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Debate Over Whether Race Played a Role in Jayson Blair's Survival at "The Times"

Aired May 13, 2003 - 19:32   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well the controversy certainly continues over Jayson Blair. He's the former "New York Times" reporter accused of plagiarism as well as fabrication. "The Times" acknowledged today that Blair is under federal investigation. Few details are available at this point. The U.S. attorney's office in New York would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation.
Just how was Blair able to con his colleagues and despite repeated warnings, continue to work at the paper? The other question a lot of people asking, did race have anything to do with the breaks he was repeatedly given? Jayson Blair was the topic of the "Right Side" radio talk show today.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If it was a Jewish-American...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And see, that was the point that I was making about we can't have it both ways. Either this is the flawed individual or either he's a part of -- of the syndrome that you've got to be when you reach these positions you have to be a credit to your race.


COOPER: From Washington let's bring in the host of that show and also syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams. Roland Martin also has a column in syndication. He's editor of and he joins us from Dallas.

Gentlemen, thanks for being with us. Armstrong, let me start out with you. What are you hearing from your callers?

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, obviously, from many of the callers they felt as though he was given such an incredible opportunity, he squandered it and they had no choice, but to fire him. Some feel it's an embarrassment to the black race and they've worked so hard to strive to be in these positions and they feel as though it reflects on them.

You know, I, on the other hand think, that's just a part of the issue. Here is someone who duped "The New York Times." "The New York Times" gave him a tremendous opportunity, I think because of his race. They placed a whole lot of emphasis on diversity in that city newsroom and because of that they wanted so much for him to succeed help many things were overlooked.

Certainly they have to take a lot of blame for the fact that this guy had 50 percent of what he wrote put together and wrote had to be corrected. So obviously, it was a situation out of control. Even before they wanted to make him a national reporter, he became a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- there were people inside the newsroom who advised against that.


COOPER: Let me jump in here. Roland, what do you think? Armstrong brings up a point. In four years at "The New York Times" Jayson Blair had to have something like 50 corrections in stories he wrote. Was race a factor in why he was able to stay at "The Times" so long?

ROLAND MARTIN, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: No, I certainly don't believe that race was a factor because what we have to also recognize is there have been a number of white journalists across the country who have plagiarized articles, who have doctored photos, who have embellished facts. And they also have kept their jobs. And yet in none of those cases we never asked the question, well, did they get to keep their jobs because they were white?


COOPER: Let me just interrupt you there and ask you, in those other cases you refer to like Stephen Glass, "The New Republican" staff, I don't know that there's the same record of repeated corrections being made. I mean, 50 corrections over four years is extraordinary. If I get one or two corrections in a year I would be a shamed.

MARTIN: But, Anderson, in "The Weekly Standard" article where they also did a LexisNexis search on corrections from "The New York Times" reporters, there were other reporters who had more than 20, 30 and 40 corrections.

His corrections, he did a total of 747 some-odd stories and had 50 corrections. Another reporter had about 400 stories, had about 34, 35 corrections. So the question is not necessarily -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) well, did he stay on because he's black?

The bottom line is this here, he committed deceit and journalistic fraud. It was not because he was black. Armstrong says, well, he was allowed to stay on because he was black. He came under a program that was not a race-based program. Thirty-seven of the people who came through the same program that he came in under since 1995 got jobs. Sixteen of them were minorities.

So a number of whites, Hispanics, women, men came in this program which is for young journalists. That's the issue. Race is not an issue.

COOPER: Want to read an e-mail that "The Washington Post" was sent, that someone sent to "The Washington Post." Says, quote, "`The Times' like other media organizations is intent on achieving diversity. Sometimes this noble and essential goal comes down to a parody of affirmative action."

Armstrong, your thoughts?

WILLIAMS: Well, listen, obviously, it would be ludicrous for us to say that race was not a factor. For someone to write stories and claim that they were in certain states and they never left the hotel room -- I mean, to list stories and not give credit and to do this repeatedly, he was counseled, he was punished and it went down to about 1.9 percent, but he continued the same behavior.

I just think that it's hard to ignore the fact that he also had an editor who happens to be black. And I think they were so bent on making this kid a superstar that they didn't realize that he was being not only destructive for him, but for "The Times" itself.


WILLIAMS: So I don't think you can ignore the fact that at some level race was an issue here in their enthusiasm to want to celebrate diversity and want to showcase this kid.

MARTIN: Armstrong, did Stephen Glass get away with what he got away with because he was white? Did Mike Barnicle get away with what he got away with because he was white? If the two reporters of "The Salt Lake Tribune" who sold false information on the Smart family to "The National Enquirer" -- did they do that because they were white? I have not heard you talk about any of the other cases...


WILLIAMS: That's a bait and switch argument here. "The Salt Lake" -- you bring up the Salt Lake City journalist. They were booted out once that was discovered.


WILLIAMS: The question is not whether they conned them because they were white, it's did they get away with it...

MARTIN: Did Stephen Glass keep his job because he was white? Did his race come into play and into discussions? Mike Barnicle plagiarized, he created false stories in his column, he was suspend, kept his job and he was only fired after he plagiarized George Carlin jokes. Did he keep his job because he was white?

WILLIAMS: I think you have a -- let me just say, I think you have a point that everyone, that many journalists engage in this kind of behavior. But I think the point that...

MARTIN: No, many don't engage in this kind of behavior, Armstrong.

WILLIAMS: There are those who engage -- when I say many, I will take that back. Few of them engage in it.

But the fact is that he was able to go for so long with this. And listen, remember this. You said something important. They were fired. This gentleman was not fired. They allowed him to resign.


WILLIAMS: No, no, no. They allowed Mr. Blair to resign.


COOPER: All right, gentlemen, you both made your point on that. I just want to move the debate a little bit. An interesting e-mail sent to BET. Want to read and we're going to put it on the screen. Someone sent it to BET saying: "I would hate to be the next black reporter at `The New York Times.' Whoever it is will have a terrible legacy to overcome. Thanks, Jayson Blair and `The New York Times' for making it harder for the rest of us."

MARTIN: Anderson, that is very true because after Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize in the late '70s for a made-up story, black journalists across the country caught hail because editors looked at them and said, I wonder if this is another Janet Cooke.

And that is the problem when one individual commits an egregious act. In the case of Jayson Blair and Janet Cooke, that reflects on them. So no one should look at any black journalist, any young journalists, any female journalists and says aid because someone else made a mistake, I'm going to look at you a different way.

COOPER: I don't think anyone will give you an argument there. Armstrong Williams, final thought.

WILLIAMS: Well, obviously, he's an individual. He's no reflection on his race, he is a reflection on his own character and "The New York Times" for allowing this to go on for so long. And that's what we have to look at. No one should make a judgment about anyone else who comes into "The New York Times" or any other media organization. They should be judged on their merit, and they should rise and fall while they're at that institution.

COOPER: All right, we're going to leave it there tonight. Armstrong Williams and Roland martin, appreciate you joining us. Fascinating discussion. Appreciate it.


Survival at "The Times">

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