restricted access 7. Into the White Newsroom

From: Race News

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Chapter 7 Into the White Newsroom When Ted Poston rejoined the New York Post soon after World War II ended, his peers lauded him as a trailblazer—a journalist talented enough to write for a major metropolitan newspaper and resilient enough to withstand the daily slights that came with being the only black reporter in a white newsroom. By the 1960s, though, Poston wondered whether he should have done more to expose how his editors’ blindness to their racial biases shaped news coverage andhiringdecisions.WhileAfricanAmericanshadonceapplaudedtheliberal Postforsimplywritingaboutthem,Postonwarnedofa“growingresentmentin the community against the Post for what many regard as a patronizing attitude towardstheNegroandanefforttosegregatehimfromtherestofthelargercommunityassomethingdifferentandbizarre .”Hiseditorsignoredhim.Postonalso chafed at the restrictions that limited his professional ambitions—unwritten rulesthatprohibitedhispromotion,constrictedhisreporting,andlimitedhow many other black journalists could work with him. “I was the Post’s alibi Negro for 25 years,” Poston concluded. Ultimately, the white media’s dismal coverage of the destructive uprisings that engulfed the nation’s black inner cities proved the veracity of Poston’s criticisms.1 AwatershedpresidentialcommissionspotlightedtheciviccostofAmerican journalism’sinstitutionalizedracisminFebruary1968whenitcondemnednews coverage of the previous summer’s urban uprisings. The National Advisory CommissiononCivilDisorders,commonlyknownastheKernerCommission, Into the White Newsroom  • 181 accusededitorsandreportersofinaccuracyandindifference.Inprintandonair, reportersexaggeratedthebreadthanddestructivenessoftheuprisings.Journalists ,particularlyontelevision,fosteredfearandmisunderstandingbycharacterizing unrest as race riots that pitted blacks against whites, even though nearly alldeaths,injuries,andpropertydestructionoccurredinblackneighborhoods. Reportersdidnotrobustlyinvestigaterioters’frustrationswithpolicebrutality, slum conditions, and economic inequality. “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world,” the commission stated. “The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.” While the commission credited journalists with generally avoidingsensationalismandacknowledgingtheirflaws,itsmembersurgently warned “much more must be done, and it must be done soon.” Two months later, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, and riots erupted in more than one hundred cities.2 The commission’s findings prompted public hand-­ wringing among white editorswhomovedgrudginglyinthe1970storepairtheirreputationsandflawed newscoveragemostlybyheedingtherecommendationtohiremoreblackjournalists . The moment marked a significant transition in the history of black journalism: The black press lost its near exclusive access to black journalists, and the white press began to reluctantly reconsider how it wrote about African Americans and other minorities. The Kerner Commission had described the news profession as “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.” Publicly shamed, white editors intensified recruiting efforts, established minority training programs, and pledged greater racial sensitivity in future news coverage. Their efforts, though, mostly failed, with editors’rathersingularfocusonblackemploymentencapsulatingtheirnarrow understanding of how racism structured both the workplace and its product. Even as they hired more black reporters, white editors denied or shifted blame for the news industry’s racism. They clung to idealistic visions of the doctrine ofobjectivity.“Negroactivitiesarecoveredwithoutregardtorace,”saidtheeditor of the Rockford (Ill.) Register Republic. “If they make news they are covered.” LikethegeneralsandadmiralswholedthemilitaryduringWorldWarII,white editors claimed they could only be as progressive as society at large allowed them to be. Again and again, editors blamed black journalists for employment discrimination:Toofewblackreporterssatisfiedthewhitemedia’sprofessional standards.Manywhiteeditorsscrutinizedblackjournalists’articlesmoreskeptically than they did their papers’ overall coverage of racial issues.3 Black journalists exploited new but limited employment opportunities to forcewhiteeditorsandproducerstorecasthowtheyframedracialnews,apush 182  •  Chapter 7 thateventuallyledtofairerbutimperfectcoverageofminorityconcerns.Reporters acted to fortify their job security and also attempted to overhaul how the news industry conceptualized the role of race and racism in American society. Black news consumers often reinforced journalists’ efforts by also demanding fairnessincontentandemployment,particularlyintelevision.However,newsroomactivisminthe1970sproducedmoreheartachethanheadway .Reporters safeguarded their professional rights by demanding affirmative action hiring, filing employment discrimination complaints and lawsuits, challenging government subpoenas, and forming advocacy organizations. “But, beyond all that,”observedLeroneBennett,Ebony’ssenioreditor,“thereisaneedforwhite-­ oriented media to integrate their vision, their control, and their management. In other words, we face the need, not for just a new reporter here, or a new storythere,butforfundamentalchangeinthespiritpermeatingwhite-­oriented media.Wefacetheneedforwhite-­orientedmediatotranscendthelimitations of whiteness.” That did not happen, leading to frequent newsroom arguments, which encouraged skepticism among African Americans who doubted the credibility of black reporters beholden to white editors. Even so, as the 1980s approached,blackjournalistshadforcedwhitenewsexecutivestoacknowledge thatnonewspaperortelevisionstationcoulddeliveronitspromiseofcomplete news coverage without including African Americans and other minorities.4 “A Bill Is Coming In” The White Press Frames Race News White newspapers steadily expanded coverage of black activists’ efforts to desegregate southern institutions after the Brownv.BoardofEducation decision, but their editors remained oblivious to how deeply they misunderstood the nature of black protest and American racism. In the 1950s, most white editors and reporters had worked with negligible awareness of black journalists and their publications, viewing them as partisan advocates who wrote for small weeklies and a specialized readership. They mostly accepted the racial stereotypes that permeated the outlook of all American institutions. “I...


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