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The Jayson Blair Scandal: A Tale of Two Compulsions

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By Lee A. Daniels
Director of Publications
National Urban League

For anyone who honestly believes that race is no longer a significant factor in the discourse about American life, the Jayson Blair scandal provides a much-needed education.

In the past two weeks Blair, a young African-American reporter for the New York Times who was once considered a rising star there, has been shown to be a deceiver of very high, or rather, low, order.

And, as the full extent of Blair’s deception has become clearer and the story has mushroomed in the media, the discussion of it has come to be starkly framed in racial terms.

“Whether or not this is a scandal born of ambition, it is also being cast as a story about race,” Time magazine’s story this week declared. “As Blair’s record came to light, some colleagues concluded that he got second-chances that others might not have.”

Seth Mnookin, a Newsweek reporter who wrote its story on the scandal, said on CNN’s Reliable Source news program, “What the Times still needs to talk about is the real issue of whether [Blair] was pushed along because he is Black.”

Mnookin’s comment came despite the New York Times’ statement in a long story Sunday about Blair’s misdeeds that he was not “coddled” because he was African-American.

William Safire, the Times’ conservative columnist, wrote Monday that some of his “ideological soulmates” are chortling at the “affirmative-action angle [of the scandal].’”

“‘See what happens, they taunt,’ wrote Safire of the jibes he had apparently heard, while making clear he disagreed with them “‘when you treat a minority employee with kid gloves, promoting him when he deserves to be fired? … This is about diversity backfiring.’”

As one who spent nearly two decades reporting for the Washington Post and the New York Times from the 1970s to the 1990s, this gives me a racially-driven sense of, as Yogi Berra famously said, déjà vu all over again.

In one sense, that déjà vu is tied specifically to the infamous Janet Cooke scandal of the early 1980s, in which the Washington Post was forced to return a Pulitzer Prize after Cooke’s story, “Jimmy’s World,” was found to have been a complete fabrication.

Then, as now, some number of whites were consumed with declaring that Cooke’s sins were evidence of a racial flaw afflicting all African-American journalists and that her deceit proved there was a “problem” with affirmative action.

But, of course, that compulsion of declaring that the sins of one individual are really the sins of his or her “kind”—especially if the wrongdoer is Black—is fundamental to racial bigotry and an old dynamic in American life. Jayson Blair’s behavior is just the latest tripwire to reveal how potent it remains.

One can say that the sheer effrontery of Blair’s deception is breathtaking—but only if one deliberately ignores other instances of fakery in journalism, and what we know all too well now about the personality of the con artist with respectable credentials.

Con artists, whether they ply the three-card monte trade on various streets in midtown Manhattan, or work in the seedy underworld, or play the more refined white-collar game in the world’s high-rent districts, are often unquestionably talented, and could succeed the legitimate way, if they were to put their minds to it.

But their psychological “twist,” or defect is to do it the unethical way, for the thrill of conning others, and, for some, to nourish a powerful self-destructive compulsion. Some con artists can discipline that impulse enough to keep working their high-wire act for years. From the Times’ reporting of his behavior, Blair was not well disciplined at all.

Jayson Blair’s story of deceit is hardly a new one in the world of mainstream American journalism.

Indeed, ironically, this very week Stephen Glass, once a high-flying young reporter for The New Republic, the influential Washington periodical, who was fired five years ago—at age 25, two years younger than Blair is now—for fabricating a series of articles is back in the news. Glass has written an autobiographical first novel about that scandal.

Neither then, when Glass was the Jayson Blair of his time, as it were, nor today has Glass’ race been made a facet of the discussion about his wrongdoing.

But, then, Stephen Glass is white.

So, the Jayson Blair scandal is really a story of two compulsions.

The one compulsion is that of a personality type—the con artist—found in all human groups.

The other compulsion—racial bigotry—is found not in all human individuals, but in all modern human societies, and certainly in this one, and it is rarely far below the surface of the discourse.

I know which compulsion I’d declare the more dangerous to well-being of us all.

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