Why America needs Black journalists: Part two

The future of liberal democracy depends on diversifying our newsrooms and our news

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I hope you ate your black-eyed peas and collard greens on New Year’s Day! We need all the health and financial stability we can get in 2021.

As promised in yesterday’s letter, I’m writing today about the efforts of Black journalists in our own moment to dismantle institutionalized racism in American journalism and help our country achieve a truly liberal democracy.

In Part One of “Why America needs Black journalists,” I told the horrifying story of the 1875 Mississippi Plan. The white editor of the Jackson Clarion used his newspaper, the most powerful paper in the state, to organize and execute a massive campaign of violence against Black Mississippians. His name was Ethelbert Barksdale, he was a leader of the Democratic Party, and his goal was to “redeem” the state from Republican rule and decimate Black voting power. This is just one of the many stories we tell in the forthcoming book Journalism and Jim Crow, which chronicles the disturbing role of white newspaper publishers and editors in building white supremacy in the South from roughly 1875-1920.

Of course, newsrooms in America today are nothing like the Clarion’s newsroom of 1875, which Ethelbert used as an arms warehouse for white supremacists. But most are predominantly white, and like most predominantly white institutions, they tend to have serious diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. Most newsrooms have few to no people of color in positions of leadership or covering important beats or doing high-profile investigative reporting. Most don’t adequately cover issues, topics, and events important to non-white communities or adequately represent non-white perspectives.

We have absolutely no hope of building a truly multiracial, democratic, and just society in the United States if we don’t have a truly multiracial press oriented toward justice and the values of liberal democracy.

Think about this past summer. As Americans took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest anti-Black policing, Black journalists found themselves not only dealing with the emotional trauma of the brutal police killing of George Floyd, yet one more Black life unjustly taken at the hands of the state, but also forcing news leaders to recognize the racial inequities of their own institutions and news coverage.

For example, in Minneapolis, where Mr. Floyd was casually suffocated by a white policeman kneeling on his neck, journalists of color at the Star Tribune demanded change, citing previous generations of their Strib colleagues who fought for change but were disappointed. Their demands focus on recruitment, retention, community outreach and coverage, and the demands, all self-evidently reasonable, are worth a close read by newsroom leaders across the country. How shameful that in 2020 American journalists had to ask for such basic news industry recognition of Black contributions to and belonging in American life.

In Pittsburgh, Alexis Johnson, a Black woman reporter at the Post-Gazette, posted a tongue-in-cheek tweet making fun of breathless, sensational news coverage of small-scale looting during demonstrations. “Horrifying scenes and aftermath from selfish LOOTERS who don’t care about this city!!!!!” she wrote, with four images of massively trash-strewn parking lots. “ . . . oh wait,” her tweet continued. “No, these are pictures from a Kenny Chesney tailgate. Whoops.” Leadership refused to let her cover racial protests in Pittsburgh, her hometown, because her tweet supposedly suggested journalistically unacceptable “bias.” Check out the executive editor’s tone-deaf and “color-blind” defense of the paper’s action.

In Philadelphia, the lead editor of the Inquirer resigned his position after the paper published an article about damage to city buildings during protests with the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.” Editors issued an apology. “The headline offensively riffed on the Black Lives Matter movement,” they wrote,” and suggested an equivalence between the loss of buildings and the lives of black Americans. That is unacceptable.” Journalists of color at the Philadelphia Inquirer penned a stinging rebuke and organized a sick-out. “On June 4, we’re calling in sick and tired,” they wrote. “Sick and tired of pretending things are OK. Sick and tired of not being heard.”

At the New York Times, Black journalists and colleagues condemned leadership for running an incendiary op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R, Arkansas), filled with race-baiting hyperbole about “rioters,” “looters,” and “insurrectionists” at Black Lives Matter protests and advocating a military-led “overwhelming show of force” in American streets. Times staffers took to Twitter and other public platforms to make the obvious point that the op-ed endangered not only Black and other journalists but also all Black people. After first defending the op-ed in the name of free and open public debate, leadership issued an apology admitting serious oversights in the editorial process. A few days after the op-ed ran, the editorial page editor resigned.

I could go on. But you’re better off reading what Black journalists have to say on the subject. Wesley Lowery, a Black journalist who came of age covering Ferguson and is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, wrote a terrific op-ed in the New York Times about the racial reckoning in American journalism. Read what Errin Haines, editor-at-large for The 19th; Karen Attiah, global Opinions editor at the Washington Post; and Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of The Root, had to say on the subject to the Columbia Journalism Review.

The problem of systemic racism in American journalism is a problem with a long, long history, but it’s a history that is poorly understood. We need to learn this history and understand how it shapes our present. It’s well past time for us to tackle the problem with resolve and good faith.

As always, I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Tomorrow, the surprising historical link between journalism and anti-Black policing.

Best, Kathy