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Volunteer Slavery: Thoughts on Jayson Blair's screwup at The New York Times

By Kathy Y. Wilson · May 28th, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide
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"You know, there's nothing worse than being wrong around white folks."

-- Jill Nelson, 'Volunteer Slavery'

I still wince. Yanked off car crashes, fires and dog attacks, I was anxious to prove my worth not as a writer but as a reporter.

The exact date now fails me, but back in 1993 or 1994 I was thrust into my first major story as a daily general assignment reporter at the Hamilton Journal-News. I'd been given the task of following the demise of the Community Action Agency. Shoddy leadership, mishandling of state monies and a discordant board added up to boisterous, sometimes violent meetings and the threat of people without basic social services.

I was a nervous wreck throughout, but I compensated my anxiety with energy and hard work. I wanted to please my bosses and prove they'd made the right decision by hiring a good writer who was an inexperienced reporter.

I was present when it came time for the board to finally vote to accept or decline the state's offer to temporarily dissolve and rebuild. I filed what I thought I understood.

It was all wrong, up to and including the headline that read something like, "Board votes to end CAA." I royally and with vigor screwed up that story.

After all three editors ripped me three new assholes, I spent the entire day tracking down and apologizing to each board member. The next day we ran a correction/apology the same length as and in the same spot as the original erroneous story.

And I stayed off the radar, keeping my head down and doing grunt stories nobody would notice until I again felt confident and redeemed.

The embarrassment was intense because the Journal-News is my hometown paper. Besides facing peers and sources, I had to face all those well-wishing black church ladies who reminisced over my pigtails and dimples.

It was my first hard-knock journalistic lesson. In such cases -- I was then one of two black reporters and ultimately the only black reporter -- there's the rush to frame the tangle in racial polemics.

What will white people think? What will they think? It's a gimmick.

There's something misleading, however, about the nobility and inclusiveness of journalism. Journalism is like police work; it's ignoble and rife with blame. Newsrooms are like neighborhoods; they're classist and sorely lack diversity.

Class, blame, ignobility and diversity? Smells like Times Spirit.

I want to sit down in a bookstore with 27-year-old Jayson Blair, the defrocked New York Times reporter accused of leaving a "long trail of deception" from October 2002 to April fraught with "widespread fabrication and plagiarism," according to The Times itself.

I'd talk to him about being depressed (he clearly is), playing the race card in the newsroom (he and his editors did), shabby newsroom management (he excelled, then suffered because of it) and lying in the name of a "good" story.

Blair and his editors should know that nobody bought their disingenuous push for "diversity" because swaddled in that rank egg roll was their brand of the old-boy network. Just because they made room for a colored boy makes it no less a network that closes rank around access and privilege.

Blair was mismanaged and pushed along because he cozied up to top editors. And it got them all in hot water.

Blair should take solace, seek cover and heed this advice. First, don't make future mistakes but expect to and, when you do, take full responsibility. Editors' stars rise vicariously through their writers, so when a writer crashes in flames a substandard editor will piss the fire out but won't blanket the writer in guidance.

When a black writer screws up, we do -- right or wrong -- carry the weight of Ida B. Wells and the rest of the race on our narrow shoulders. This, too, is a gimmick. When our white counterparts make missteps, there's no public discourse over the character of all white people because one of them did something stupid.

Finally, I found comfort in the pages of Volunteer Slavery, Jill Nelson's manifesto documenting her rocky tenure at The Washington Post and published around the time of my fiasco.

"Not that there's anything inherently horrible about making a mistake, but when you're a Negro in America it's usually not just you who's making the mistake, it's y'all, the race, black folks in toto," she writes. "One individual's fuck-up becomes yet another piece of evidence that affirmative action equals incompetence, that people of African descent somehow just don't fit in, that America cannot rely on spooks to do the right thing, no matter what Ossie Davis and Spike Lee say."

Jayson, bro', you fucked up. You lied. And now that's on you and no other Negro I know.

But I feel your pain and alienation. Because I know what volunteer slavery feels like.



Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.
 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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