sifting through the wreckage of Blair's career have been harsh in their judgments, and I don't blame them. What's offensive is that so many have cast his failures in terms of race. For instance, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes that Blair is emblematic of a newsroom culture "that cherished diversity . . . so much so that journalistic standards were bent." Cohen is far from the only one expressing that -- I use the word loosely -- thought.

Columnist Andrew Sullivan even suggested on his Web site that the episode reflects the PC newsroom's abject fear of offending minority journalists.

Frankly, my boss didn't seem particularly worried about offending me last time I asked for a raise. Maybe I should have reminded her that I am black. If Sullivan is right, she'd have opened the company's coffers and told me to take what I need.

The catch is that Sullivan is not right. He is, as Mama used to say, wrong as two left shoes.

For the record, Times editors say they initially brought Blair into the newsroom because they were wowed by him. They offered him a slot in an internship program that was being used to help the paper diversify its newsroom. He rose swiftly from there.

It is upon this slim reed that critics have perched claims that diversity has hurt the New York Times. The charge is otherwise unsupported.

Which is not surprising in the least. Race is its own planet. The pull it exerts warps perspective and distorts truth. So that a celebrity accused of killing his wife becomes tabloid fodder but a black celebrity accused of killing his white wife becomes the fulcrum of a national debate on race. Not domestic violence, mind you, but race.

Similarly, some people would have us believe that the Jayson Blair story is less about the need to re-examine newsroom safeguards than about the color of one man's skin. Less about the decline in workplace ethics than about newsrooms forced to hire unqualified blacks.

And if you don't think the weight of that is felt by every black woman and man in the newsroom, you're kidding yourself. Just Wednesday, the managing editor of the Times, who is black, had to defend himself against charges he had mentored Blair. Mentored.

I've frequently said that to be a black professional is to be always on probation, every day expected to prove that you belong. People always ask me what I mean. This is what I mean. This, exactly.

In recent years, white writers Dennis Love of the Sacramento Bee, David Cragin and Eric Drudis of the San Jose Mercury News, Stephen Glass of the New Republic and Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe have all been charged with either plagiarism or fabrication. Yet to my knowledge, neither Cohen, nor Sullivan nor anybody else wrote stories linking them to journalism's history of discrimination. Nobody asked whether that history has forced editors to hire unqualified white men.

Maybe they'll write that essay next time it happens.

No, I won't hold my breath.

Miami Herald

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