Two days after the election both UNITY and the National Association of Black Journalists sent out open letters urging the media to redouble their efforts to diversify staffs in the aftermath of the historic election of Barack Obama.
At the same time, others privately wondered if there are some people who would argue that the election of the first African-American president signaled the country has moved past the need to be concerned about racial equity.
It is true that some television networks put on air more African-American commentators during the campaign. Those additional voices, however, were not numerous enough to avoid the frequent appearance of all-white panels to discuss race relations. That lamentable pattern and other media missteps, such as a New York Times story on the shifting African-American landscape that did not quote any African-American sources, were vivid examples of why the traditional media’s reputation and credibility depend on their ability to diversify their ranks as quickly as possible.
The need for diverse voices has been a longstanding refrain since the 1960s, when news executives across the country realized they did not have staffs equipped to cover the Black Power movement and the ensuing unrest, then the biggest story sweeping the country.
Some significant gains were made in the following decades. Journalists of color went from 4 percent of the workforce before their newsroom presence stalled at 13 percent, where it remains today. The numbers for broadcast media are better, with people of color making up almost 24 percent of the workforce. But since the urban unrest settled, the urgency to develop an ethnically- and racially-diverse staff was slowly replaced by diversity fatigue, with some news executives openly questioning whether having a more representative staff truly makes a difference.
“We have racial diversity in my newsroom, but everyone went to the same college and lives in the same neighborhood, so we don’t have any real diversity of thought,” went the most common refrain.
Journalists and media managers of color countered that a newsroom culture that values conformity and rejects alternate visions of news events has trained journalists of color to keep their dissenting views to themselves.
Phillip Dixon, then deputy managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, explained why so many journalists and media managers of color were leaving the industry in “Voices of Anger/Cries of Concern,” a study released at the 2001 convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
“They leave frustrated and worn down by trying and failing to connect with managers and peers, who, for all the talk of embracing diversity, still haven’t taken seriously the idea that they and their newspapers would be better off if they took some time to learn the ways of black folks and Latino folks … and any folks who are other than white folks,” Dixon wrote. “They leave frustrated and worn down by still having to pitch stories the newspaper should be pouncing on.”
Diversity Can Make a Difference
This election cycle, with the sometimes sharp contrast between what appeared in the traditional media and in the black blogosphere, showed how much a difference diversity can make.
When former secretary of state Colin Powell endorsed Obama, traditional journalist Tom Brokaw immediately asked whether this was simply the case of one African-American politician endorsing another. Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN’s Reliable Sources, repeated the question hours later. Soon it was reverberating through the media.
On The Root, David Swerdlick offered a different perspective.
“The signature link between Powell and Obama is not race. It is their shared belief that even a superpower with the most capable and best equipped military in the world is wise to use its military power only after diplomacy has been applied and exhausted. It’s an outlook that rejects the ‘attack first, discuss later’ preemption doctrine … espoused by the Bush administration and embraced by McCain,” Swerdlick wrote.
While a great deal of media attention was paid to the conflict sparked by Rep. John Lewis’ observation that Sen. John McCain’s campaign was reminiscent of former George Wallace’s presidential campaigns, very little time was spent examining the merits of Lewis’ comparison.
In the blogosphere, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who blogs for The Atlantic, observed that Wallace began his career as a liberal and turned to race-baiting only after losing the 1958 Democratic primary for governor of Alabama.
“This was a political crossroads for Wallace. (His opponent) ran with the support of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization Wallace had spoken against, while Wallace was endorsed by the NAACP.2 After the election, aide Seymore Trammell recalled Wallace saying, ‘Seymore, you know why I lost that governor’s race?… I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.’24 In the wake of his defeat, Wallace adopted hard-line segregationism, and used this stand to court the white vote in the next gubernatorial election,” Coates wrote. He used quotes from Wallace’s entry on Wikipedia.
The politics of racial fear has a long tradition, and Coates’ post is a reminder that the road from racial tolerance to racial expediency can be very short, a phenomenon worth remembering as analysts sort through the historical significance of Obama’s victory.
Then there was the post-election coverage.
After months of reading about the “Bradley effect,” and the scattered reports of racist rants at some McCain-Palin rallies, one had to wonder whether Obama’s victory left some white voters feeling vindicated. Yet, for all the good stories written about how African Americans felt about the historic election, almost nothing was written from other racial and ethnic points of view, an omission that blogger Cheryl Contee noted on Jack and Jill Politics, a blog created as an outlet for black middle-class political views. In setting up the context for a post from a white Obama supporter, Contee, who writes under the name Jill Tubman, wrote: “I think black people need to hear and understand the white reaction at a deeper level than just the ‘yay isn’t history nifty!’ angle that we’re getting on TV right now.”
Three different stories illustrated three different approaches to each. It is understandable that predominantly white traditional media and writers of color online take different angles on stories, because they see things differently. As we teach in Fault Lines, the Maynard Institute’s diversity framework, race, class, gender, generation and geography shape everyone’s perceptions of each other and events. Two people with very different perspectives along fault lines can cover the same story and walk away with very different perceptions.
What is important now it that we in the media understand that just as Obama’s candidacy forced us to deal with race in a much more central way, so will his presidency. As a result, it is time to not only step up our efforts to diversify staffs, but also be more open to listening to those diverse voices.
The blogosphere has proven that diversity is not window dressing; it’s a window into other worlds. That is a lesson the traditional media would do well to apply and replicate.