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The Blair Math Project

Thanks to Partha for finding data on the New York Times' internship program. I do not think it exonerates the Times on charges of racial bias, however. Quite the opposite. Assuming the self-reported data -- and for some reason I'm leery of relying on New York Times fact-checkers right now -- is accurate, it seems that minorities in the internship program receive treatment similar to that of whites in the internship program in one limited respect, getting hired for a full-time job. However, it also shows massive racial bias in the internship program itself. By my count, 19 of the 44 participants -- that's forty-three percent, for those of you scoring at home -- in the program were minorities.

Quick googling turned up this article, which cites the American Society of Newspaper Editors' annual newsroom employment survey for the data showing that in 1997, fourteen percent of print journalism graduates from journalism schools were minorities. And that minority graduates were, as a group, less qualified (in terms of credentials and experience) than non-minority graduates. 14% vs. 43%. To claim that this doesn't raise at least a prima facie case of disparate treatment is... stretching it.

And that doesn't address the issue of how fast Blair was promoted through the ranks; there's a big difference between merely being given a job on the newspaper's staff, on the one hand, and being made the lead reporter on major national stories, as Blair was, on the other hand.

Finally, the claim that Blair "was a con-man and there is nothing more to this story" just doesn't hold up. Reading the Times' ridiculously long account of the Blair affair, Blair didn't "con" anybody at all. Everybody who interacted with him quickly became aware of his poor performance, his sloppiness, his erratic behavior. His supervisor begged the Times to do something: "We have to stop Jayson from writing for the Times. Right now." He certainly wasn't "conned."

The question isn't how Blair was able to get away with pretending to travel without actually leaving New York; that didn't take "conning" so much as simple lying. (Stephen Glass actually invented phony evidence in an effort to hide his fiction-writing at the New Republic. Blair wasn't even smart enough to stay out of the office on days when he was pretending he was out of town.) The question is why Blair was allowed to retain his job, and get promotions, when everyone knew he was a problem. Why the Times kept him on for more than a year after his editor desperately tried to get rid of him.

Certainly, the operational failures which allowed Blair to, for instance, get away with "traveling" without filing expense reports for tickets or hotels, are an issue which the Times needs to look into. But the management failures which allowed Blair to get and keep his job despite shoddy performance are the real story here. Why did he get a job without a college degree? Why was he regularly promoted? Why did it continue even after he was forced to take leaves of absence after misbehaving? Why were some of his editors not informed of his sketchy track record? If it wasn't because of the Times' commitment to "diversity," -- which had previously led the Times to give special treatment to minority candidates -- then what was it?


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Comments (4)

Partha Mazumdar:

Among your many great questions, why Blair was hired without a college degree is easy to answer.

He was Editor of the University of Maryland student paper. With this credential, he got the summer internship at the Times.

The school year after the summer internship, he was hired into the full-time internship program at the Times. (I had friends who were editors and Editors* at the Unversity of Kansas student paper who parlayed summer internships into full-time gigs at the Washington Post, New York Times, Time Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Austin American-Statesman. It seems this is the standard way of getting a job.)

After the school year -- when he started full-time writing for the Times, the Times just *assumed* he had graduated. They probably shouldn't have, but I bet the vast majority of employers, in journalism and outside of it, don't ask incoming employees for an official final transcript or a xerox of a degree. They just trust you, and since, earlier, they had heard from references and have seen previous transcripts, they believe that they can trust you.

I don't find this point (that he was hired without finishing his degree) a blot against the Times. It's one more against Blair -- for I bet the Times didn't just assume that he had finished, I'm confident he gave them reason to believe it (e.g. he told them that he had).


* I distinguish "editor" from "Editor" -- "editor" is a section editor, like Editorial Page editor or Features editor or News Editor or Sports editor. "Editor" is the Editor-in-Chief.


They probably shouldn't have, but I bet the vast majority of employers, in journalism and outside of it, don't ask incoming employees for an official final transcript or a xerox of a degree.

Partha, I certainly don't want to accuse you of either being obtuse, or of trying to con us. However, how do you think employers determine whether or not a prospective employee has the requisite degree? By asking the person? In the real world they make the person get his college to send a transcript of his grades ( and they don't accept Xerox copies because, surprise, surprise, people can alter them). That is why the colleges have that service. When students apply to graduate school, does the school trust them to have finished college or do they require that they receive a transcript from their undergraduate school (that has the official seal of the school to prove that it is the original document)? Even to get into college, a student must give proof they he graduated from high school after he has been admitted to the school. It they didn't do that, then a person could lie about having a degree. So I guess the only think we can conclude is that either the NY Times is incredibly sloppy in checking on the people they hire or that they were willing to overlook Blair's lack of a degree to advance their affirmative action goals.


By the way, my comment about Blair being a con man was not meant in any way to exonerate the Times affirmative action policy. I was simply making an observation about Blair's character. The reason he was able to get away with his plagiarism and fabrication has everything to do with the Times racial policies. Upper management (Raines and Boyd) wanted so much to believe that they had a "star" minority employee that hey were willing to overlook all of the numerous problems with Blair that were evident to lower level management. If they had treated him as any other employee, rather than a minority who had to be "protected" this would not have happened.


The question isn't how Blair was able to get away with pretending to travel without actually leaving New York; that didn't take "conning" so much as simple lying.

I think Jon Stewart of the Daily Show said it best (quoting from memory):

"According to this article in the Washington Post, Jayson Blair claimed to travel all around the country, but not once did he submit receipts for airfare, meals, or hotel rooms. There is obviously only one conclusion we can come to. That's right, Jayson Blair is a hobo."


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