AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is a long column on the New York Times. Some readers think I pay too much attention to the Times. Obviously, I think they’re wrong. After all, if I agreed with them, I wouldn’t have written this column. Nevertheless, I don’t want any readers to miss these important announcements that follow it.
In a less politically correct age, we would refer to the Most Reverend Prophet Alpha Omega Bondu as a witch doctor. Maybe even an “ooga-booga guy.” But when Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., gave the Most Rev. twelve grand to evict seven evil spirits from a Haitian psychiatric patient (that’s $1,714 per spirit — a great value), the New York Times refused to traffic in any stereotypes. In fact, it bent over the other way, even refusing to call the service an exorcism. Instead, the Times reported that the $12,000 in taxpayer dollars had been spent on “religious counseling.”
(A few quick asides on the Rev. story, just for color: The patient had hacked his wife to death and set her on fire in front of her children. Even though the Most Rev. only managed to exorcize four out of the seven spirits — a mere $6,800′s worth — he was paid the full amount. The $12,000 payment was approved by the business manager of the hospital, who was also member of Bondu’s church. The Times ignored the story entirely for three months, and then only mentioned the exorcism in passing, as part of a general story about the hospital’s problems.)
There are a few other items:
Recently, Boris Johnson, a conservative member of parliament and the editor of The Spectator (of London), was asked to write an op-ed for the Times on the subject of the then-looming war and U.S.-British relations. In his original draft, Johnson said something to the effect of “you don’t make international law by giving new squash courts to the President of Guinea.” The Times changed “Guinea” to “Chile.” Explaining the change, the editor told Johnson: “Uh, Boris, it’s just easier in principle if we don’t say anything deprecatory about a black African country, and since Guinea and Chile are both members of the U.N. Security Council, and since it doesn’t affect your point, we would like to say Chile.”
When Eugene Richards did a photo spread on drug addiction for The New York Times Magazine, Brent Staples — a prominent member of the editorial board — asked, “Couldn’t Mr. Richards have found a setting where most or at least half the drug addicts are white?”
In 1999, David Barstow wrote a story about the baleful effects of Rudy Giuliani’s latest anti-crime initiative on a Brooklyn “neighborhood” (it was really a single, block-and-a-half-long stretch of historically seedy avenue). After conducting interviews with some “two dozen people” — apparently a few of them businessmen, landlords, etc. — Barstow declared that police efforts were squeezing the life out of the neighborhood. Summarizing the allegedly popular sentiment, Barstow writes, “They describe a police precinct that mindlessly imposes the mores of Mayberry on what is a classic rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood — working class, Democratic, ethnically dazzling, full of swaggering, striving characters who are not greatly shocked by a little human vice.”
Now, according to Barstow, the “little human vice” under discussion is heroin — both its consumption and its distribution. Barstow describes a gang leader named Nightwing as a “gregarious” young fellow named Michael McDonald who is sweet with children. He tells of how a junkie is moving to Connecticut to get away from the “chaos” of the law being enforced. The upshot of the whole story seems to be that since drug use is a particular problem for minorities, we’d better redefine the problem as a virtue. This, of course, completely turns on its head the old criticism of police: It used to be that cops were charged with racism for assuming that criminality “is in their nature” and refusing to enforce the law in minority neighborhoods. Now, the “stigma” of an “unusually large number of heroin arrests” must be destigmatized.
Or recall the profile of Patrick Chavis, a black doctor who had been admitted to the UC Davis Medical School under the race-quota scheme that rejected Allan Bakke. Bakke, of course, sued and the result was the Bakke decision now under review by the Supreme Court. In a 1995 article, “What Happened to the Case for Affirmative Action,” Nicholas Lemann, a writer as talented as he is liberal, contrasted the two doctors. Chavis was a heroic obstetrician working in Compton. Bakke was a mediocrity toiling in obscurity in Minnesota. Giving Chavis an opportunity — according to Lemann and the activists and politicians who rallied to the article — was a boon not only to Chavis but to the community, the nation, humanity, indeed all carbon-based life forms. Alas, two years after the article appeared, the Medical Board of California suspended his medical license, partly on account of Chavis’s “inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician.” Chavis was found to have been guilty of gross negligence and incompetence in three cases; the judge overseeing his case ruled that letting Chavis “continue in the practice of organized medicine will endanger the public health, safety and welfare.”
You can read about most of these examples in William McGowan’s wonderful book Coloring the News: How Crusading for Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism. But really, all you have to do is root through the pages of the Times like your grandmother through her purse and you’ll find one example or another of subtle shading, gross distortion, or harmless propagandizing on the issue of race (homosexuality and gender too, by the way). I have no doubt that diversity is sometimes a positive, but I am equally sure that it sometimes serves as a negative, enforcing political correctness, encouraging self-censorship, and raising debatable issues into full-blown secular pieties. The push for newsroom diversity involves three separate but overlapping issues. Does it result in hiring less-qualified journalists at the expense of more deserving ones? Does it result in lower-quality journalism? And does it result in biased journalism, its quality notwithstanding?
Which brings us to Jayson Blair. By now everyone’s heard the basic story. If you haven’t, you should read Howard Kurtz’s thorough summary or Andrew Sullivan’s point-by-point cackling dissections, or the various pieces we’ve had here on NRO. But I don’t have time to recount the whole thing again. And besides, if you haven’t heard the story by now, you’re probably the sort of healthy person who doesn’t get too worked up about the Times anyway.
Was Blair — who never graduated from college — less qualified than other would-be journalists? That seems obvious. Indeed, the Times admits that he was hired through a diversity program. Presumably, had he been the best-qualified applicant, the program would have been superfluous. And we know that Howell Raines, the executive editor of the Times, considers diversity to be more important than journalistic excellence. Referring to the Times’s outreach program, he told the National Association of Black Journalists: “This campaign has made our staff better and, more importantly, more diverse” [emphasis mine].
Was Blair’s work not up to the standards of the Times? This is even more obvious and beyond dispute given the Times’s description of Blair’s work as a “low-point in our 152-year history.” It should be noted, however, that Blair’s correction rate, as discovered by The Weekly Standard, was below that of several top reporters, including Adam Clymer. Of course, Clymer also didn’t fabricate quotes.
And lastly, is the Times’s coverage influenced by its obsession with diversity? Well, using the Blair story as an example, that seems obvious too. And that’s where my main beef is. I didn’t think this was that big a story until I read the 7,000-word “investigation” of Blair, which revealed that the Times actually cares more about protecting the mythologies of diversity than about protecting its own reputation. Nowhere in its mea culpa did the Times give the idea that race had had something to do with this fiasco. The idea was raised only to be shot down — not discussed or investigated. Managing editor Gerald Boyd says, “To say now that [Blair’s] promotion was about diversity in my view doesn’t begin to capture what was going on.” But why does he say that? Does anyone disagree? If this were a story about some non-diversity-related topic (say, white-collar crime or accounting fraud), a host of motives and explanations would have been presented — with quotes — for the reader to sift through himself.
When discussing this third criterion — Does diversity affect the substance of news coverage? — it doesn’t matter if race was a tiny or irrelevant issue, because the Times refuses to treat the question as even a reasonable one. Is it really true that nobody in the Times organization believes race was a contributing factor? Or is it true that the authors of the mea culpa didn’t solicit opinions on the subject? Or is it that Times employees are too scared to voice that point of view? Frankly, if the answer to any of these is “yes” then the Times simply cannot be trusted ever again on the issue of race — ever. Indeed, as Heather Mac Donald points out, the Times has preferred to insist that Blair didn’t get any special treatment rather than even entertain the notion that diversity-mongering could have been a factor. That’s fine, but it in effect puts the Times in the position of saying that this fiasco was the result of business-as-usual practices.
And while I’m being so frank, I have to say I don’t trust the rest of the media that much either. Terry Neal, for example, makes some excellent points about how diversity isn’t to blame for this screw-up. I’m sympathetic to many of them. Indeed, I think the fact that Raines reportedly surrounds himself with sycophantic young ‘uns is probably as relevant as anything else. But what offends me is the rush to rule a thing out before it’s even looked at. Here’s a perfect example from Fox News Sunday. Juan Williams was the first person to bring up the issue of Blair’s race, so he could immediately dismiss it: “I don’t think it has anything to do with race, but I fear, as a black person, that it’s going to be turned in just that fashion by people who don’t have anything but politics on their mind.”
Brit Hume then asked him “Juan, let’s assume for a second that it didn’t have anything to do with race. Was he qualified, in your view, based on experience, to be doing the kinds of stories for the New York Times that he was doing?… In your view, based on experience, would you have put him in that position?”
Williams: “I don’t have enough information to know better. I don’t know sufficiently his background, how well he was doing. It could have been that he was doing very well.”
Well, wait a second. If Williams “doesn’t have enough information,” then how can he — how dare he — rule out race as an issue?
This isn’t how journalists are supposed to approach an unfolding story, and I can’t help thinking the mainstream press simply cannot be trusted to discuss race — especially race at news organizations — honestly. And, I’m afraid, this is going to be the sorry state of affairs for quite a while. Indeed, the American Society of Newspaper Editors, considered the stodgiest of the “white” journalist associations, has an outright minority quota. By 2025, ASNE wants all newsrooms to be 38.25 percent minority. That will surely make the newsrooms more diverse; less importantly, it might make them better. But either way, we’ll never be able to take their word for it.