Beyond the Firestorm: Fury and the Future

Jayson Blair's newly-published book bears the title, "Burning Down My Master's House." The title suggests a volatile response by an oppressed party. That doesn't quite match Mr. Blair's tenure at The New York Times, but the book is a chance for him to have his say. With news media warming up to cover his thoughts, we could be facing "Blair: the Sequel." That's enough to make a lot of people burn.

I began to simmer about the book when a producer from "Dateline NBC" called in reference to a segment they were planning on Blair. We discussed mutual concerns about NBC doing the segment. What were the positives and negatives, how should they focus, who were the best voices for a complete picture? They decided to go forward. I agreed to participate.

Until then, news of the Blair book was background noise, the kind of thing you hope will be drowned out by more substantive events. As the NBC taping approached, I thought more and more about Blair, and my anger rose.

So what caused the fury? There's the obvious. I'm livid that a writer, who could have achieved so much, chose to violate a journalistic trust. He was entrusted with reporting the news at a high level, and he chose to lie, to plagiarize, and to manipulate. I'm angry that his acts undercut efforts to build news media credibility, including acts by thousands of journalists who perform their work honorably each day.

My feelings go deeper. I'm saddened that journalists who built honorable careers abruptly left their jobs at The New York Times in the wake of Blair revelations. Howell Raines, Gerald Boyd, and Rick Bragg have served roles at Poynter, each as a presenter or member of the Advisory Board. (And Blair, by the way, participated in a Poynter seminar — "Ethics and Leadership for College Editors and News Directors.")

I'm angry that race plays all around and through this story. Some say being black helped Blair rise at The New York Times. He came to the newspaper in an internship program aimed at improving diversity, and they say, some editors bent to the point of blindness to achieve that end. He claims racial isolation hindered him, and uses a book title that smacks of racial oppression. The organization Accuracy in Media uses Blair to build the case against affirmative action. ASNE President Peter Bhatia says he received over 400 postcards from the group's campaign. At meetings like NABJ's national convention, young journalists of color say they expect greater suspicion from supervisors because of Blair's conduct.

Most of all, I'm furious that instead of fading from the spotlight to reflect and reform, Mr. Blair is back, positioned to make money from his dishonorable conduct. In that respect he's not alone. He joins the company of Stephen Glass and a broader circle of those who profit from behaving badly.

That brings us to news media as co-conspirators in rewarding the misbehaving and inconsequential. I'm irritated that news media, not entertainment media but news media, use precious space and time on Madonna and Britney, Britney and her husband/ex-husband, Justin and Janet, and every turn of celebrity trials.

And covering these matters once is not enough. It would be different if one news presentation carried these non-stories, but news outlets create consonance when so many of them carry the same story. They create cumulation by covering the same thing over and over again in a repetition of non-events that rings in our minds like Howard Dean's scream. It makes me wanna holler.

That's only a part of the story; here's the rest. News organizations regularly help society with meaningful stories. They expand coverage of gay marriage to give surprising looks at the state of marriage today. KHOU-TV continues strong investigative work with a series on faulty DNA readings by Houston police. WESH-TV, the Orlando Sentinel, and the University of Central Florida joined forces for a scientific study of 400 new homes, and found that 80 percent had construction problems. Copley News Service explored 15 years of social change in Beardstown, Ill., which changed from 5,000 white citizens to a population of 7,000, with the majority of new residents Hispanic.

So many journalists find compelling ways to tell complex stories. These stories are worth presenting to larger audiences, not just the facts and feelings, but also the journalistic effort involved. Sometimes the story should focus on the journalist at work. Consider Macarena Hernandez at the San Antonio Express-News. She was an intern with Blair at the Times, then chose to return to Texas to be near family. Last year, her reporting and writing appeared in The New York Times, but unfortunately Blair had lifted it, and it appeared under his byline. Consider a look at Chicago through the eyes of Don Wycliff, a wise guide at the Chicago Tribune who, as Public Editor, explains the media to citizens and represents citizen concerns to the news staff. Consider city life in Tampa with reporter Dong-Phuong Nguyen of the St. Petersburg Times. She has reported in depth on school-life and crime and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize earlier when she was a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Even celebrity coverage could be improved by more critical reporting, examination of broader issues involved in their acts, and restraint in repeating the most sensational comments or video.

I don't know how the "Dateline NBC" coverage of Blair's book will turn out, but I'm encouraged because they've asked good questions, and sought a range of voices. Maybe they'll use the segment to explore new angles. After all, Jayson's is a story that has been told; there are so many more significant stories to tell. I hope they'll spotlight journalists who spend their careers building communities instead of one who speaks of burning down.

I don't know what will happen to Jayson Blair, but I hope he is productive outside of journalism. On the morning of my taped interview for "Dateline," I realized that Blair is about my son's age. What would I want if one of my sons so violated a trust? I think I'd want reasoned disapproval, not ranting. I'd want my son to move away from the cameras, reflect honestly on opportunities missed, and harm caused. I'd hope he'd get help as needed, regroup, and move on. I wish the same for Blair.

  • Karen Dunlap

    Karen B. Dunlap is president of The Poynter Institute. She is also the co-author, with Foster Davis, of "The Effective Editor."


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