Reveals how good intentions have constricted journalism within a narrow multicultural orthodoxy.
- Encounter Books
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.34(w) x 9.31(h) x 1.12(d)
Read an Excerpt
The coloring of the news is one of those stories that have been happening more or less invisibly for some years. By December 1992, it was not only in the cultural air, but very much on the table at the joint Diversity Summit Meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Newspaper Association of America. This get-together had the unmistakable air of a tent revival, full of grim jeremiads, stern calls for repentance and holy roller zeal. Diversity had been fast becoming one of the most contentious issues in American society and in American journalism, responsible for polarizing, if not balkanizing, more than one newsroom around the country. Yet only one side of the issue was present in this crowd. Speaker after speaker got up to declaim in favor of diversity and to warn of editorial sin and financial doom if this cause was not embraced.
The Newspaper Association of America is a publishers' organization, concerned with advertising, circulation, and other business-related issues. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has a different brief, concerning itself with the broad issues of news coverage and the newsgathering processwith journalism proper. The nature of their relationship is often likened to that between Church and State; when the two sides are in agreement, it is often a cause for anxiety, at least among the journalists who are always fretting about the perception that they are sacrificing editorial integrity for the sake of ad sales or circulation figures. But on that day in December, the two sides were definitely on thesame page and no one was worried about a loss of objectivity.
From one corner came a declaration that diversity was crucial if the news industry was to realize its mission of "service to democracy." From the other corner, a promise "not to stop until we have met our goal of an industry that reflects the diversity of our society." Most of the big-shots in that room hadn't gotten their hands inky in years. But if they had tried to distill the essence of the meeting, their headline might be: "Diversity: Makes Good Editorial Sense; Makes Good Business Sense Too."
Sitting on a bench in the back of the hotel ballroom where guests of the conference were allowed to observe proceedings, I wondered whether I had fallen into some kind of parallel universe where reality was turned inside out. Journalism, as I had known it, was distinguished by its gratuitous cynicism, brash iconoclasm and ready impertinence. As Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has said, practicing it well requires a "religious belief in absolutely nothing, a conviction that nothing can be taken on faith." But in this room at least, the normal rules of engagement seemed to have been turned on their head, and all the gospel hours of "testifying" that I was hearing produced a sense of cognitive dissonance.
On another level, though, the zealotry was entirely understandable. In the preceding few years, the cause of diversity had become a crusade across the length and breadth of the American media, and would be a defining and dominating force in journalism in the decade to come. Almost every day after that 1992 meeting, one could hear echoes from it in newspaper stories and nightly network broadcasts. Diversity was the new religion, and anybody who wanted to be anybody in the news industry had to rally behind it.
At news organizations both large and small, print and broadcast, managers were rushing to change "the way we view each other and the way we view the news," in the words of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times. They were embracing an array of measures designed to increase minority representation both on their news staffs and on their news pages. In a profession historically wary of championing social causes, diversity had become the social cause, a path to salvation that would both improve the quality of American journalism and make it more attractive to art increasingly diverse set of readers.
To increase the racial and ethnic diversity of their staffs, almost every major news organization has mounted a "pluralism plan" with aggressive hiring and promotion goals, and created a special "diversity steering committee" to oversee itthe "Diversity or Die" committee, as Sulzberger jokingly called his organization's task force in his Diversity Summit speech. In some places, such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, top editors have openly admitted to relying on quotas, favoring less qualified minority candidates in filling positions, and violating hiring freezes when minority journalists have been in short supply. Nearly all major news organizations have created special internship and training programs for nonwhites. At the New York Times, three out of four James R. Reston Reporting Fellows, participants in a prestigious internship program for college students, were minorities in 2001. At the eleven newspapers owned by the Tribune Companyparent of such publications as the Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Los Angeles Timesthere is a special two-year internship program devoted exclusively to nonwhites, with no corresponding company-wide training program for nonminorities.
News organizations have also shown support for a variety of special fellowship programs for "multicultural management" which have been instituted to help nonwhite journalists increase managerial skills so they are more desirable candidates for promotions. To further the goal of putting minorities in decision-making positions, newsroom managers have also developed special mentoring programs, and have tried to boost the visibility and status of talented minority journalists by sending them off to prestigious mid-career enrichment programs like Harvard's Nieman Foundation Fellowship.
At an increasing number of news organizations, the pay and promotion opportunities of senior editors is linked to the number of minority journalists they hire, retain and promote. At the Time-Warner magazines, for example, new editor in chief Norman Pearlstine has decreed that 10 percent of the bonuses managing editors can receive should be linked to how successful they are "at hiring and promoting minorities." Those editors who can show measurable gains make more money. Those who don't will find their salaries and career prospects diminished. And even where pay has not been pegged to recruitment, there have been deliberate efforts to insulate nonwhites from the layoffs and force reductions that have been common in the news business over the last several years.
Some of the larger news organizations have created positions for special diversity development editors, or, as at the news networks, positions with titles like "Senior Vice-President, Diversity." Often their sole task is to prospect for desirable minority candidates, but at some news organizations they sit in on daily news meetings and contribute to coverage decisions. These development editors are a fixture at minority job fairs, where first-time minority job seekers, as well as seasoned pros, find a reception many of their nonminority peers often envy. Recruiting of first-time job seekers and poaching of those who already have positions elsewhere also take place at the national conventions of the various minority journalists' associations, such as the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, and the Asian American Journalists Association. These conventions often pursue a political as much as a professional agenda. But the conflicts of interest don't seem to faze senior managers, who attend faithfully, underwrite special projects, throw lavish parties, and release minority staff from daily duties so they can attend.
To increase the amount and the sensitivity of the coverage given to minority issues, many news organizations have created special beats and columns reserved for blacks, Latinos, Asians, gays, and self-identified feminists; these special vehicles are used to articulate what the news industry refers to as "separate and distinct minority points of view." The broadcasting industry has made analogous moves, triggering heated competition for the right "faces of color" to anchor the news or cover certain beats. Some news organizations have launched special syndicated features, making the work of prominent minority writers available to smaller papers without the resources to recruit their own.
Most of the major newspapers have an in-house "ombudsman," and often as not, especially at the larger urban papers, those promoted into these positions have been minorities. Other news organizations have developed ethnically and racially sensitive "style guides" which advise writers and editors of the proper terms to be used in writing about various racial and ethnic groups or addressing certain ethnically or racially charged issues. In 1999, for instance, the style manual used at the New York Times counseled that reporters and editors avoid using "voodoo" as a term of disparagement, since "voodoo is a religion with many followers" who might get upset by hints that it might involve "irrational beliefs."
Still other newspapers have pursued sensitivity through revised photo policies, taking pains to avoid using images that show minorities in unnecessarily negative or stereotypical ways. At some places, special minority review committees vet certain news pieces before publication or broadcast and strategize with editors on how best to cover a particular minority community. In 1992, for instance, the San Jose Mercury News, which had been chided for the lack of ethnic faces in its news pages, established what it called a "change pod" made up of five reporters and an editor who would focus on the influx of Latino and Asian immigrants transforming Silicon Valley. "It was an explicit recognition by the paper that it hadn't gotten the job done," the team director declared.
In some news organizations, managers have issued what are called "mainstreaming guidelines" to ensure that stories reflect proper ethnic and racial balance in sources cited. To assist in such mainstreaming efforts, newsroom managers have devised a variety of tools, from color-coded charts hanging on a newsroom wall to special computer programs that track the number of times a minority source database has been consulted by a particular reporter over a set length of time. Such measurements are often incorporated into a reporter's or editor's employee evaluation. Another way news organizations have sought to enforce sensitivity is through the "content audit," in which standardized techniques are used to measure how minority groups are portrayed in pictures and in print, highlighting areas for improvement.
And like the rest of corporate America, newspapers and broadcasters have relied heavily on special "diversity management" seminars. In these sessions, special "diversity consultants" encourage employees to air their complaints about ethnic, racial and gender dynamics within the newsroom, in an attempt to get colleagues to realize how ingrained cultural assumptions of the "dominant" (i.e., white male) culture have hurt both the feelings and the career prospects of nonwhite employees. Top editors have gone away on two- or three-day diversity retreats where they engage in elaborate role-playing games, complete with props and costumes. In preparation for these retreats, managers have been asked to consult specially prepared reading lists said to represent the "authentic voices" of the nonwhite communities into which they want to gain insight.
Encouraging and expanding all of the diversity initiatives by individual news organizations have been the complementary efforts of various professional organizations and foundations. The American Society of Newspaper Editors, for example, has created a position for a special diversity director. In April 2000, the Freedom Forum, underwritten by the Gannett Corporation, announced a program that places more than a hundred minority journalists in special intern programs around the country. The Freedom Forum also established another program that pays for a minority journalism training program at Vanderbilt University. In 1995, the Ford Foundation put money behind the issue of news media diversity, hiring a special program officer to manage grants to various minority journalist organizations. In the year 2000, Ford gave $400,000 to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and an equal amount to the National Association of Black Journalists.
Some of these steps taken on behalf of diversity are worthy and long overdue. Historically, given the poor record of the press in covering marginalized communities, American journalism really might have an obligation "to compensate for its historical mistreatment of people who are not white, male, or heterosexual," as one journalism professor put it in a letter to the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Measured in April 2000, the proportion of minority journalists in newsrooms was 11.6 percent, well below the goal of roughly 25 percent which the American Society of Newspaper Editors promised it would reach by the year 2000a figure that would have required the industry to make one out of every two hires a minority. This shortfall has been the source of considerable grumbling, with many minority journalists charging the industry with retreating from its stated commitment. But while minority representation in journalism lags behind that of some professions, including psychology, architecture and economics, it is higher than in medicine, law and academia. In many news markets the percentage of minority journalists employed exceeds their proportion of the available labor pool.
Such gains have meant that many talented minority journalists who may have been passed over in a less enlightened era have been given a chance, and have acquitted themselves impressively. The number of nonwhites who have won Pulitzer Prizes (for excellence in print) and Peabody Awards (for broadcasting) is substantial. And whereas the topmost rungs of journalism were completely white a short time ago, journalists of color now occupy them in greater numbers, or are poised just below in key positions as foreign correspondents and city editors, awaiting the day when they will take over the reins. As I write in mid-2001, minorities occupy the position of managing editor or assistant managing editor at some of the biggest and most prominent daily newspapers in the country, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.
With more minorities and a greater regard for what are considered "distinct minority perspectives," the press is certainly no longer an all-white bastion focused on all-white precincts of power, where slights and offensive stereotypes go unnoticed and unchallenged. News organizations now use a wider radar screen to monitor their communities, and the expanded reportorial range has encouraged, at many points, gritty, incisive stories that may not have been produced before, or produced as readily. As a result, the realities of minority life that were once excluded from mainstream view are more accessible.
Having greater racial and ethnic breadth on staff also pays dividends in moral authority, as minority reporters often enjoy a license to weigh in on touchy issues that white journalists are reluctant to approach. At the Washington Post, for instance, it was a black reporter, Vanessa Williams, who was able to explain that D.C. mayor Marion Barry's support for the death penalty did not represent pandering to white voters, as many whites in the newsroom assumed, but was a reflection of the black community's growing endorsement of capital punishment.
Yet improved access and greater breadth often come at considerable costs, as the push for diversity has also fed a climate of racial grievance and accusation, undermining newsroom morale and collegiality.
White journalists blame the obsession with diversity for encouraging racial favoritism and double standards, and for crimping their career prospects so that higher-ups can collect fatter bonuses for minority hiring and advancement. In a 1996 study, 40 percent of whites thought lower standards for promotion were applied to blacks. They also frequently complain that race, ethnicity and gender play an unfair role in assignment policies; that managers indulge behavior from minority colleagues (including racist behavior) for which they themselves would be fired or demoted; and that diversity management seminars often amount to little more than Maoist-style self-criticism sessions that create the very racial and ethnic divisiveness they are supposed to help overcome.
Meanwhile, blacks complain about glass ceilings, about lip service from white managers more interested in appearances than real diversity, and about being pigeonholed in Black or Brown beats and being restricted to weekend duty, known at ABC News as the "Third World Ghetto." Minority reporters and editors also complain about their lack of decision-making powers, and express resentment over the feeling that many are there simply to educate whites in what is and is not racially or ethnically offensive.
Sitting front and center at the 1992 Summit meeting, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. put it well when he described a breakdown of communications on his multiracial diversity management committee that had its members "at each other's throats." The "cultural change" involved in diversity, he said, had proved to be "hard, brutal stuff." Sulzberger could have been previewing the complaints of the entire industry which followed his lead in the years to come, embracing diversity without really debating it much, and thus finding itself in a quagmire of diversity-related troubles.
· At the Miami Herald, for instance, diversity seems to have been a major reason why a paper once considered one of the country's premier training grounds for national journalists has become, according to Time magazine, "a shell of its former self."
Taking over the paper in 1989, publisher David Lawrence committed the Herald to an aggressive multicultural vision that would help Miami show the rest of the increasingly diverse United States of America "how you work it out." Under Lawrence the paper hired dozens of Latino reporters, introduced sensitivity training in the newsroom, and created special Latino sections and editions. In a city with a rapidly expanding potential Latino readership, these steps made good journalistic and business sense, Lawrence believed. But some saw problems in the offing. "Will the Herald pander to readers to avoid making them mad?" the New York Times' Celia Dugger asked. "Will the paper stay away from tough critical reporting because it makes some readers uncomfortable?"
At the time, Lawrence said the answer to these questions was no. But in the following years, many at the paper said otherwise, particularly when it came to the city's ethnically assertive and politically influential Cuban community. According to some, instead of providing the city with honest, fearless coverage of the news, the paper pulled its punches, shying away from rigorous, searching pieces that might call into question the assumptions of Cuban Miami and the actions of its political elite. As one veteran reporter told the New Republic, "We quit doing tough stories." The paper was particularly wary of questioning the separatist mind-set of the Cuban community, for whom assimilation "was not on the agenda," as one Miami journalist explained.
One of the most vivid illustrations of the Herald's ethnic pandering was its coverage of the Elián González affair in 1999 and 2000. According to an analysis made by the New Republic, the paper demonstrated a pattern of foot-dragging in reporting news developments that supported the return of the seven-year-old Cuban boy to his natural father, allowing itself to be scooped several times by out-of-town competitors. The New Republic account also described intense ethnic fractiousness at the paper. Cuban journalists and newsroom staff fell prey to ethnic partisanship that diluted the newsroom's professional detachment on the story, the New Republic said. The prickly chauvinism of this newsroom clique also became a headwind for the paper's best and most aggressive reporters, whose commendable efforts were met with charges of anti-Cuban bias.
Columnist Liz Balmaseda caused an uproar when she was photographed outside the house of the González family in a prayer circle. Balmaseda complained to both the paper's editor and the publisher about what she considered the Herald's unsympathetic coverage of the Elián affair; her complaints eventually led to a special meeting between the publisher and the paper's Cuban-American reporters.
Eventually, the atmosphere in the whole newsroom became so strained that unprecedented departmental meetings were held to instruct journalists to refrain from humor that could be deemed insensitive. Tensions were particularly sharp the day federal agents raided the González family home to take the boy into custody. "I'm sure that you are all enjoying what took place in Little Havana and that you will have lots of fun celebrating this move," one young Cuban reporter wrote to his Anglo colleagues on the paper's internal newsroom bulletin board.
· At Gannett Corporation's USA Today, a longstanding policy required that editors regularly run photos of minorities above the front-page fold. This, said minority journalists who worked there, let the paper give a sense of the world that moved beyond the "traditional white power structure." But in 1993 Gannett took its picture policy one step further. Members of USA Today's diversity committee now began to comb through every article appearing in the paper on a daily basis, examining the ethnicity of those who were quoted in each storya process known as "mainstreaming" that seeks to make the pool of experts and authorities that the paper relies on mirror "the face of the country." Reporters didn't have quotas per se for sources, but percentages were worked up and written into evaluations. Assisting this process was a computer database that not only coded sources by race and gender but also gave management a record of how many times individual reporters have logged on to the database. (A related development at Gannett was its "All American Contest," a program covering its ninety-plus other newspapers, tying bonuses, promotions and compensation packages of senior editorial managers to their efforts to increase newsroom diversity and enhance sensitivity to minorities.) In 1997, succumbing to pressure from critics both inside and outside its newsroom, USA Today scaled back its mainstreaming policy; although the company still kept numerical tabs, it no longer made these numerical scores part of journalists' individual evaluations.
· At the Los Angeles Times, the nation's second-largest metropolitan daily, serving the most diverse (and fragmented) city in the country, a buyout plan was offered in 1992 in an effort to trim newsroom editorial staff. Management was shocked when nearly 10 percent of the newsroom staff took the buyout, four times the number expected. Many were senior editors and reporters in the prime of their careers, including several award-wining journalists. According to sources, the exodus was a reflection of plummeting morale. In the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riotsor "rebellion," as the Times' many black staff members called itmanagement exacerbated racial strains by aggressive affirmative action efforts, including a hiring freeze for white males.
Excerpted from COLORING THE NEWS by Willam McGowan. Copyright © 2001 by William McGowan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews
This book captures what is in the hearts and minds of millions of white Americans. McGowan is capable of making you think critically of the journalistic media by force feeding you the facts. He is unwilling to let the stigma of race and gender relations go untouched. It is a sacred cow that is ready for the slaughter. I would like to shake Mr. McGowans hand.