Wrong Background: Issues of Newsroom Employment


This article originally appeared in Issue# 38

"I'd get calls from editors and they'd say, 'I've got to hire a black by the end of the week.' It was like they were football coaches and needed a place kicker."

This recollection from former CBS News president Fred Friendly describes the changed atmosphere in newsrooms after the Kerner Commission report, published in 1968, pointed a finger at the hiring practices of a lily-white news media.

The turnaround replaced a business-as-usual climate in which minorities were almost entirely unrepresented and, as the report put it, "the press basked in a white world. Looking out of it, if at all, with white eyes and a white perspective."

Against the background of riots and burning cities, commission members searched for a way to bring the nation together. In a whole chapter devoted to the media, they called for news that represented the viewpoint of all citizens, not just a white majority. They wanted changes to be visible, with minority anchors reading copy next to their white colleagues. And they recognized that "failure to report adequately on race relations and ghetto problems" could be traced at least partly to the composition and interests of editorial staffs.

"Tokenism - the hiring of one Negro, or even two or three, is not enough," the commission continued. "Negro reporters are essential, but so are editors, writers and commentators."


"Historically, the press has not been anxious, or even reluctantly willing, to take stands on social issues important to minorities, especially when those issues have been the hottest."
- Bernard Rubin, Small Voices and Great Trumpets: Minorities & The Media

Changing Times

Les Payne, a black Pulitzer prize winner and editor of Newsday, became one of those editors. But the passage of nearly two decades failed to result in the sweeping changes he hoped for, and he views the current situation with an ironic eye.

As a veteran and beneficiary of changing attitudes — he, himself was able to join Newsday only in the new climate that prevailed after he got out of the army in 1969 — Payne has watched the ebb and flow of interest in diversifying the newsroom population.

"Not as much energy goes into hiring minorities now," he says. Since '81 publishers feel they can leave things the way they are - or roll them back. Affirmative action is dead."

J.J. Gonzalez at WCBS-TV/New York also thinks the situation has not improved much. Back then, in '68, the people who did the hiring thought of themselves as very liberal, and yet they didn't have the slightest, the slightest, idea who we were."

Recent court decisions have reflected the present outlook, and weakened affirmative action guidelines have made it easier for companies to discriminate. Minority groups today themselves may also lack the spirit and cohesiveness that resulted in grassroots unity and pressure.

For the news media, this slacking off converged with a resurgence in journalism's prestige and influence, a trend that Payne believes contributed to its white, upper middle-class tone. In this 'quiche and sushi profession,' he says, "the white upper middle-class Ivy League types" who do the hiring gravitate to people like themselves.

William Stockton, formerly in charge of hiring and firing at the New York Times, concurs that "people do frequently tend to hire in their own image. What you're really saying is you expect people to succeed in your institution. There is a certain institutional culture here at the Times. You have to choose people you think will fit into that culture."

Unfortunately, the "institutional culture" of the Times is not one that easily accommodates blacks, Latinos and other minorities. Of 698 professionals and trainees in the newsroom in 1984, only 58, or 8.3 percent, are minorities. In a city where the term "minority" encompasses a majority of the actual population. this is not a good showing

"The whole process is oiled to insulate the media from finding minorities," says Payne. "And what do they plan to do about it? The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has a plan to desegregate the newsroom. They have a commitment to bringing the numbers up to the national average by the year 2000. That's a joke. You don't change things by setting the goal for the year 2000. The person doing the hiring stalls running around in 1999 trying to fill the quota."

Payne doesn't think it's intentional. "ASNE is a victim of its own experience," he says. "In other words, they're white."

Carl Moths is black. He is the Minority Affairs Director for ASNE. Lie started that job in 1983, after the 2000 target date had been set. "I respect Les' views," he says. "But we're not sitting around waiting for the year 2000. I try to work as hard and as fast as I can to increase the numbers. We've made some big strides."

Sylvester Monroe, the Boston bureau chief for Newsweek, thinks that talented black journalists are out there, but that newspapers want blacks to do certain jobs, and that's not always consistent with what black reporters want to do. Monroe was offered a job with the New York Times. He turned it down because the Times insisted that he complete a six-month "trial period" at the metro desk before he was allowed to resume coverage of national affairs

Special Roles

"If I can report national news at Newsweek for 12 years," Monroe says, "then I can do it at the New York Times without a six-month trial period. The implication was that since I was black, I should cover metro."

Although internships and minority hiring programs have been organized at many news organizations, and minority professional organizations are starting to recruit service members, many complain that they lack the necessary support mechanisms and follow through to keep minority newspersons going in the profession.

Others point out, however, that newspapers and broadcast executives don't bear all of the responsibility for the dearth of minorities in journalism.

Why Not?

A complex set of social factors, ranging from lack of role models to the relatively poor pay of entry-level news jobs, tend to limit the number of minority personnel interested in journalism to begin with.

David Gonzalez, a Newsweek writer and reporter, agrees. "I came from a working-class family. When I was a kid my parents wanted me to be a doctor. It was a job with prestige and you made lots of money. It's natural they weren't thinking of their son being a journalist."

Gonzalez thinks his experience is typical of a lot of minority journalists who come to the profession as a second or third career. At Yale a lot of us cloistered ourselves and just hung out with other blacks or Latinos. It never occurred to us to work on the College newspaper."


"As a minority reporter I made sure I never got trapped. I made it clear from the beginning that I wasn't going tobe painted into a minority corner"
- Ed Bradley, reporter, 60 Minutes

Historically barred from the profession, minority high school students don't even consider journalism as a career path. This self-selection process takes many out of the running before news executives have a chance to get to them.

Gonzalez says a lot of his friends opted for law when faced with the prospect of paying back college loans. "They didn't want to be lawyers but they couldn't afford those huge debts on the kind of money you make working for a small paper."

That was the problem Betty Baye of the Louisville Courier-Journal faced in her first years in the profession. "At the Mount Vernon Daily Argus I made $250 a week. I really had to hustle to get by. You have to love to do this."

By the time minority kids get to college it may be too late, Stockton thinks. He would like to see high school and junior high programs "that would find people that like to write and scoop them up."

But neither the Times or any publication he knows of is doing that. "We're acknowledging the problem, but no one's going back to its source."

"Minority journalists have to go out into the community, to the churches and schools," Baye says. "We have to let young people know we exist."

Following Through

Once a minority reporter is on the job, the battle has just begun. Isolation, differences in background and lack of management understanding are all problems minority news people cite when they talk about what makes their jobs difficult.

Management's ethnic isolation reflects what gets covered, many believe. As Jesus Rangel of the Times puts it, "white middle-class males who went to Ivy League schools make the decisions. It's very white, very middle-class and very seldom covers the black and Hispanic communities."

Many minority reporters believe that white editors are unable to see the minority stories out there. "The fact that we're not in there, making those decisions, has a major effect on coverage."

An example J.J. Gonzalez cites is that of two Brooklyn murder cases, both involving small children who were raped and dropped out of windows. In the first case, involving a Jewish boy, the story ran for three days. The second murder, of a Puerto Rican girl, was covered in one day. "I went to the assignment editor and said, 'What am I supposed to take from this - that the lives of my children are less important than yours?'"

The question of double standards brings forth a torrent of resentment from black and Latino reporters. "We hear, 'Oh, we can't send a Puerto Rican to cover that. It's a Puerto Rican story.' They don't say 'We can't send a Jewish or Polish reporter because it's a Jewish or Polish story," J.J. Gonzalez says.

Monroe, who covered the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign for Newsweek, speaks of the widespread doubts that he could be as objective as a white reporter. "Every reporter has a bias. To assume I can't control mine, just as a white reporter controls his or hers, is very offensive."

Payne faced this kind of barrier when he applied for Newsweek's African bureau. "I was told it was policy not to send black reporters to cover Africa 'because they felt they could not be fair.' Do they think whites can be fair covering Sweden?"

When Betty Baye was interviewing and faced a similar issue, she says she often laughed, "Well, everybody knows only white people can be objective."

Marilyn Milloy, a Newsday reporter, apologizes for the cliché as she states her case. "I know journalists aren't supposed to use clichés, but you really do have to work twice as hard to go half as far if you're a black journalist."

Who's In Charge?

No one thinks that meaningful integration of the newsroom will be easy. Pressure will have to be exerted from every angle, from within and without, to overcome the continuing inertia. For the larger society, as for ethnic communities, the issue is a crucial one. As J.J. Gonzalez puts it, "Once you control the media you control the world. They ask themselves who's going to speak for us (whites) if blacks and Hispanics get control."

The ASNE's Carl Morris is trying to address the problem by encouraging more papers to promote minority group members to the assistant city editor level, which traditionally goes to a good reporter with little editing background.

Paul Mason of ABC, one of a handful of black news executives, hopes to see other minority group members go for the power instead of the glamour. "Everyone wants to be the quarterback, but it's the offensive coordinator who's calling all the shots."

Opportunity for really good stories, a crack at editing and management-level jobs, visibility, all are rewards that will bring other minorities into these professions and keep the ones there going. Not incidentally, it would almost certainly remove a "white only" filter from the media's view of the world.

The failure of the news media to represent the cultural and ethnic diversity of our society is a failure of the society at large. It's more than a question of racism, though. It's a matter of our fundamental inability to get beyond the limitations of our own narrow viewpoints and move on to a more generous and encompassing vision of the world.

Author Bio: 

Alan Acosta is Associate Vice-President and Director of Communications at Stanford University. This story summarizes research he completed during 1985 for his Master's thesis in Columbia University's graduate journalism program.