Talking Points Live
With Terry Neal
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent
Friday, May 16, 2003; 1 p.m. ET
Was former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair's plagiarism and deception overlooked because of his race? Did Blair's race affect the way he was treated by his superiors or expedite his ascent to the national desk? Do such assertions miss the point?
washingtonpost.com Chief Political Correspondent Terry Neal brought his Talking Points column live to field questions and comments on the controversy surrounding Blair or other political topics.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Terry Neal: Sorry I'm running a little late, but I'm enjoying chatting with you this afternoon. So let's get right to it!
Los Angeles, Calif.: In your column, you mentioned your young boss getting a shot at a big job because of his "brighteness." As the Blair fiasco shows, this is a dangerous gamble. Why do major news organizations take such risky chances on unproven commodities?
Terry Neal: Good question. Newsrooms occasionally take a chance and give a promising young person an opportunity. many times, these people excel. Sometimes they do just ok. And sometimes they fail miserably under the pressure. This Blair guy clearly was not ready for primetime. And someone is going to have answer for what happened over there at the Times. But his case is an aberration, for sure.
Arlington, Va.: I agree with you 100 percent. It is very hypocritical that other journalists are claiming Blair's problem was due to affirmative action, but when Barnicle and Bob Greene were called out on the carpet they were "top notch journalists who went astray." And, Barnicle probably is being paid more at MSNBC than he ever was at the Globe. Some kind of punishment.
Terry Neal: Exactly. And I think the Stephen Glass case is even more appropriate. Glass, like Blair, kept getting top assignments despite questions about his sources, methods, etc., until it all came crashing down in one big fiasco. In some ways, Glass was even worse, I think, because this guy was going out there creating fake web sites, email addresses and voice mails for the fictional characters he created in his writing. No one ever discusses Glass's race. He's seen as just one bad guy, which is exactly what Blair is as well.
Arlington, Va.: This is more a comment than a question. How often we seem to want to cast events like the Blair scandal in terms of hot-button issues like Race and Affirmative Action to serve our own purposes.
After reading your editorial, I am utterly convinced this story has far more to do with inexcusably poor management than the ethnic background (or age) of the reporter.
It's interesting, though, that with the Janet Cooke incident in '81, no one was blaming affirmative action for female reporters.
Terry Neal: Very good point. I've used the term "ideological opportunism" to describe the frenzy of speculation about the role affirmative action played in all of this. It's like this is the case opponents have been waiting for, and they're going to make it fit no matter what the facts may be. Now having said that, I'm not going to tell you that I don't think race played ANY role. Certainly I think the editors at the Times who were pushing this kid were happy to have a hotshot black reporter on the short-list of people getting prime assignments. But do I think they were sitting around saying, "Hey, we got a black guy! Let's let him commit fraud and do whatever he wants to do because, hey, he's a black guy!"
Kansas City, Mo.: Hi Terry,
I read that you were from Kansas City. Where did you go to high school and college?
On a more serious note, what do you think of the political future of our local representative Karen McCarthy who divulged she had a serious drinking problem?
washingtonpost.com: Mo. Rep. Returns to Congress After Rehab (AP, May 7)
Terry Neal: Hi. Thank you for your question. I graduated from Oak Park High School in Gladstone, Mo. (suburban KC) in 1985, and went on to graduate from the University of Missouri-Columbia's School of Journalism in 1989. Mizzou's J school is the nation's first, and some say best, school of journalism, and I'm proud to have graduated with a gpa in my major of 3.5.
To be honest, I haven't followed the McCarthy (D-Mo.) story closely, but in this day and age, I'm not sure that'll permanently damage her career. My understanding is that she's seeking treatment and has issued contrite statements of apology. So we'll see.
New York, N.Y.: Hello. I'm a former Washington Post intern who was mentored by Terry. Sorry I've been outta touch awhile, but I just wanted to let you know how eloquently and accurately you stated the case for why young journalists of all races have a place in elite newsrooms. Thanks so much. Terry knows this, but some background for everyone else's benefit: I'm 27 (same age as Blair) and working as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal now. -- Peter McKay
Terry Neal: Peter, so good to hear from you. And thank you. Peter is one of those bright, young, up and coming journalists I mentioned in a previous answer!
Silver Spring, Md.: Frankly, I've found it a trifle absurd that the entire national media has its collective knickers in a twist over the Jayson Blair story. It may be the first time at the New York Times, but it's obviously not the first time at a prestigious publication, nor will it be the last. Why don't journalists understand that most Americans (even ones like myself who like and respect the press) have an imperfect understanding of the fact-checking process, as well as a healthy skepticism for what is reported because your jobs, after all, are to sell newspapers or advertising space at least as much as too inform the public?
Terry Neal: Hmmm. Now that's an interesting question. And it bothers me a little bit, because I think it fails to recognize how serious most of us take accuracy. That is not to say mistakes aren't made. They are. We are only human, after all. But this question reminds me of something else: Isn't it amazing that most of the people Blair misquoted or mischaracterized didn't even bother to complain to the Times. Apparently, some of those people have said in recent interviews that they didn't even bother because they just assumed that's how it goes in the media. That's sad, really that so many people have come to expect so little of us. But it is, in many ways, our own fault.
Bethesda, Md.: Something has got to be done about the culture at the New York Times. Wasn't it less than a year ago that it was uncovered management had suppressed some stories because they didn't "agree" with the editorial viewpoint of the paper? This Raines character has got to go.
Terry Neal: A lot of people are saying that. I don't know the man, so I don't want to defend him or attack him. I think a person must be judged by the totality of his record. But you do often hear--from his own staffers, no less--that he is arrogant and dictatorial. I have a feeling that this Blair controversy will lead him to do some real thinking about the way he's being running the show. On the other hand, I know that he is disliked by some critics for ideological reasons: He was an outspoken liberal in his previous job running the editorial page. I think there's a legitimate question to be raised about whether it's a good thing to move someone from running an editorial page over to running the news pages.
Ellicott City, Md.: Would it not be better for all if merit were the sole criterion for hiring and firing? Does not the very existence of affirmative action and diversity programs lead to unfair, and yet reasonable, questions as to the basis for minority hiring?
Terry Neal: I think that's a totally fair question. I addressed that to some extent in a column I wrote today.
"The problem with discussing affirmative action in the journalism business is that this is such a subjective profession. Hiring good journalists is not a quantitative exercise, and good journalists aren't hired or promoted by making people take tests like those administered by your local fire department. The young woman that I think is a fabulous writer, you might think is an overrated blowhard who hypes her stories."
But I would add to that, that affirmative action programs in newsrooms are not designed to find unqualified people. It's done to find people who can excel on merit once in the newsroom. Unfortunately, the way newsrooms have worked is that those who made the management decisions were only hiring people who looked like them, as they made completely subjective judgments about who was deserving of jobs. Affirmative action--and that's what we're talking about here, not quotas--just says we need to broaden our efforts to find good, qualified people. Do I believe affirmative action has put some unqualified people in jobs they should have? Sure. It's an imperfect solution to a horrible problem. But I would also say that I know a lot of non-minorities--a lot--who seem to keep getting promoted, despite their apparent incompetence as well.
Washington, D.C.: With the reconstruction of Iraq, the bombing in Saudi Arabia, the tax cuts and the escapades of the Texas State Legislature, is the Blair "scandal" really that big a deal? Without the New York Times name, this story's headline is "Management finally realizes that young employee is a slacker." It seems to me this story is alive because the press is obsessed with the press.
Terry Neal: Yes, I tend to agree, at least with the first part of what you said. I wish the story would go away, and hopefully it will soon. Now having said that, I'm not sure I agree with the last line of your question. I think it's a big story because anything having to do with race tends to get blown out of proportion. And the press alone is not responsible for that fact.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Terry:
I thought your column about Jayson Blair was interesting but perhaps naive. As a white person, I feel as though I am constantly getting two different messages from the black community: treat us differently (i.e., be cognizant of our race and the need to amend for past white transgressions) but don't treat us differently (i.e., don't be cognizant of our race). It's not surprising to get these different messages since I of course recognize that the black community is not a monolith and this is a very complex challenge.
However, I can tell you that, in this very politically correct world, I am abundantly reticent to criticize a black person in any way, lest my comments be immediately trivialized and diminished as racism. My feeling is not an isolated one among whites. This walking-on-eggshells is not helping either whites or blacks. How are we going to get past this?
Terry Neal: If I knew the answer to that question, I'd probably have collected a Nobel prize and have a national holiday in my name in the future! But seriously, I do think there is too much sensitivity among folks at times. I'm guilty of this as much as the next person, even though I try not to be. But it's also important for you realize that this trait is not held solely by African Americans. The most hostile mail I get is from white conservatives who have been offended in some way by something I've written. Some of the rhetoric is wayyyyy over the top.
So that's a lot way of saying, I have no clue.
Los Angeles, Calif.: To what degree do you believe the Post's editors are color-blind when it comes to giving assignments to reporters, including giving assignments that could potentially enhance the career of a young journalist? Similarly, do you feel that young journalists' work is assessed without regard to furthering any desired goal of diversity?
Terry Neal: Great question. And it's a difficult one to answer. You know the Post has done a good job as any institution in going out and finding good qualified minorities. But it has had a real problem keeping them, in part because of the feeling among many minority reporters here that they are overlooked when it comes to the handing out of prime assignments and positions. There have been several books written that have touched on this topic by former black staff writers, including Nathan McCall and Jill Nelson. Both are good books, and I would recommend them, because they tell with a lot more specificity and clarity than I have time or space for now, how some minorities in newsrooms feel. If you look at the highest rungs of the paper, there are very, very few blacks in particular in important, high-ranking reporting jobs. For instance the national desk, where I used to work as a national political reporter, only has three black writers out of I think around 50. And known of those writers are in what I would consider the prime, bread-and-butter beats such as the White House, Congress or one of the big agencies, like the State or Defense departments. And it's been that way for years. And that's one of the things that's bothered me most about the media's reaction to the Blair story, it's tended to give the impression that newsrooms have bent over backward on minority hiring and that there are tons of other little Jayson Blairs running around out there.
Terry Neal: Well, I've got to get going. So sorry I could not get to every question, but I do appreciate folks taking the time to chat. Have a pleasant weekend, and I'll be back online again sometime soon.
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