For several days now I've been wanting to blog about NBC News's announcement late last week that the network had hired Luke Russert, 22-year-old son of the late NBC political guru Tim Russert, as a correspondent to cover the youth angle at the political conventions this fall.
I couldn't write about this immediately though, 'cause I wasn't quite sure how I felt.
Seriously, my feelings ranged from slight haterism, as in silent grumblings of "wish that was me!" to annoyance, as in "what the hell did he do to deserve such a gig?" to downright anger over what I initially perceived to be a big old wet kiss from the Affirmative Action Fairy.
Then it occurred to me that this technically wasn't affirmative action, 'cause affirmative action is a formal government policy whose stated goal is to give a nudge to ethnic minorities and women who might otherwise face discrimination in certain hiring and schools admissions policies.
So I came to the conclusion then that young Russert had instead been kissed by the Nepotism Fairy, paternal twin of the Affirmative Action Fairy.
While NBC News issued a straight-faced statement saying that Russert was hired because it was crucial that the youth vote be covered thoroughly at the conventions, let's be blunt. It couldn't have hurt for him to be a Russert. Also, TV news is about ratings. So, sorry NBC News. But this has ratings gimmick written all over it.
But here's the rub: While I've engaged in debate over this thing for a few days and listened to colleagues debate over it, and while I'm still sorta bugged by it, I can't be mad at Russert.
Whatever you want to call it - a form of affirmative action, a form of nepotism, simple old-fashioned back scratching/favoritism, or straightforward and above board, Russert, a recent college grad, has a unique type of experience that you just can't get in a J-school classroom. You don't grow up at the feet of arguably the best political broadcast journalist in modern times and not learn a thing or two.
Like it or not, he does have unique qualifications for the job. And what was he supposed to do, say no to the offer? I wouldn't have in his place.
Still, I understand why some of my colleagues are ticked off about his new job opportunity. Just two weeks ago, I was in Chicago for a media convention. And while it was good to catch up with old friends, it was almost depressing to see dozens, maybe hundreds of experienced, and very qualified, and in some cases YOUNG-AS-RUSSERT!!! out-of-work journalists looking for new gigs. Everywhere they turned at the convention's job fair, they were told there's nothing out there, due to the tanking economy. So, given news like that, no matter how many pearls you try to put on this pig, NBC's announcement on young Russert was an announcement of some kind of favoritism, no matter what sort of label you put on it.
Besides, favoritism in hiring is not new in this or any other country. The government may not always be involved, but I assure you the practice predates 1961, when JFK reportedly coined the term "affirmative action." Don't get me started on all the examples of it in my own industry.
But my big question is how many critics of favoritism and special treatment and fast-tracking at work will look at this hiring and finally acknowledge that it is not "mostly" a minority thing or a female thing. It is a who's best connected thing.
Need I remind you of the legacy policies at some colleges and universities that grant the children of past graduates special consideration for admission over poor schmucks whose dumb luck was to be born to parents who didn't go to college or who graduated from different schools?
I remember the first time I was confronted about workplace favoritism.
It was the early '90s, in the two years or so after I graduated high school. I was a college student at this point and was working as a civilian journeyman machinist at the now defunct Naval Aviation Depot (Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Va.) to help pay for school.
A middle-aged white guy in my machine shop approached me in the break room and asked if my hire had been the result of affirmative action or some other government aid. I knew he was attempting snark, but I kept cool and told him no, my hire was the result of me scoring well on the Civil Service Exam and passing the hands-on and classroom portions of my subsequent apprenticeship.
He was still skeptical and followed me back to my turret lathe after we ate, and he persisted, even though I over-lubed the metal I was shaping so that it would spray him with smelly grease and metal shavings. He asked if I would ever accept affirmative action or any other sort of "unearned" advantage. And he gave the example of me and a more experienced white person vying for the same job as me. He wanted to know if I was offered the job over the more experienced person, would I accept.
It was a tricky question, but only for a moment. I come from a household of parents proud of the things accomplished in this country through and as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but at the same time proud of their personal work ethic and the fact that they really did scrap and claw their way into everything they ever earned, without the benefit of a government nudge or wet kisses from influential relatives or family friends.
So while I know my folks hated - and still hate - the notion that they'd ever need help to accomplish anything they wanted, I also know that they were savvy enough about workplace politics and negative "isms" to never look down on anyone who accepted an offer of help...whether from the government or the bosses of a major news organization. Why? Because it's just human nature to not look a gift horse in the mouth.
So my answer to his question was I may not aggressively seek that nudge, 'cause I know my work can sing its own praises. But if that nudge is offered, you better believe I'd take it. And don't be high and mighty. Most of you would take it too.
But if you have a vein throbbing out the side of your neck at this point, maybe your blood pressure will lower if I tell you that my feelings on this topic pretty much align with those of comedian Chris Rock: I don't think any unqualified person who is some form of minority should get a job over a qualified person who is white, just 'cause the unqualified person is black, or brown, or female, or in a wheel chair, or is from Mars, or is related to or friends with a well-connected, powerful person. But, if the black/female/wheelchair-bound-person/Martian/connected person is equally qualified to the white person, I don't have a problem with the tie going to the black/brown/white/female/wheelchair-bound-person/Martian/connected person sometimes.
All that being said, Luke, congrats on your new gig, and good luck with it.