How the Jayson Blair NYT Scandal Wounded Newsroom Diversity: ‘We All Became Suspect’

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TCA 2014: PBS documentary says newsrooms wrongly blamed Affirmative Action for Blair’s lies

When New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was exposed as a fraud in 2003, the fallout hurt diversity at newspapers across the country, participants in a PBS documentary about the scandal said Tuesday.

Macarena Hernandez was in a remarkable position: a former classmate and colleague of Blair, she wrote the article alerting the New York Times to his plagiarism. But she said exposing Blair led to fewer opportunities for African-American journalists, as well as Hispanic journalists like herself.

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Reporters and editors, many of them resentful of Blair’s rapid rise at the New York Times, unfairly blamed Affirmative Action programs — and by extension suggested that all journalists of color somehow owed their success to their color.

“It was a very difficult moment, because we all became suspect,” said New York Times writer Lena Williams, who worked with Blair and covers race relations. “They said it was because of the Times and the Affirmative Action program, he should never have been there, some of us didn’t deserve to work at the New York Times. And so we were defending ourselves as reporters. We were defending the race, we felt.”

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“Across the board there were reporters who felt that they were under intense scrutiny,” she said.

Blair plagiarized the work of Hernandez and others during his flameout, which included a struggle with mental illness and cocaine and alcohol abuse. His story is told in the Independent Lens film “A Fragile Trust,” debuting on PBS on  May 5.

When Hernandez was reporting for the San Antonio Express-News, Blair stole such specifics from her stories as an interview subject’s “Martha Stewart” furniture. It was the kind of scene-setting detail a reporter could only get through shoe-leather reporting — or copying someone else’s shoe- leather reporting.

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Hernandez said she could remember a brief time when minority journalists were aggressively courted at journalism conferences.

“These people were throwing huge parties with champagne and shrimp and that lasted about ten years,” she said.

But she said the Blair scandal “gave people permission” to stop focusing on diversity. She said that as newspapers have suffered financially, there has been far less emphasis on hiring people of color — because of the prejudicial belief that Blair’s case discredits all efforts at making newsrooms look like the communities they serve.

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The Blair scandal helped expose the perniciousness of plagiarism in an age when almost everyone has easy access to others’ writing — which the panelists called our “cut-and-paste culture.” Hernandez now teaches teaches at the Communications Department at the University of Houston-Victoria, where she says she often reads papers by students who don’t use popular punctuation in one paragraph, and sound like college professors in another.

Watch the trailer for “A Fragile Trust”: