Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media

Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media

by Pamela Newkirk
     
 

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A candid, front-line report on the continuing battle to integrate America's newsrooms and news coverage, now available in paperback.See more details below

Overview

A candid, front-line report on the continuing battle to integrate America's newsrooms and news coverage, now available in paperback.

Editorial Reviews

Essence
A compelling look at the power of the media from an award-winning journalist who fearlessly and passionately addresses critical issues confronting African-American journalists working for mainstream newspapers and magazines.
New York Amsterdam News
In her eloquent take on media Eurocentrism, Pamela Newkirk observes that anti-African exclusion very much characterizes the major media. . . . An hermeneutical tour-de-force.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
During her days as a newspaper journalist, New York University journalism professor Newkirk recalls, her editors "resisted perspectives that were foreign to the white cultural mainstream." This episodic book ventilates such concerns. Newkirk has some strong evidence: a Time correspondent couldn't convince his editors that Louis Farrakhan had a complex appeal in 1994, and Bryant Gumbel's attempt to cover Africa in 1992 had to include enough wildlife to satisfy white viewers. She steps back to trace "the uphill battle to diversify the mainstream media" following the 1968 Kerner report, which revealed damningly biased coverage of blacks. One chapter concerns a landmark lawsuit in which the New York Daily News was found in 1987 to have discriminated against four black journalists. She acknowledges the dilemmas black journalists face in reporting on problems in their communities, while noting that "reporting that too often freeze-frames pathology" gets praise (such as Janet Cooke's story of an eight-year-old heroin addict, which won a Pulitzer and was later proved to be fabricated). In a chapter on double standards, she suggests that Boston Globe columnists Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, both of whom invented characters, were treated differently because of race. Her book could go deeper, though; she cites a 1997 survey on the difficulty minorities encountered in finding newspaper jobs, but doesn't delve into the effectiveness (and vigor) of prominent minority recruiting programs. She cites coverage of the Reginald Denny beating as an example of the media "harp[ing] on black crime"; but what does she make of the Rodney King footage? Still, Newkirk's general perspective on race is worth heeding: that while blacks shouldn't view themselves as victims, whites shouldn't deny that racial barriers remain.
Booknews
New York University journalism professor and columnist Pamela Newkirk examines how race continues to both overtly and covertly influence media reporting. She focuses on a series of race- related conflicts at news organizations and offers anecdotes based on interviews with broadcast and print journalists, presenting a nuanced picture of the trials and accomplishments of African American journalists across the country. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Carl Sessions Stepp
This is a touch, ground-level look, based largely on interviews with numerous journalists, on the persisting problems black journalists have working in the mainstream media.
American Journalism Review
Essence Magazine
A compelling look at the power of the media from an award-winning journalist who fearlessly and passionately addresses critical issues confronting African-American journalists working for mainstream newspapers and magazines.
From the Publisher

"In telling the stories of forgotten pioneers like Lester Walton, George Schuyler, Earl Brown, Ted Poston, and Ben Holman, and in detailing the pressures felt and obstacles overcome by more recent generations of African-American journalists, Pamela Newkirk's Within the Veil makes a valuable contribution to the history of the American press."

-Ben Yagoda,associate professor of journalism, University of Delaware, author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of American Journalism

"A compelling look at the power of the media from an award-winning journalist who fearlessly and passionately addresses critical issues confronting African-American journalists working for mainstream newspapers and magazines."

-Essence

"In many ways, today's news business suffers from a terrible case of isolationism, not just racial but socioeconomic. If every news editor in America read Within the Veil, it could transform dynamics within the newsroom and what appears on the screen and printed page. And for everyone else—the informed citizens of America who wonder how the media works—this book, with its gripping behind-the-scenes newsroom dramas, is a damn good read."

-Farai Chideya,author of The Color of Our Future and Don't Believe the Hype, and editor of PopandPolitics.com

"Pamela Newkirk is uniquely equipped to undertake a searching examination of the American institution that distorts perceptions of some of us for consumption by the rest of us. In Within the Veil, Newkirk renders compelling evidence that American news media have exacerbated more than ameliorated America's complex racial dilemma."

-Randall Robinson,author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks

"In her eloquent take on media Eurocentrism, Pamela Newkirk observes that anti-African exclusion very much characterizes the major media. . . . An hermeneutical tour-de-force.”

-New York Amsterdam News

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780814758779
Publisher:
New York University Press
Publication date:
07/01/2000
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
253
File size:
3 MB

Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


Within the Veil


Leaving, then, the white world, I have stepped within the Veil, raising it that you may view faintly its deeper recesses—the meaning of its religion, the passion of its human sorrow, and the struggle of its greater souls.
—W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903


In 1994, Time magazine correspondent Sylvester Monroe proposed a story on Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose appeal, he argued, was far more complex than the media had portrayed. Monroe noted Farrakhan's popularity among blacks across class and ideological lines, drawn to his passionate brew of rage and pride and his prescription for economic self-sufficiency, discipline, and family values. But despite the controversy that Farrakhan's racial rhetoric often provoked, Monroe noted that none of the national news magazines had ever provided for readers an in-depth profile that pierced the surface of his racially charged sound bites.

    However, Monroe, who hoped to infuse the story with his intimate grasp of black America, did not anticipate how difficult it would be to filter so unconventional and controversial a black figure as Farrakhan through the prism of white interest that is the mainstream news media. Nor did he predict the emotional white backlash within Time as word spread that Farrakhan would appear on the cover.

    "People in the bureaus were demanding to know why we were putting him on the cover," recalled Monroe, who had earned journalistic acclaim for "Brothers," his moving portrait of the blackmen he had grown up with in a Chicago housing project that was first a Newsweek magazine cover story, and later a book. "They said he doesn't deserve this kind of attention. A researcher came to me and said, `This is shameful.' I later heard she was in tears. My response was, `We're journalists here. What we think of him should have nothing to do with it. We put Adolph Hitler and Khomeini on the cover.' It was the most disingenuous argument for not doing a story that I had ever heard."

    For many of Monroe's white colleagues, a cover story on Farrakhan was an affront. Since Farrakhan's role in the black community was, to whites, largely inconsequential, they could not fathom raising his stature merely on the basis of the aspect of him they cared about: his virulent racial views. It is one thing to present a one-dimensional sketch to remind people he was anti-Semitic, but quite another to suggest his importance and complexity by dedicating a cover story to him.

    This argument is similar to the one made by critics of the media's intense coverage that same year of The Bell Curve, a book by the late Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray that theorized that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. All three major news weeklies and the New York Times Magazine seriously entertained the notion of black inferiority by devoting cover stories to a question that their coverage left unanswered. The preposterous idea that race—a loose social construct, which, in our society, is determined less by genes than by appearance—has the ability to determine intelligence was hardly explored.

    Scientists and anthropologists have long maintained that race is not a biologically valid scientific concept. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists has declared that pure races do not exist, and maybe never had. How the theory in The Bell Curve could be seriously considered in spite of centuries of interracial mixing underscored the predisposition of many whites—including those in the media—to at least consider innate black inferiority as a way of explaining, or even justifying, the plight of blacks.

    Rather than explore what the immense public interest in the best-selling book suggested about our society's view of blacks, many in the news media framed the notion of black intellectual inferiority as a legitimate debate, even while scientists such as Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a Stanford University geneticist, dismissed race as a "useless" biological and genetic concept.

    The media continues to perpetuate a debate on black inferiority, perhaps because it mirrors the dominant culture's own view of the status of blacks in the racial hierarchy. Some theorize that the primary means by which whites have sustained and legitimated their domination is by communicating the dominant white ideology on the assumptions of black inferiority (and white superiority) through the mass media. Some blame the continuing debate on the scientific community's silence.

    Still, the media did, in some instances, raise doubts about the credibility of the data and the conservative agenda of the Bell Curve authors, who used their purported findings to argue against affirmative action and for the end of welfare in order to reduce the births of low-IQ babies. Near the end of Newsweek's 2,600-word feature story, it noted the contradictions in the work and quoted a Yale psychologist who dismissed some of the scholarship as "pathetic." Newsweek nonetheless devoted another 2,800 words to a defense of the authors' premise. Written by Geoffrey Cowley, it concluded this way: "It's also clear that whatever mental ability is made of—dense neural circuitry, highly charged synapses or sheer brain mass—we didn't all get equal shares." A 867-word rebuttal from Ellis Cose, a black journalist, argued that the advancement of these theories undermine black achievement by fueling self-doubt. Readers were then left to decide if blacks belonged, as many had already suspected, to an inferior race.

    Black supremacists who theorize black genetic superiority have all been dismissed in the media as racist crackpots. In New York, City University's professor of history Leonard Jeffries has built a following behind his sun-people, ice-people theory, arguing that blacks, the African-derived sun people, are innately good, and whites, products of cold European climates, are by nature cold and ruthless. Supporters of his theory believe it helps explain slavery, the colonization of Africa, the near extinction of Native Americans, and other atrocities against people of color by whites worldwide. Frances Cress Welsing, a Washington, D.C.-based psychologist, maintains that white supremacy stems from the genetic inferiority of whites and their concomitant fear of racial obliteration. But neither Jeffries nor Welsing have found a neutral forum for their black supremacist ideas in the mainstream media, even though their theories are no less credible than the one offered by Herrnstein and Murray.

    Jeffries was widely vilified in New York newspapers for linking Jews to the slave trade. Many papers published the transcripts of a speech in which he made his highly publicized remarks, and ran a series of editorials calling for his ouster. In March 1992, Jeffries was removed as chair of the Black Studies department at City College of New York, a position he had held for two decades. The rap group Public Enemy was assailed in 1990 for promoting the Cress Theory—Welsing's fifteen-page hypothesis on white supremacy—in the album Fear of a Black Planet. But the media's tolerance for white extremism is not accorded equally to blacks who hold similar radical views on race. While Jeffries and Farrakhan captured prominent headlines, the revelation in 1999 that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was associated with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group, received scant attention. When an executive board member of the group said that Lott was an honorary member. The New York Times ran a story on page A9, and many papers ignored the story altogether. Time's coverage of Farrakhan illuminates the kind of intolerance shown by whites in the media of black extremism that served to undermine Monroe's attempt to present Farrakhan objectively.

    Monroe's uphill and emotional battle to bring an objective portrait of Farrakhan to the public illustrates the challenges that blacks who began integrating America's newsrooms in the 1960s still face in their attempts to present the complexities of black life in the mainstream media. More than thirty years after the National Commission on Civil Disorders chastised the news media for reporting news "from the standpoint of a white man's world," and for reporting on blacks "as if they don't read the newspapers, marry, die and attend PTA meetings," the news continues to be firmly rooted in white ideology, which fosters a racial hierarchy that places blacks, and other minorities, below whites. This dominant view persists in spite of the growing non-white population and the infusion of thousands of journalists of color in America's newsrooms, followed, in recent years, by the industry's much trumpeted embrace of diversity. As late as 1997, members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors reaffirmed their commitment to more culturally and racially diverse newsrooms despite attacks on affirmative action and their newsroom diversity efforts.

    But progress has been glacial. In 1968, blacks accounted for roughly one percent of newsroom jobs. Near the close of the century, blacks comprise five percent of the newspaper and 10 percent of the television-news workforce. Nationally, in 1999, people of color held 11.5 percent of newspaper jobs—representing about one-third of their proportion of the population—and 21 percent of broadcasting jobs, with the percentages significantly higher in urban markets. Still, nearly 45 percent of the nation's daily newspapers remain lily white.

    Behind the obvious, albeit small, numerical gains, a wide and deep racial and cultural chasm still divides blacks and whites in the newsroom. Despite their heightened visibility, African American journalists and their minority counterparts, woefully underrepresented in the industry and in news management, are far from integrated into the newsroom culture, largely because of status quo assumptions about race. While black journalists occasionally succeed in conveying the richness and complexity of black life, they are often left, as was Monroe, restricted by the narrow scope of the media, which tends primarily to exploit those fragments of African American life that have meaning for, and resonate with, whites. For while the media has allowed the complexion of its newsrooms to better reflect society, the target audience of the major media has changed little. News continues to be constructed for a primarily white audience.

    As such, Farrakhan is primarily covered by the media in proportion to the controversial comments he makes about whites, particularly Jews. As Monroe tried to take readers behind Farrakhan's disturbing rhetoric to explain why his message resonates across a large swath of black America, his editors were intent on focusing on remarks they deemed anti-Semitic and racist, which Monroe agreed could not be ignored. But he said centering a story around them distorted the reason for his wide appeal across black America.

    Nonetheless, the measured, unemotional tone that defined The Bell Curve coverage was replaced with white-hot emotionalism by whites in Time's Farrakhan cover story. Monroe's attempt to present a balanced, unfiltered portrait was overshadowed by intemperate headlines and captions that conveyed unequivocal abhorrence for Farrakhan and his views. The first cover dummy bore an image of Farrakhan with the headline "Ministry of Hate." Monroe urged Steve Kemp, the national-affairs editor, to tone it down, saying it failed to capture Farrakhan's appeal to many African Americans, who would take umbrage at the characterization.

    However, Kemp appeared concerned about the magazine appearing too soft on Farrakhan. The magazine sought to distance itself from views the top editors found repulsive. Their concern for delineating the subject's views from their own, however, did not extend to the less emotional Bell Curve coverage. Monroe insisted he could not live with the cover line, and after a tense standoff they compromised on "Ministry of Rage." Monroe had little energy left by the time he learned what the subhead would be: "Louis Farrakhan Spews Racist Venom at Jews and all of White America."

    The publisher's letter in the news magazine's October 24, 1994, issue went further, explaining why Time was profiling Farrakhan. On the page appeared a photograph of Monroe interviewing Farrakhan, with the caption, "Vile views, moral conundrums: Correspondent Monroe interviewing Farrakhan last week at the black leader's home in Chicago." The Time caption under the photograph of Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray was more tempered. Said Time: "Breaking a taboo or propagating racism?" The caption under Murray's photograph in Newsweek read: "Embroiled in controversy, Murray poses placidly at his Maryland home."

    In the Bell Curve stories, on the other hand, the headlines were as dispassionate as the captions. "For Whom the Bell Curves," was the tepid headline on the Time story. Newsweek was even more equivocal: "The Battle Over IQ and Destiny: A Hard Look at a Controversial Book on Race, Class, and Success. Is it Destiny?"

    Monroe did manage to present the highlights of his six-hour interview in a question-and-answer format. "I really didn't care what he said," said Monroe. "I just didn't want us to paraphrase. For one of the first times in a magazine with the stature of Time, I wanted to let his voice come through. Don't just dismiss him by saying he's anti-Semitic. He's much more complex than that."

    While Monroe's portrait went far in presenting a side of the leader many had never seen—including Farrakhan's role in ridding dangerous housing projects of crime and fear and reforming scores of drug addicts and criminals—his attempt at neutrality failed, undermined by his editors' overt intolerance for Farrakhan. That is not to suggest that whites, or blacks for that matter, in or outside of the media do not have ample reason to take exception to some of the racial views espoused by Farrakhan. Rather, it is to underscore how utterly subjective the awarding of neutrality and objectivity is in the news media, and how prominently race factors into that decision. Because so few blacks and other people of color are at the helm of major news organizations, much of the news coverage reflects the views of people who are typically white and male. Monroe, and other black journalists, then, are forced to compromise their own sense of fairness to satisfy the journalistic standards of news editors whose own objectivity, is clouded by their own subconscious assumptions about race.

    This failure by the media to explore fully the complexity of black life not only limits the understanding by whites of black culture, but crucially defies the ideals of balanced journalism that require a fair exploration of ideas that transcend the journalist's own experiences and belief system. While black reporters, like other members of the black middle class, must gain an intimate knowledge of cultures other than their own, few whites are required to grasp the intricacies of black culture, since their very survival does not depend on such an understanding. As such, many white journalists fail to suspend their prejudices long enough to fairly or accurately portray people unlike themselves. In some ways, they operate at a disadvantage. Because their superiors often share the same ideology that colors their stories, white journalists are not as sensitive as Monroe and other black journalists must be to words or sentiments that can be viewed as racially biased.

    The measured way in which the media explored The Bell Curve theory is as offensive to blacks as an equivocal portrait of Farrakhan's views on race, Judaism, and Jews would have been to whites. On matters of respect and notions of human equality, some things are, or should be, beyond debate. So rather than argue for emotion-laden reporting on The Bell Curve to rival the conventional coverage of Farrakhan, or for equivocal reporting on Farrakhan that seriously examined whether his blatantly anti-Semitic remarks had merit, it would be more instructive for the media to treat both in a way in which the ideas are contextualized less by white tolerance or intolerance, and more by reason. In any context, Farrakhan's sweeping portrayal of Jews as ruthless merchants has the hurtful and ugly ring of unbridled bigotry. But his views are no less vile than the race-inferiority theories that are cloaked under a veil of pseudo-science which debase our shared humanity.

    Just as The Bell Curve is more important for what it says about the slow evolution of this nation's racial attitudes, Farrakhan is newsworthy because of the resonance of his larger message in so much of black America. But this message—particularly his appeal to black pride and self-sufficiency and the way in which he has tapped into black pain—was clouded in the Time profile by the fixation on his inflammatory words, which were neither new nor illuminating. Many white readers don't care to go behind the rhetoric to learn why many blacks are drawn to Farrakhan, believing instead that blacks should throw out the baby with the bathwater. Only a sober analysis of Farrakhan and his appeal across class and educational levels can guide readers over the chasm of hysteria and fear that further polarizes us all.

    Such a portrait would not further legitimize Farrakhan, nor would it validate claims by some blacks that blacks and other minorities cannot be racist because they are not in positions of power. But whether Farrakhan is simply a racist demagogue, and why that matters, should be a function of clear-headed reporting and not of emotionally charged packaging that closes, rather than opens, avenues of understanding. The issue is less Farrakhan than it is the desperate quest by African Americans for self-reflection and improvement. A drowning man will grab hold of anything to keep him afloat. He won't take time to decide if he likes the construction, the color, or the maker of the raft. Farrakhan's widening reach was partly a reaction to the increasing alienation of African Americans as a conservative tide swept through the nation's capital and local governments, a tide that was reflected by and in the media. But Monroe was unable to clearly convey this dynamic to his readers because of his editors' decision to focus almost exclusively on the inflammatory rhetoric that represents a minute fraction of Farrakhan's speeches rather than on the larger message that more accurately explains his appeal. Instead of offering light where there was heat, Time editors, despite Monroe's best efforts, chose to turn up the heat. In the process, they further removed white America from an understanding of black Americans, and all of us further away from a rational dialogue across color lines.

    In post-civil-rights America, the pervasive racial caste system in the news is neither acknowledged nor reckoned with on a grand scale, as it had been three decades ago by the authors of the Kerner Commission Report. Black reporters, readers, and viewers, like other racial minorities, continue to be secondary players in a game that marginalizes their interests and culture. Even the many journalists who seek to be fair and objective in their reporting on people of color are, in time, conditioned to write stories that, first and foremost, conform to the ideals and attitudes of white America.

    This practice does not always grow out of a news organization's economic interests, since the ideology on which news judgment is based is not simply reflected by the national media but is in evidence at news organizations in markets like Washington, D.C., where whites are a minority. Even in a city as racially diverse as New York, the news industry continues to place greater emphasis on the interests and actions of whites while marginalizing those of all others. A mind-set already unacceptable in pre-civil rights America, when an expectation of racial equality in American institutions was just beginning to take root, reeks of stubborn hypocrisy and deceit in a multicultural, post-civil-rights era.

    The failure by so many in the media to grapple with the pervasive racial and cultural bias in the news media has served to deepen the bitter and widespread cynicism by blacks that few whites ever take the time to comprehend. Like an alcoholic who refuses to acknowledge his chemical dependence, too many whites in journalism live in a constant state of denial about the ways in which they perpetuate the notion of a racial hierarchy—indeed, the assumption of white supremacy—and how that denial, perhaps more than any other single factor, contributes to racial animosity and mistrust.

    White journalists would have to imagine seeing the world through a colored lens, where news was first filtered through the interests of people of color. To do this, they could simply read, as their primary source of news, a newspaper like the Amsterdam News in New York, which similarly minimalizes white people, considering them only when their actions have consequences for African Americans. Thus, crimes against whites, for example, no matter how heinous, would pale against similarly heinous crimes against African Americans. Similarly, the legislative achievements of white lawmakers would have little appeal unless they had a direct impact on the communities with a sizable African American population. Also, only those writers, artists, and thinkers who captured the imagination of African Americans would be featured. Unless they had crossover—that is, appeal also for black people—the newspaper would render them unimportant. To compound the insult, this African American-centered paper would be the primary source of news in a city like Des Moines, where blacks comprise a minority of the population.

    Far from being an objective process, news judgment is an outgrowth of the experiences, attitudes, interests, and perceptions of those at the helm of a news organization, beginning with the owner. As has been noted, the prevailing news judgment filters down from the top, reflecting, for the most part, the values and interests of editors who are almost always white and male. That is not to say that those perceptions cannot be influenced by people with different news values, but, as in the case with Monroe at Time, the challenge to alter those perceptions rests squarely on the shoulders of those whose interests, values, and perceptions conflict with those in power. Black journalists, then, are often confronted with the option of moving with or against newsroom currents.

    To succeed, black journalists must continually devise strategies to present the world of black people in a way that white people can or care to process them. Stories they propose on black people must conform to the interests, desires, and tastes of a white audience. Those who buck the system and go beyond preconceived notions of black life—as Monroe tried to do with his Farrakhan profile—are often perceived as renegades and typically become outcasts in their news organizations. Sociologist Herbert Breed's 1955 study on the socialization process in the newsroom illustrated the system of reward and punishment in the news industry. Editors do not explicitly tell reporters what news has value and what doesn't, but they foster the socialization process by a system of rewards and punishments. In the newsroom, this system can translate into prominent play—or story positioning—coveted assignments and, as in any organization, raises and bonuses.

    Respondents to Breed's survey said they learned newsroom policy by "osmosis" rather than through explicit instruction. In "Deciding What's News," sociologist Herbert Gans picked up on Breed's theme, saying the values in the news "are rarely explicit and must be found between the lines—in what actors and activities are reported or ignored, and in how they are described." Gans added: "[T]he news reflects a white male social order, although it sides with blacks and women who try to enter it and succeed. Nevertheless, its conception of both racial integration and sexual equality is basically assimilatory; the news prefers women and blacks who move into the existing social order to separatists who want to order it." In most newsrooms, the socialization process is thus dictated by white male cultural norms and values, which results in media that seem to operate in concert. It is not coincidental, then, that in a two-tabloid city like New York, the news judgment of the newspapers is often the same, reflecting the interests of people with similar tastes, interests, and backgrounds. Conversely, it is not a judgment shared by editors at the Amsterdam News, a black weekly whose front-page stories are often ignored by the mainstream papers.

    There were, in the 1990s, several noteworthy attempts by mainstream news organizations to counter the white-centered thrust of the news media. One of the most extraordinary undertakings was a seven-month series in 1993 by the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, "Together Apart: The Myth of Race," which brazenly tackled racism in society and in the news media. In a departure from much of the news coverage on race, the Times-Picayune uncovered unfair practices in its own newsroom and in its reporting offered the kind of historical context and current-day relevance sorely lacking in discussions of race. One front-page segment confronted slavery and its lasting legacy. The bold series sent the newsroom and the city into a frenzy to the point where editors had to call in facilitators to help the staff through raw and tearful encounters across the racial divide.

    One of the most exceptional articles traced the trajectory of racial attitudes at the paper: its support of slavery and poll taxes which kept blacks from voting; the paper's reference to blacks as "besotted barbarians" in the 1880s; its support of segregated schools and hotels in the 1950s and 1960s, when it also labeled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a "trouble-maker"; and the hiring of its first black reporter, in the 1970s. The article also revealed that until August 12, 1990, the paper had run accounts of black and white debutantes on segregated pages: white debutantes were featured in the Sunday paper, their photographs accompanied by brief profiles, while the black debutantes were pictured over several days during the week without profiles.

    "That separate-but-unequal debutante policy is but one part of a long history during which the Times-Picayune and its predecessors demonstrated racial hostility, racial intolerance and racial insensitivity," said the article. "For most of its years, historians and journalists said, the newspaper has been a powerful force in New Orleans, shaping and reflecting racial attitudes and the character of the city. And for the greater part of its years, the newspaper gave readers an image of black people as intellectually and morally inferior, relegated to a lower social caste than white people and often little more than lazy or criminal. It's that image of black people that many people carry today."

    It went further, saying the newspaper's reflection of New Orleans was still "out of focus." It said the vast majority of photographs and stories still feature white people, "white people getting married, white people shopping, white people as advertising models. In a recent month of society pages, for example, 96 percent of the photos were of white people; 85 percent of the brides and grooms were white, and a recent Sunday comics section had 58 white characters and four black characters. There were more animal characters—two dogs, two cats, one tiger, one bird and one penguin—than black characters."

    In contrast, African Americans comprised 62 percent of the city's population and 35 percent of the metropolitan area's, according to the 1990 census. At the time, blacks made up 11.9 percent of the Times-Picayune staff, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors's annual survey.

    The article disclosed that the paper had set up a support group for black and female journalists to address the hostility and exclusion they felt in the newsroom. The paper had also hired a diversity trainer to help the staff cope with racial intolerance. When one meeting dissolved into bitterness and harsh language, Jim Amoss, the editor, called a meeting in which he told white employees they "had to change their attitudes" toward black co-workers. Amoss also, according to the article, explained "why the newspaper had to change—why it had to do a better job writing for all its readers in the New Orleans area, not just white, male readers."

    Stories such as these touched off a firestorm of protest in New Orleans, where many whites believed the paper had gone too far. Six to seven thousand readers, many of them angry whites, called the paper's special hot line. Many of their comments were published on fifty pages over the duration of the series. Hundreds more wrote letters, and five thousand people canceled their subscriptions, although many later returned. Many whites on staff felt persecuted. "It was received with such venom by white people and I guess there were times when it felt like, Jesus, what are we doing, who are we doing this for?" said Mark Lorando, a white team member. "There was such an atmosphere of hostility towards the Times-Picayune in general and anyone who worked on the project, even within the newsroom." Lorando added that many white staff members were angered by the diversity workshops, spilling over into animosity toward the project.

    Meanwhile, within the newsroom, friendships were wrecked and feelings frayed as the team of reporters working on the series candidly confronted their own racial attitudes with the help of the diversity consultants. For several days, the group stayed in a hotel to discuss journalism and race. Keith Woods, the black city editor who had proposed the series, was among the blacks on the team who insisted that whites come clean about their own racial baggage. All were asked to say if they believed blacks were inferior. Amoss, who was raised in Germany and New Orleans and was Yale educated, said he thought of himself as racially enlightened until the sessions.

    "It dawned on me and others the extent to which we too were part of the racial mind-set of our society, and not some neutral force hovering over it and writing about it objectively," said Amoss. "It was an extremely painful experience."

    In the course of the sessions, Amoss admitted that he, as a child of privilege, never knew the last names of the black nursemaids who helped raise him. "When you kind of accept that as the way it is, and never question it, it's quite a shock to wake up and realize that ... it's shocking. They [blacks] are not viewed as full people. The whole notion of white privilege is not obvious to most white people until they go through some kind of epiphany. And even after going through the three-day workshops, a large number of white staffers still don't get it."

    For the project to work, the newsroom hierarchy had to be completely dismantled. In the framework of the series, Amoss was put on the same level as his reporters as all sought to come to terms with the attitudes that would shape the stories. Amoss recalls that he had been one of the whites who resisted the proposal to examine slavery and the historical aspect of race.

    "I was one of the people who rolled my eyes when it was suggested. I thought it was absurd that the structure of slavery persists in today's race relations. I had trouble buying that."

    But over the course of the sessions, Amoss came to realize that the process of dehumanization and the institutionalization of inferior and superior concepts still hold sway, and that they are the primary legacy of slavery. Keith Woods insisted that no story go in the paper until an African American editor or reporter had reviewed it. While the mandate caused friction, Amoss conceded that it often resulted in articles with a sharper perspective.

    Woods said the project was the most emotionally wrenching experience of his life. Most heartbreaking was that it damaged one of his closest friendships because of a dispute over a story. Woods had gone over the head of his friend, a section editor, in an attempt to kill a story he and other blacks found offensive. His friend, he said, later quit the team. "The edit was crushing," he said of his remarks on her story, which could be viewed by other staff members in the computer. "She was distraught over the tone and public-ness.... It had a chilling effect on our relationship." In retrospect, he wonders if the article was worth the broken friendship.

    Jim O'Byrne, a white reporter, said members of the staff "damn near came to blows" during racial debates. "You know: `I hate you, you're the devil.' `What, I thought we were friends!' `Well, we are friends but you're the devil.' When you really cut through all the crap, that's what you're dealing with, that kind of mistrust."

    Because of the fallout in the community and in the newsroom, many of the team members left the paper within a year. "What had sustained us was our belief that we were doing something profoundly important," said Woods. But at the end of the project, he said, "The motivation to go on was no longer there.... It took something out of me that the paper didn't put back." After ten years at the paper, Woods left to work at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

    The series was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, but it was not a finalist and ultimately lost to the Akron Beacon Journal, which, the same year, had run its own groundbreaking series, "A Question of Color." Less explosively judgmental and more optimistic, the Beacon Journal series promoted interracial harmony by facilitating gatherings and activities. As at the Picayune, the staff retreated to a room and shed some tears. And like the Picayune, the paper—which has a black publisher and white editor—published an article that spotlighted its own coverage of race, assisted by black and white staff focus groups whose perspectives often clashed. While black team members believed that black crime was overplayed, white team members believed black-on-white crime was underplayed. But the series was upbeat and goal oriented and never required whites on the staff to confront their racial attitudes. The focus was on bridge building, with blacks and whites equally responsible for the city's racial harmony. In a city of 500,000, some 22,000 people mailed in coupons pledging to improve race relations, while more than 140 organizations volunteered to do the same.

    Amoss, who was on the all-white Pulitzer jury that year, said some jurors privately criticized the Picayune series as too historical. Because of the emotional toll the series took on the Picayune staff, many were devastated over the loss of the prize to the Beacon Journal. Some complained that the Beacon series oversimplified the racial problem and glossed over the role of whites in perpetuating it. They rationalized their loss by saying the Picayune's series was too honest and pessimistic about racial issues.

    "You don't come to the end of it and go, `Wow, this is great, there's hope,'" said O'Byrne. "This is really hard stuff. We're not sure how you fix it. We don't have a clue how you fix it.... This is 300 years of hard. What the hell do you do?"

    The stress and strain the series placed on the paper, especially in light of the vociferous reader reaction, would make a similar effort unlikely in the near future. According to Woods, since the series the paper has, if anything, retreated from such courageous endeavors. "A physical body that has been stressed and strained avoids the things that stress and strain it for a while. We as an organization pulled back and took a breather."

    Amoss reported that white staffers underwent the most profound change, and that the series had given them "the vocabulary" to discuss race, the subplot of many news stories. In 1999, for example, the paper aggressively pursued the disclosure that Louisiana's Govenor, Mike Foster, had secretly spent $150,000 during his 1995 campaign to purchase the list of supporters of David Duke, an avowed white supremacist. The paper criticized the governor on its editorial page and demanded that he address black voters about his motivation.

    "It was a story that I think we would have covered differently had we not gone through that experience," he said, noting that the paper played it as a major story over several days because of its profound racial implications. He said that the race series also made the staff more aware of the ways in which African Americans are routinely stereotyped and that they are, as a result more conscious about story and photograph selections. "We have a better sense of what it means to portray people in stereotypical ways."

    The Times-Picayune had, by 1999, won two Pulitzers since the series, but Amoss maintains that "Together Apart" is "the best thing we ever did."

    Indeed, the race series stands in stark relief to most daily news coverage, which rarely delves deeply, and contextually, into the abyss of race. To do so would mean that the men and women in the newsroom would also have to confront their own racial views, which whites rarely are required to do, with the result that just one point of view, the white one, is aired unchallenged.

    "The fundamental thing that was different about this project was that every other project starts with the point of view that there's a problem, and the problem is black people," said Kristen Gilger, one of the white project editors. "It's like black pathology projects. OK, we're going to go look at the schools: why do black people have low test scores? We're going to go look at the housing projects: why are they living in these kinds of places anyway? ... They become series about social issues that equal black pathology."

    Such discussions of race also require an active voice. Race and racism cannot be treated passively, as if racism is a historic relic and blacks and whites currently operate on the same playing field. But the walk down the path of racial honesty requires the kind of courage and introspection rarely evident in newsrooms today. Instead, editors and news directors go about their work as if race does not infect their operations, or color their products.

    Studies by various groups, including the National Association of Black Journalists, News Watch, the University of San Francisco's Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism, and Project FAIR in New York, consistently substantiate claims of pervasive stereotyping of African Americans and other racial groups by the news media. A 1997 survey by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research found that African Americans are 13 percent more likely than whites to say bias in reporting is a major problem with the news. African Americans are still routinely portrayed as people who appear—as they do for most whites—on the periphery of society. In many instances, they are societal burdens, routinely superimposed onto the traditional bread-and-potato stories about crime and tax-burdening social programs. In these stories, the overburdened taxpayers are presumed to be non-black. H. Himmelstein suggests that newspapers reflect and perpetuate a myth of the puritan ethic that equates hard work with success, and therefore people who are black and poor are seen as lacking motivation. "Rarely do we get an adequate exploration or analysis of the increased susceptibility of the lower socioeconomic classes to physical danger in the workplace or in inadequate housing, unsafe transportation, or lack of sufficient police portection outside the work environment; or of their desertion by the educational apparatus that teaches them at best how to cope in the technological world; at worst, how to fail. Instead, the success of those who have escaped these conditions through hard work is celebrated, while the basic structure of oppression is ignored."

(Continues...)

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

"Pamela Newkirk is uniquely equipped to undertake a searching examination of the American institution that distorts perceptions of some of us for consumption by the rest of us. In Within the Veil, Newkirk renders compelling evidence that American news media have exacerbated more than ameliorated America's complex racial dilemma."

-Randall Robinson,author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks

"In telling the stories of forgotten pioneers like Lester Walton, George Schuyler, Earl Brown, Ted Poston, and Ben Holman, and in detailing the pressures felt and obstacles overcome by more recent generations of African-American journalists, Pamela Newkirk's Within the Veil makes a valuable contribution to the history of the American press."

-Ben Yagoda,associate professor of journalism, University of Delaware, author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of American Journalism

"In many ways, today's news business suffers from a terrible case of isolationism, not just racial but socioeconomic. If every news editor in America read Within the Veil, it could transform dynamics within the newsroom and what appears on the screen and printed page. And for everyone else—the informed citizens of America who wonder how the media works—this book, with its gripping behind-the-scenes newsroom dramas, is a damn good read."

-Farai Chideya,author of The Color of Our Future and Don't Believe the Hype, and editor of PopandPolitics.com

"A compelling look at the power of the media from an award-winning journalist who fearlessly and passionately addresses critical issues confronting African-American journalists working for mainstream newspapers and magazines."

-Essence,

"In her eloquent take on media Eurocentrism, Pamela Newkirk observes that anti-African exclusion very much characterizes the major media. . . . An hermeneutical tour-de-force."

-New York Amsterdam News

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