JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS

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Tuesday, May 13, 2003
 
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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