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Data, Reporting, and Blair

On the opinion page of the Washington Post, Richard Cohen weighs in on the Blair affair. Cohen is as sure as Mickey Kaus and John Leo: “Yet not only was Blair not stopped, he was promoted to the national staff and ultimately given more responsibilities. Why? The answer appears to be precisely what the Times denies: favoritism based on race.”

Like Kaus and Leo, Cohen provides no evidence for his assertion. However, he does admit that Blair “clearly has talent” as a reporter. (Perhaps this is why Blair was promoted to the national staff?) If we review the logic of Kaus, Leo, and Cohen, we see their reasoning:

1. Blair was black
2. Well known to the Times editors, Blair was a mediocre reporter
3. Blair was promoted and kept working until the scandal broke
4. The Times editors must have promoted him because he was black

However, this line of reasoning does not work. There is not enough data to Jump to [these] Conclusions. For example, one could simply substitute the following:

1. Blair had gone to the University of Maryland
2. Well known to the Times editors, Blair was a mediocre reporter
3. Blair was promoted and kept working until the scandal broke
4. The Times editors must have promoted him because he was a Terripan

In absence of more data (or, for that matter, any data), this line of reasoning works just as well. We all know that there are ‘old-boy’ networks that exist at major places of employment – why couldn’t it be at work here? For all we know right now, it is at work.

What is needed are more data, and it is not difficult to figure out what data are needed. For instance, what are the promotion rates from the reporter internship program to the national staff? Is it near 100 percent? Is it, in fact, 100 percent? Is the hardest part of getting on the national staff actually getting the initial internship? What are the promotion rates by race? Do black interns get preference? Was Blair an exception or did he fit a pattern? Did Blair, in fact, receive preferential treatment?

Once these questions are answered, Kaus, Leo, and Cohen will be able to accurately talk about why Blair was promoted. Right now, they are three reporters who don’t have the facts – and who are not showing any desire to obtain the facts; they look like hacks who are using this incident to write ill-informed diatribes against affirmative action. You know, they may be right about why Blair was promoted, but, right now, they are showing the reporting skills worthy of Jayson Blair.


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Comments (1)


Partha, you are so desperate to protect affirmative action that you are either being deliberately blind to what happened or you are trying to play lawyer games to get your "client" off. This is not a court of law. You can not win your case by convincing one of the jurors that there is reasonable doubt.

The reason you are having so much trouble convincing us is that everyone but you can see the obvious. Howell Raines stated that he wanted more diversity in the newsroom. There is no disputing that fact. Jayson Blair was hired without getting his degree. There is no disputing that fact. Why would the premiere newspaper in the world hire someone without a degree? Would you argue that they could not find anyone else who had a degree to fill the position? I think not. Blair then proceeded to write numerous stories with factual errors that had to be corrected. There is no disputing that fact. One of the Times editors wrote an email that demanded that he be fired. There is no disputing that fact.

Rather then fire him or put him in a less demanding position, The Times promoted him and assigned him to some of the hottest cases around, e.g., the DC sniper case. Once again there was controversy with his stories, but the Times refused to do anything about it. There is no disputing that fact. It was only when he was accused of plagiarism that they finally looked into his record.

Do you see a pattern here? If not, you are blind to the facts. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, there is a strong possibility it is a duck. The Times wanted this "bright and aggressive" minority to succeed to further their affirmative action policy. Unfortunately, it blew up in their face and gave them (another) black eye.

Does this mean that affirmative action is wrong? The answer is if it is practiced this way, then yes it is wrong. A newspaper can go out of its way to seek out bright minority reporters. However, they have to be held to the same standard as everyone else. Otherwise you are not doing them any favor. In addition, you are hurting the cause that you are trying to promote.


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