Saturday, July 9, 2016

Diversifying Media in a Diverse World

“Cultural appropriation” has been a popular catchphrase recently and for the uninitiated the practice involves adoption of another culture “without invitation or permission of use,” per Wikipedia. Which you hear a lot about these days in the media and which actually has a pretty significant history in the media.
            In the world of journalism, cultural appropriation can have a particularly unpleasant side effect. It’s one thing for a white rapper like Eminem or Justin Timberlake to “steal black music,” which both have been accused of in the last few weeks, something we don’t have to render a judgment upon here. But it’s quite another when a white newspaper reporter or television journalist does a piece about life in the African-American community, for example—and describes what it’s like being a member of a culture or even part of a cultural landscape which the reporter is not. American journalism has a long history of the wrong people writing some of the right stories and many of the errant kind. You don’t have to believe the media themselves have been part of a system of oppression, another judgment we won’t be rendering here. Assume that intentions have been good. The vein of paternalism even by liberal white reporters—especially by liberal whites who thought they were doing good and may have done good—has run wide and deep. That’s a fact, let’s move on. But not far.
We blacks, in this example, but also Native Americans and Latinos have generally been deemed incapable of speaking for ourselves. So, there’s cultural paternalism or cultural appropriation as the case may be—and the reality that you didn’t get the job, either. Newsrooms and editorial boards are still very white, as evidenced by the recent contretemps caused by a tweet from the Huffington Post editorial meeting, all women and most of them Caucasian. The Times is not alone in sending out white foreign correspondents to Africa, still today one presumes, and non-Chinese to cover China, and non-Hispanics to cover Latin America even though in each of these cases there are journalists of those particular ethnic backgrounds who will know more about the cultural landscape as they arrive than many white reporters will know by the time they board the return flight to New York. Journalism has had its moments as the new “peculiar institution” that slavery was before. The tendency to keep us out of the loop in describing our own culture peaked with the election of Barack Obama, as a stampede of whites descended on the White House determined to write about what it means to be the “first black president.” Since then, there’s been exceptional progress made.
Editors have been examining their own staffs, something that should have been done long ago but better late than never. Without focusing on the past it’s still important to note that mainstream journalism got wrong the biggest public safety issue to the black community since Emancipation—not Muslim extremism—but white cops who shoot unarmed African-American men. Caucasian reporters didn’t get that story right for something like a century and a half and didn’t correct the error themselves, until amateur videos began appearing on YouTube. The fact is American journalism has changed for the better though and certain editors, some of them white, deserve credit for stepping up. At the top of big mastheads both the New Yorker's David Remnick and Dean Baquet of the New York Times have had similar success extending diversity in their editorial departments, to different effects. Both publications can be said to have begun at the same starting point which, whatever the exact details, resembled something other than “diversity” as presently defined.
            In a brief explanation of his own experience, in response to an email inquiry, David Remnick explained how he came to hire the man who is becoming a go-to source on the African-American experience, Jelani Cobb—“Dr. Cobb” as he has been called, not because of a PhD but because of a different kind of knowedge base. I met Jelani at the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture at New York Public Library] maybe five years ago,” Remnick wrote. “We were on a panel discussion together with a couple of other African-American intellectuals (one radio person, another writer), and he just struck me as so incredibly smart, and I just invited him to write for us. . . . The only way to do it is to do it. To be truthful, the web has expanded our capacity to try out more people.” Instead of its prior reputation for effete if penetrating views of the world, well-written yes, the New Yorker has become more of a source of black thought than mere reportage of same for interested white readers.
You have to credit concerned editors, but also, as Remnick says, you need to credit the Web. It’s changed everything, including civil rights: “Our challenge is that the core of what we do, and did, was the heavily-reported, God-willing beautifully written long piece: and that requires a pretty large measure of experience, etc. The web has expanded the sheer number of things we do---particularly shorter things---so there is the capacity to try things at less ambitious length, and with less investment, on both sides.” To the degree the New Yorker does what no one else does, the inclusion of other voices seems to work. Even the famous New Yorker covers now show colored peoples. Meanwhile at Times Square under the prominent Creole-born editor Dean Baquet the changes have been just as impressive. The old Times has largely disappeared (some of the change presumably begun by Baquet’s predecessor, the underrated Jill Abramson), replaced by new writers and new views, mostly. But in the Internet age, with so many sources of content, to the degree the Times does what anyone else does the result seems somehow less satisfying. The New Yorker is still the New Yorker but the Times is no longer the Times, a daily must-read, through no fault of its own. It’s impossible to parse out how much of the difference if any is due to “diversity” or what we call diversity, which may just be more accurate reporting. The Times is a more culturally-aware newspaper but not necessarily—yet—a more interesting one. Diversity is an improvement but it isn’t a cure-all. If the Internet is assisting the opening of doors at older established outlets, though, shouldn’t it be helping the new kids on the block even more? Case in point the Texas Tribune.
Founded in 2009 in an all-digital format, with non-traditional funding, the Tribune’s first forays into hiring were or were not minority-friendly, depending upon your point of view. Hiring a whole new staff at the start of business had advantages for getting it right though that incrementalism does not. The Tribune didn’t employ black journalists, for example, until relatively recently. It may not have been the right call at the beginning but it may be the right one now—in what so far has been TT’s charmed media life. Founder Evan Smith was not particularly diversity-friendly in his prior gig as editor of Texas Monthly but blacks and Hispanics have never been part of the Monthly’s business model. That’s a separate problem. Since then, at TT, Smith has more than made up—by creating content and creating j-o-b-s for minority journalists. It’s impossible to argue with success. Which raises the question: liberal rhetoric is fine but who are you hiring?
The success of TT has been especially revealing: There’s a fact of life for blacks in Texas and in the country at large that’s hard to accept because, for so long, African-Americans have been the story of race in America. We did the fighting and the dying—and still are—and we were largely in charge of that narrative when our story could be wrestled loose from white reporters. Recently however, both Asians and Hispanics have become uncomfortable with a blacks-only account of civil rights history, to say nothing of Native Americans who never bought into that story in the first place. Witness complaints about Chris Rock’s monologue at the last Oscars ceremony, as if black performers are the only people with a quarrel in Hollywood. As demographics change and as the civil rights movement morphs to include different values—and differing census numbers—blacks may represent tradition while Asians and Latinos represent the future focus of efforts at "getting the story." The Tribune’s employment numbers outlined recently by Editor-in-Chief Emily Ramshaw speak to that. There’s still a concern about black reporters, especially in light of recent events in Dallas, and elsewhere. Black people make a virtue of speaking up—confrontation—but a different style of protest and a different approach to bringing about change may one day be the standard.
“We have five Latino journalists, one African-American journalist and three Asian-American journalists on staff,” Ramshaw related in a recent email, out of a staff of 40-odd people. The Tribune does employ the bulk of the journalists of color in the Texas Capitol press corps, in part because the Tribune employs more people than anyone else in the Texas Capitol press corps, which is not a ding but a compliment. TT has also managed to create internships and fellowships for grad students while other publications are shedding reporters. “Diversity in hiring and recruiting is paramount, and we—and newsrooms across the state and the nation—clearly have major room for improvement in that regard. It's the subject of urgent discussion at virtually every journalism conference I attend,” Ramshaw wrote in reply to the question of what her own newsroom looks like. “The Tribune is working hard to find new pipelines of prospects to further diversify our news-gathering, which I believe would augment our coverage and help us reach an even wider audience.Ramshaw says all the “right” things and they may also be the correct responses to the problem: Race is a moving target in this country and some editors have done better hitting it than others. One size does not fit all media outlets or markets. The Times and the New Yorker are national publications, some would say international, located in a city where there are thriving minority communities and a wide selection of top-drawer universities that funnel students into writing crafts. On the other hand the Tribune is in Austin, a city that until a few years ago was considered a small Southern town, which has been shedding black people through the last few decades, yet the Tribune has had success in integrating its workforce in ways that have largely not been replicated among colleagues in the Lone Star capital city. It’s a long way from New York to Austin, both on land and in journalism content, but it’s still a revealing road trip.
Of the four other major publications headquartered in Austin—Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Cox Media’s daily newspaper the American-Statesman, which has improved markedly in recent years, although not necessarily on race, and the weekly alternative Austin Chronicle—two of the four edited by white women and two by white men—it almost says everything that needs to be said that three of the four editors, TM’s Brian Sweany, TO’s Forrest Wilder and the Chronicle’s Kimberley Jones all declined comment on what efforts if any they’ve made to diversify content and their respective staffs. Silence is worth a thousand words. Even without the responses of these editors however it’s still possible to draw a picture of these publications’ profiles in the minority community, and how racism exists in journalism apart from hiring. Especially given the business these publications are in, public discourse that in some cases—in fact, often—rises to the level of editorial self-righteousness. Hypocrisy is also a good word.
In Austin, one of the most dynamic media markets in the country (the city is highly-educated, affluent and white) there are four sacred cows, you could call them, four potential subjects of journalistic inquiry that show few footprints in the press. If you’re reading any of the four publications above don’t look for much on any of the following stories: Dell Computers—or founder Michael Dell, almost certainly the most powerful individual in town, an original backer of George W. Bush and one of the most influential conservatives in the state; South by Southwest, the festival which has become so integrated into City government that it’s hard to tell where the private business of SXSW (Chronicle owners Louis Black and Nick Barbaro are also two of the owners of the festival) begins and what the city does for it ends; the University of Texas and the Texas Democratic Party. Austin-born Whole Foods was once also on the list—beyond scrutiny, untouched by critical reporting—but the company’s missteps in the last year or two have been so conspicuous as to be impossible to ignore.
Each of the four publications mentioned has a different Achilles heel, a different blind spot that, in some cases, can also be detrimental to minorities and to any concept of social justice. With the Monthly, for example, it’s Dell, or the University of Texas. With the Observer and the Chronicle it’s all of the above. The American-Statesman under editor Debbie Hiott is an exception. The newspaper has explored ties between SXSW and city government—and to Hiott’s credit, was first to begin questioning police behavior towards minorities, before it was fashionable, using statistical analysis on arrests as long ago as 2004. But it’s a narrow focus. If you’re black and your photo appears in Austin’s daily newspaper you’re either in jail or headed there—the AAS interfaces with the local black community almost exclusively through its police reporter—you’re an athlete/entertainer, or POTUS. The daily also has a long history of not questioning the university—which is portrayed in this newspaper as a benevolent white force in the black community. Both the Chronicle and the AAS completely missed the gentrification of once minority-rich East Austin as the gentrification was taking place, the daily because it was paying more attention to the suburbs, apparently, and the alternative because conflicts of interest with city government and the business community limit introspection. The mistake is thinking that it’s all about who the media hire. That’s a start but it’s not the end, it’s also about who’s paying for advertising space—or who is a publisher of a newspaper and a businessman in another sphere (Black and Barbaro are more powerful figures in this community, through SXSW, than anyone their newspaper publishes stories about) or who thinks that the Democratic Party is flawless—Austin is a Democratic town—in an era of extreme Republicans practically everywhere else in the state. When Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was asked to remove her hijab at this year's SXSW, during a search, the story made world headlines but got two sentences in a news roundup in the Chronicle itself. UT Austin has received uniformly good press over its affirmative action program, just upheld by the Supreme Court, but TT recently reported that Texas A&M, UT's more rustic, less "liberal" and less hip sister institution has a better record of increasing admissions of minorities than UT and even though A&M really has no affirmative action program in effect. A black freelancer recently submitted a story to the Chronicle describing UT’s uniformly white leadership and the whites-only administration of UT System, under former Seal-in-Chief Admiral Bill McRaven.The Chronicle not only rejected the story but, without the author’s permission, sent the manuscript to UT to alert university leadership of its contents. UT is a Chronicle advertiser and occasional partner. Editor-in-Chief Kimberley Jones denies any wrongdoing on the part of her staff but it’s interesting nonetheless that in most big cities the traditional daily newspaper is the protector of the status quo, doing the Chamber of Commerce’s business, while the alternative weekly is the muckraker. In the Texas capital the roles are reversed. The Chronicle is the white hipster-driven, community-booster while the daily newspaper casts a more skeptical eye. The effect is that the weekly promotes old-style Southern racism while the daily tries fitfully to turn te page.
           Something that both David Remnick and Emily Ramshaw said about diversity in journalism may be wrong, in this context. Both said it’s their belief that diversity makes for better journalism and makes a publication more accessible to more readers. That’s not a universally-held belief, especially not in Austin. In 43 years Texas Monthly has never hired a black staff writer, Hispanics are still scarce in its pages and the magazine itself, in the recent past at least, has had a theme of re-creating, for Texas’s many new arrivals, the “mythic” Texas of movies and of white-written history books—in which blacks, Mexicans and Native Americans have only a walk-on role. It's not true, that’s bad journalism, and a Big Lie. Meanwhile at the Observer, Molly Ivins’ old haunt, home of an almost exquisite sense of political correctness, the view is exactly the opposite. As many as half of the magazine’s stories can be about race or touch on race but in 64 years of existence the Observer has only had one black staff member, all the top editors have, with one exception, been white and if you look at its masthead today, of the nine editorial positions, the top five—editor, publisher, managing editor, digital editor and multimedia editor—are all Caucasian in a state in which, the Observer reminds us every issue, minorities are the majority. That’s kind of fucked up, don’t you think? It is about hiring, but at the same time it isn’t, it’s about all of it: story choices and cultural competence and old-fashioned conflicts of interest, and whose ox ultimately is getting gored, and not treating us, whatever color we may be, like niggers.


  1. Lucius you do give a reader plenty to think about, especially one who's been immersed in local journalism for 35-plus years and is still at it with The Austin Bulldog (a one man shop that has no money to hire anyone). When wife and I founded and published The Good Life magazine for more than 11 years before going belly up at the beginning of 2009, I tried to find minority writers and didn't have a whole lot of luck outside Anoa Monsho, who did write about East Austin gentrification. We had lots of women freelancers, in fact most were, but not a lot of people of color, I must admit. Keep on keeping on, just like we both did as freelancers for Third Coast magazine in the early 1980s.
    Ken Martin

  2. Interesting that you mention Third Coast because I was standing in front of the Austin History Center a few months ago and someone walked out carrying old copies of the magazine. Apparently the center has a complete set and was getting rid of extras. It was a great city magazine, not just because you and I worked there, Ken, but because of the leadership of Publisher Chris Hearne and Editor John Taliaferro, who put their hearts into the enterprise. TC offered a platform for other journalists in Austin, those who didn't work for the daily or the weekly or the Monthly, which is what the diversity issue is all about. Different voices, especially on matters of race, which is where everyone needs to be heard. I remember years ago, even before Third Coast came into being, over at Texas Monthly one of the writers, Steve Harrigan, told me that race is the story of this country. I believe that’s true. For that reason, and a bunch of others, there has to be diversity in journalism. We need to hear from everyone, especially those living the issues we’re writing about.

  3. We said Lucius. Aside from the satisfaction of seeing my own stories in 3C for 2-1/2 years, the most heartwarming moment for me was one year at the local Gridiron Show when the finale tune featuring all hands on stage, sang "At Home With the Armadillo" but with slightly changed lyrics to Third Coast Magazine, and every cast member at that moment held up a copy of it. Chris Hearne was sitting right in front of me up in the balcony, As for putting their hearts into the magazine, you bet. I'm pretty sure John Taliaferro never drew a salary the whole five years he was there.

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