Leonard Pitts Jr.
This is an open letter to my colleagues in the news business.
The silence is getting loud.
It’s been nearly four months since the scandal broke. Four months since Jack Kelley, star foreign correspondent for USA Today, was found to have lied his way through his professional life for the last 13 years. He lied about where he had been, what he had seen, whom he had talked to, what they had said. He lied so much I’m only half convinced “Jack Kelley” is his real name.
Yet you, my colleagues, have not asked the most important question:
What does this mean for the future of white journalism?
Granted, you’ve pontificated about our damaged credibility. You’ve felled forests with your weighty ruminations about what this portends for the future of our profession. But, evidently cowed by political correctness, you’ve ignored the most vital issues.
Did USA Today advance a moderately capable journalist because he was white? Did some white editor mentor him out of racial solidarity even though Kelley was unqualified? In light of this fiasco, should we re-examine the de facto affirmative action that gives white men preferential treatment in our newsrooms?
Certainly, no one had to beg for these questions to be asked a year ago, when Jayson Blair got his sorry backside in hot water. Blair, as you hardly need to be reminded, was a black reporter who initially came to the New York Times via a slot in an internship program the paper was using to increase newsroom diversity. It turned out that the only diversity Blair represented was that which is to be found between lies and damned lies.
Still, some observers felt the circumstances of his hiring were almost as important as the reason for his firing. Columnist Andrew Sullivan claimed Blair got away with snookering the Times because his editors feared offending a black journalist. Columnist Richard Cohen told us Blair enjoyed “favoritism based on race.” Jennifer Harper, a reporter for the conservative Washington Times, wrote that the Blair episode made the New York paper a “case study on the effects of affirmative action in the newsroom.”
A computer search Friday indicates that Sullivan, Cohen and Harper have thus far been silent on the racial dimensions of the Kelley incident. In fairness to those worthies, I’m sure they’re warming up their laptops even as we speak.
While we await the results, let me, in the interest of full disclosure, admit that I didn’t think up today’s column on my own. Rather, it was inspired by remarks Gwen Ifill of PBS made last week at an awards dinner. Truth to tell, though, she only crystallized what I — and, I daresay, many other journalists of color — have been thinking ever since Kelley’s deceptions were uncovered.
Namely, that this is (with apologies to the Four Tops) the same old song. When a white person screws up, it ignites a debate on the screw up. When a black person screws up, it ignites a debate on race.
So, loathe though I am to position myself as a spokesman, I feel confident in saying one thing on behalf of black journalists everywhere: When and if our industry decides to deal with the issues raised by Kelley’s transgressions, we stand ready to help. Need someone to handle outreach to journalism programs at HWCUs (historically white colleges and universities)? Want to discuss whether hiring whites requires us to lower our standards? Looking for ideas of how to make whites feel more welcome?
We’re standing by. All you have to do is call.
Because doggone it, white journalism has a long, proud history — Edward R. Murrow, Mike Royko … Matt Drudge. We cannot allow one bad apple to sully that.
So I’ll be over here waiting for the discussion of these issues to begin. I’m thinking I should pack a lunch.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org