The Boston Globe asks “Why Should a Journalist’s Race Matter?”

by Latoya Peterson


This could have been a good op-ed.

Reading through Jeff Jacoby’s rant about how some people have the nerve to wonder about racial parity in the press corps, I just kept shaking my head. One could have argued that if journalism, in general, is on the decline it follows logic that minority journalists will be disproportionately affected and start disappearing from the rolls. So, one could then logically argue to fix the racial gaps in the press corps, we would need to start by fixing the foundation of the press corps.

Or, one could have argued that as old notions of district boundaries and “ethnic” enclaves are eroding away, so should the idea of “ghettoizing” correspondents. So, it would be reasonably expected for a white reporter to be able to cover an issue outside of their community with the same level of insight and aplomb as a community insider. (I would say vice versa, but many minority writers, self-included, are expected to be able to “write white” already.)

Or, I could have even accepted yet another “post-racial” America type of commentary where they argue that since whites proved willing to cross the color barrier in voting for Obama, it means that journalists should be able to venture out and cover all issues, regardless of race, because a new level of understanding has been reached. (I would disagree with this, but I could accept it.)

But Jacoby’s piece is the same old, same old.

But why should it matter to anyone but a racist whether a White House reporter is black or white? Well, says Michael Fletcher, a colleague of Kurtz’s, “you would want to have black journalists there to bring a different racial sensibility.” By the same token, more evangelical journalists would presumably bring a different religious sensibility to the White House, more journalists from the Deep South would bring a different regional sensibility, and more Republican journalists would bring a different political sensibility. Do you know of any news organizations that are fretting over the “relative paucity” of evangelicals, Southerners, or Republicans on their payrolls? Me neither.

As if these things were equal. As if evangelicals, Southerners, or Republicans were systematically excluded from society (and the press corps) for years due to institutionalized racism and the pervasive idea of segregation.

Carmen often argues against this idea that “thought diversity” has come to replace “racial diversity” – proponents of this theory often argue that it is more important to have a diverse group of thinkers, rather than people of similar thought process with different ethnic or racial backgrounds. While there is a little merit to this theory, it still ignores the strangely persistent disparities in compensation, advancement, and opportunity to enter these fields.

I just finished reading an advance copy of Gwen Ifill’s “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama” for a review I need to complete. In the book, Ifill details far more than Barack Obama’s rise in politics – she talks about the shift in the ideas surrounding leadership in the black community, the tightrope candidates have to walk, and the ideas associated with “crossing over.” She documents the issues faced by politicians seeming both “not black enough” and alternately “too black” and the collective memory of the subjects in the book stretches from the early 1900s to the present day. We are still dealing with “firsts.” Or, as Colin Powell notes in the book:

“I’ve never distanced myself from Buffalo Soldiers, from any of those guys, ’cause I’m here because of them and I’m not going to let youngesters forget, or white people forget, what we went through. So when they say, ‘Well, how can you still support affirmative action?’ I say, ”Cause I saw the affirmative action the other folks had for about two hundred years.” (p. 176)

This applies to journalism. It applies to everything in our society, but it especially applies to journalism where white reporters and white writers (particularly white male writers) are seen as objective and everyone else just brings their minority bias to the table. And I don’t see how Jacoby can argue that there is no need for racial parity in journalism when his racially tone-deaf article proves that reporters will bring their own bias into whatever they will report.

It’s just strange how some biases are perceived as objective.

I do agree with Jacoby on one thing – we need more quality journalists. Reporters like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair do journalism a grand disservice. A bad journalist is a bad journalist, regardless of color, and we need more people – of all races – who take the idea of the news and the public trust seriously.

We need more reporters who are engaged and informed, and are willing to challenge themselves on their own biases. But until that day comes, what is the solution?

Would a white journalist, like Jacoby, be able to tell with conviction Cory Booker’s story? Booker, the current mayor of Newark, has a story layered with racial nuance. In The Breakthrough, Ifill notes that “In order to move into Harrington Park, his parents, a pair of IBM executives, hired a white couple to pose as them.” (p. 142) Now, an informed white writer (or a writer who knows their beat, and has been reporting in the area for the years which is another dying breed) would probably be able to piece that together, either from background knowledge or doing further research. And an informed white writer would be able to paint a picture of some of the intra-racial tension Booker faced, from being perceived as “too light” to be black, of the static he received for having grown up in the suburbs, away from the city, or for his top-tier education.

An informed, curious, white writer could conceivably write that story.

But a white writer who is convinced racism is in the past, has a negligible effect on modern life, and subscribes to the “only racists bring up race” school of thought can never tell that kind of story. Their bias prevents them from seeing what is there.

And so, Jacoby’s op-ed actually makes my case for me. In his insistence to do away with talking about race, he notes:

“Washington journalism will not be improved by seeking out “journalists of color,” but by seeking out journalists of integrity, talent, and thoughtfulness.”

I wholeheartedly agree.

Especially on the thoughtfulness aspect. Journalists who understand the inequities in society that revolve around gender, race, class, sexuality, gender orientation, and ability – even if they don’t fully understand or live that experience – will produce better, more nuanced pieces that speak to a large segment of the population. Journalists who deny these inequities become editors who deny these inequities who reject pieces that explicitly deal with this bias and support pieces that validate their worldview.

And while that continues to happen, we will continue to have the same boring op-eds airing asking “Why Should a Journalist’s Race Matter?” when the subtext is really “I’m tired of talking about race” instead of having a more productive conversation asking “why haven’t these issues of inequality been resolved?”

(Photo credit: NY Mag)