Minority reporters: ambitious self-promoters and dishonest to boot?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

IN AN OTHERWISE good column about how and why The Washington Post passed on the article by Jose Antonio Vargas detailing how he’d lived and worked in this country as an illegal alien, ombudsman Patrick Pexton included these lines:

“He left behind a reputation in The Post’s newsroom for being a tenacious and talented but also for being a relentless self-promote whom many colleagues didn’t trust. Editors said he needed direction, coaching and constant watching.”

I can’t remember the number of columns by Post ombudsmen/women decrying the use of unnamed sources in the paper. Paxton is relatively new at this gig, but I have no doubt that he shares his predecessors’ disdain for unnamed sources. Apparently, though, it’s OK for him to use unnamed sources. And it’s OK for him not to offer Vargas an opportunity to reply to the unreliable self-promoter charges.

I don’t know Vargas and he may well have been an unreliable self-promoter, but if you’re going to make those charges in print, it seems to me you should detail who is making those charges, and you should offer Vargas an opportunity to defend himself.

And since when has self-promotion been a sin at The Washington Post, home of the world’s most famous self-promoting reporter, Bob Woodward?

I have worked in newsrooms before and I know that there is a lot of professional jealousy in those places. Any time a reporter does an outstanding job that attracts the attention of readers and editors, there are the pats on the back but there is also the behind-the-scenes dissing of that reporter.

That, unfortunately, is even more so when it comes to minority reporters, particularly male reporters, thanks to Jason Blair and other idiots who decided to take shortcuts to glory and fame in the newsroom.

Somehow, the assumption is that black, Latino and Asian reporters aren’t that good and when they do good work, it’s because they cheated or they got help or breaks from editors that white reporters wouldn’t get. Somehow, there is the assumption that the only reason they were hired was so that the newspaper would be able to say it has a rainbow newsroom, not because they were competent reporters.

In some cases that was true, I’ll have to admit, but the overwhelming majority of minority reporters I have met and worked with have been as competent as their white colleagues.

When I got hired at The Houston Post, I assumed that I was hired on the basis of my resume and the writing I had done for the paper at its Washington bureau as an intern. I was no cub reporter. Yet, when I wrote my first big breaking-news front-page story, I heard an editor say to another, in amazement, “He can write!”

I suppose that was meant to be a compliment, but to me, it was an insult. I was already in my early 30s and I had been working in the field for years, albeit in weekly newspapers, and here all these weeks these editors were assuming I could not write!

A couple of years later, it was revealed that one of our assistant city editors had written a letter (on company time using company equipment) to a friend bragging about his role in disciplining “a young Latino reporter” who had fabricated parts of some of his stories. This was after the Washington Post Janet Cooke affair.

Being that I was the only young Latino reporter on the city desk, I was particularly offended, because I knew that the all the letter’s recipient had to do was look up a roster of the Post’s city desk reporters and assume that I was that young fabricating Latino reporter.

The editor lost his job over that incident and I felt bad for him, but I also was far from pleased that he had felt perfectly OK with promoting himself by denigrating minority journalists.

That was some 30 years ago. You’d think that things would be different by now. Sadly, they aren’t. Successful minority reporters are still seen as overly ambitious or dishonest, if not both.

So much for the nation’s liberal newsrooms.

 

 

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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