Diversity's Greatest Hits, 2009
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
A year in the quest for a news media that looks like America
1. Migration of News to the Internet
The continuing rise of the Internet as the news medium of choice, combined with the worst economic times since the Great Depression, touched every corner of the news business. The online migration promised a more egalitarian future, but for the short term it shut down media operations and threw journalists out of work.
"The bad news is that the mainstream media too many times still lag behind the times when it comes to fully diverse reporting of the spectrum of news - good and bad - about African Americans," Jackie Jones, a career and life coach who reports for BlackAmericaWeb.com, wrote in August for thedefendersonline.com, Web site of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"The real story is that the Internet is changing that. In fact, cyber-news is increasingly informing traditional media coverage, and providing more lenses through which to view our world," Jones continued.
But what a toll it was taking in the meantime.
American daily newspapers shed 5,900 newsroom jobs the previous year, and of the journalists who departed, 854 were of color, the American Society of News Editors reported in April. The Bay State Banner, the black Boston weekly, was rescued with a government loan. In local television and radio, "A year ago, the percentage of minority news directors in TV set a record high, and the minority percentage in TV news overall was just shy of a record last year," the Radio-Television Digital News Association reported in June. "Both numbers fell back in the latest survey. Some of the drop is due to fewer Hispanic stations responding to the survey and smaller staffs at Hispanic stations. But, even factoring that out, minority numbers fell."
Bobbi Bowman, the diversity director of the American Society of News Editors, and Shaunice Hawkins, her counterpart with the magazine publishers association, stepped down amid budget cuts, though Bowman is to continue the ASNE's annual diversity survey as a consultant.
The journalist organizations of color, which envisioned their missions to be keeping diversity an industry priority and training their members for the new multimedia environment, had financial troubles. The National Association of Multicultural Media Executives was on life support.
Individual journalists started second careers in academia, in nonprofit organizations or public relations, or they simply freelanced.
Some went to Web start-ups, but the Internet world seemed short on pay and disproportionately white. "Ex-print journalists appear to have found a new home: AOL," Mark Walsh wrote in April. But while AOL Sports did pick up a number of journalists of color, an AOL start-up, AOL Sphere, showcased a roster¬†of 17 white editors and writers.
Panels in Congress and at the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on "the future of journalism," and journalists of color, after initially being left out, testified in the later ones.
Many witnesses made the point that simply being on the Web doesn't make the product journalism. Citizen bloggers, for example, aren't poring over government records or covering legislative hearings. "This winter, AJR conducted its fifth census of newspaper reporters who cover state government, its first since 2003, and found a staggering loss of reporting firepower at America's state capitols," Jennifer Dorroh wrote in the April/May issue of American Journalism Review.
Still, in August, some 25 to 30 industry leaders, meeting at the convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, decided that the diversity discussion must be moved away from newsrooms to the broader issue of the "accuracy of the report" via whatever messenger the consumer receives it.
Initiatives such as the John S. and John F. Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge were funding innovative Web-based community projects, and if African Americans and Latinos were the target audiences, they stood ready:
"Between the end of 2007 and early 2009, roughly 48 percent of African Americans and 47 percent of English-speaking Latinos accessed the Internet via a mobile device as opposed to 32 percent of the general population. As reported in 2009 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, African Americans on any given day are 70 percent more likely to access the Internet on a handheld than white Americans," an October report said.
President Obama met with Latino journalists on Aug. 7 for a 35-minute "roundtable" at the White House. (Credit: Pete Souza/White House)
2. Inauguration of Barack Obama
Barack Obama's historic election proved a bonanza for newspapers and magazines, whose products became souvenirs of the selection of the nation's first black president. The Jan. 20 inauguration sealed the deal. Ebony magazine's January issue, featuring Obama, produced the highest sales in the magazine's history. Essence magazine credited¬†its split-run double-cover January issue, which alternately featured the president and the first lady, with nearly doubling its circulation that month.
"People flocked to CNN.com, MSNBC.com and other sites Tuesday afternoon to witness President Barack Obama's historic inaugural speech, setting records, and in some cases, causing technical hiccups for some sites," Amanda Fung reported for Crain's New York Business.
Journalists of color found themselves in the rotation of reporters called upon at presidential news conferences, though Hazel Trice Edney of the National Newspaper Publishers Association initially complained that members of the black press felt they were being treated as "window dressing." Obama was granting so many interviews that some said he risked becoming "overexposed." Groups of black and Latino journalists were on the list of those given access, although reporters of color grumbled that it was more limited than it appeared.
For many, the conventional wisdom was that Obama had become a media darling. "I think a lot of people think, 'Well, he's a black man. He's the president of the United States. This is unbelievable. This is historic. We better get on the bandwagon. We better get on the right side of history," Juan Williams chided on "Fox News Sunday."
That all changed in the second half of the year, when right-wing opposition to Obama's agenda, including his ambitious health care reform proposals, took root. The conservative Fox News Channel saw a boost in its ratings as it ramped up criticism of the president, while African American reporters continued to press Obama on what he was doing for black people.
A day after a July address to the NAACP on its centennial celebration, Obama felt comfortable enough to tell Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, "I've noticed that when I talk about personal responsibility in the African American community, that gets highlighted. But then the whole other half of the speech, where I talked about government's responsibility . . . that somehow doesn't make news."
Still, while Obama's overall approval rating fell to 49 percent, according to a December survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, it remained at 73 percent among nonwhites. And Michelle Obama was even more popular.
Boston Herald was one of many newspapers whose front pages were poster-ready.
3. Death of Michael Jackson
The death of Michael Jackson after the apparent administration of a drug overdose produced a media circus¬†‚Äî and a media bonanza. The shocking tragedy prompted nonstop coverage on L.A. news outlets, outpourings of grief, attempts to assess his impact on pop culture and a discussion of the role of new media tools in breaking the news. TMZ.com, the AOL-owned celebrity gossip Web site, was first to report the death, beating out traditional media.
Then came the three-hour memorial service, "seen by 31.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research," the Hollywood Reporter reported in July.
"Though a staggering audience for a midweek morning after the Fourth of July holiday, the number falls shy of the linear viewership for the burial of Ronald Reagan (35.1 million) in 2004 and the funeral of Princess Diana (33.3 million) in 1997.
"It's a larger number of viewers than watched Reagan's funeral (20.8 million) or the 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II (8.8 million), however."
In August, Advertising Age reported that "Michael Jackson tributes and book-a-zines have generated $55 million¬†in additional newsstand sales for magazine publishers, providing one bright spot, however somber, amid widespread newsstand declines so far this year." Supermarket tabloids had a field day with the tawdry details of the drug allegations.
Some columnists discussed broader issues, such as what Jackson's death said about the price of celebrity or about the racial consciousness of the surgically altered "King of Pop," who was 50.
African Americans preferred to remember the onetime child star they grew up with and the music he produced. Ebony magazine declared it was not interested in following the tabloids into the muck of Jackson's personal life.
Harriette Cole, acting editor-in-chief of Ebony, wrote in July about the special Jet magazine issue, the "refreshed" September issue of Ebony and a commemorative book planned by her employer, Johnson Publishing Co.:
"As we talked about how to honor this cultural icon‚Äôs memory, the news media had already started beating the drum of controversy. The man had only been dead for a few minutes when the rumor and innuendo, the oddity and absurdity of the MJ story took over the airwaves.
"We wanted to tell the triumphant story of MJ‚Äôs life and career. And we had the ammo to do so."
4. New York Post Chimpanzee Cartoon
A February editorial cartoon in the tabloid New York Post, widely taken to compare President Obama with a chimpanzee, was denounced as insensitive at best and racist at worst. By year's end, three current and former Post journalists filed suit against the newspaper, claiming racial discrimination and citing the cartoon as part of the evidence.
The Sean Delonas work showed two policemen, one with a smoking gun, looking at a dead chimpanzee. One says, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill."
However, activists such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Ben Jealous of the NAACP said the apology should be the beginning, not the end of the discussion, and that they would proceed with plans to use government agencies to challenge Murdoch's company on media consolidation and diversity issues. They linked the Post's policies with those of Fox News, its sister news organization.
The activism appeared to be short-lived.
But after the Post fired Sandra Guzman, a Latina editor who had objected to the cartoon, she countered in November with the first of three lawsuits that, if they are to be believed, validated every suspicion uttered over the years about the newspaper's racism and sexism. The other suits were filed by Austin Fenner, a black reporter who was also let go, and Ikimilusa Livingston, a black reporter who remains at the paper.
5. Lou Dobbs Resigns; Rise of Right-Wing Media
Lou Dobbs, the controversial CNN anchor whose opinions on such social issues as immigration angered Latinos, political progressives and others, resigned¬†from the cable network in November.
"Liberal groups such as NDN and Media Matters had mounted a 'Dump Dobbs' campaign, and Latino organizations challenged such Dobbs declarations as his 2006 statement that about one-third of the U.S. prison population 'is estimated to be illegal aliens' ‚Äî which the anchor later acknowledged was way too high," Howard Kurtz wrote in the Washington Post, calling Dobbs "the most opinionated and divisive anchor at a cable network that bills itself as a straight-news oasis."
But while Dobbs' critics claimed a victory with Dobbs' resignation, the Fox News Channel, which gave voice to claims that President Obama was not a U.S. citizen, thrived. Fox host Glenn Beck called Obama a "racist" with "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." Then Beck used his show to attack the background of Van Jones, a White House environmental adviser who co-founded an African American political advocacy group that organized an advertising boycott of his program. The group, Color of Change, claimed to have persuaded 80 companies¬†to join in. But Jones resigned¬†in September, and the mainstream media were excoriated for not following up on allegations that painted Jones as a "committed revolutionary."
Also in September, a report by two professors concluded that, "Despite long-standing charges from conservatives that the news media are determinedly liberal and ignore conservative ideas, the news media agenda is easily permeated by a persistent media campaign, even when there is little or no truth to the story.
"In the instance of the 2008 presidential election, the conservative echo chamber‚Äôs allegations about ACORN, mostly unfounded, became one of the news media‚Äôs major stories of the campaign."
In August, the Pew Research Center for People & the Press reported that regular Fox News viewers were far more likely than viewers of other cable news channels to say claims of "death panels"¬†reform plans were true, a claim that PoliFact, a fact-checking arm of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, declared in December to be "Lie of the Year."
From left, freed journalists Roxana Saberi, Euna Lee and Laura Ling
6. Capture and Release of U.S. Journalists
Roxana Saberi, an Iranian-American freelance journalist, spent four months in an Iranian prison on charges that she spied for the United States, and American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were freed from North Korea after nearly five months and a sentence of 12 years' hard labor.
Both cases drew international attention and calls for the journalists' release. Saberi had been sentenced to eight years in prison. Ling and Lee had been found guilty of entering North Korea illegally. Former president Bill Clinton left North Korea with the two journalists in August after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pardoned them. Ling and Lee are employed by San Francisco-based Current TV, co-founded by former vice president Al Gore.
"We had traveled to the area to document a grim story of human trafficking for Current TV," they wrote in September. "To this day, we still don't know if we were lured into a trap."
Marisa Guthrie of Broadcasting & Cable wrote that the cases of Saberi and of Ling and Lee underscored the vulnerability of freelancers, "who work without the political resources and public clout of large, internationally recognized news organizations.
"More Western news organizations are relying on freelance journalists to cover foreign countries where economic realities have forced the closure of fully staffed bureaus," increasing the likelihood of such incidents, Guthrie said.
7. Stephen A. Smith vs. Philadelphia Inquirer
As the newspaper industry slashes and trims to fit the employee payroll to diminished revenues, employers are trying any number of tactics to entice employees to leave.
Some are more legal than others.
Stephen A. Smith was demoted two years ago from his perch as a Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist. The new editor, William R. Marimow, thought he was making too much money ‚Äî $225,000 a year.
Smith refused to show up under the new arrangement. Then he was fired. In September, Smith and the Newspaper Guild won an abitrator's ruling that the Inquirer's actions had violated its collective bargaining agreement with the Guild. Smith was ordered reinstated with back pay.
The commentator, who had branched out into broadcasting, returned to the Inquirer in November, but the Inquirer has refused to publish his work.
"The employer complied with the award to reinstate Smith, but on his first day back, was told in order to publish his columns, Smith would have to pledge to agree to an Inquirer code of ethics, and wanted to prohibit Smith's outside work," Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers Association of America Local 38010, told Journal-isms. The Guild filed a grievance and this month, filed a lawsuit¬†in federal court.
Meanwhile, Smith has been visible as a commentator on cable television and has signed a contract with Fox Sports Radio¬†to host a morning drive-time¬† show starting Jan. 4. He also broke stories¬†that he took elsewhere after the Inquirer turned them down.
8. Johnson Publishing Co. Fights for Survival
In September, Johnnie L. Roberts wrote for Newsweek, "It appears Johnson Publishing‚Äôs chairman and CEO, Linda Johnson Rice, has reached what must have been an agonizing decision: Johnson Publishing is seeking a buyer or investor for its flagship publication, Ebony, in an effort aimed at securing the survival of the nation's oldest magazine devoted to African-American life. It's unclear whether the company's other properties, including Jet, would be part of a possible sale."
It was the latest in what seemed like an endless series of bad news from the historic Chicago-based media company.
In June, Crain's Chicago Business reported, "Ebony owner Johnson Publishing Co. is under siege, battered by sharp drops in advertising and circulation amid the most severe downturn in its 67-year history. In the past three months, Johnson has been hit with contractors' liens claiming the company failed to pay for work worth nearly $500,000."
In February, the news was that "A major reorganization is under way at Johnson Publishing Co., publishers of Ebony and Jet magazines, in which Editorial Director Bryan Monroe has seen his job eliminated and he and others have been told they may reapply for jobs at the company," as reported to Journal-isms by Johnson employees. Monroe resigned in April and, in October, joined the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University as a visiting professor.
In September, Johnson Publishing said it was canceling the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair this fall, "after more than 50 years of showcasing the highest caliber of fashion in the industry to mostly African American audiences," in the words of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Lerone Bennett Jr., the venerated writer and social historian who worked at Johnson Publishing for 52 years, including as executive editor of Ebony, renounced his title of executive editor emeritus after his daughter, Joy Bennett, a longtime Ebony editor, suddenly left the publication.
Those who remain soldier on. Linda Johnson Rice, chairman and CEO of the company, said in a February statement, "I am deeply committed to maintaining our presence and long-standing legacy in the African-American community. Reshaping our organizational design will help ensure that we continue to evolve with the ever-changing media landscape."
Ebony published eight separate covers for its December-January issue, saluting trailblazers with a "Power 150 list." "After months of strategizing, the company also decided to make fundamental changes¬†to enhance the iconic EBONY brand. As part of the Ebony brand re-launch campaign, that will roll out over the next several months, we will position our branded channels including print, digital, entertainment and consumer products to meet the ever-changing consumer demands in the marketplace," the company said in a news release.
9. New Start for NPR on Diversity?
Although the culture at National Public Radio has been cited for more than 20 years as an impediment to diversity at the network, Keith Woods says he believes he can succeed because "the leadership of NPR has changed and there is a critical mass of leadership both new and longstanding that wants to see NPR succeed at this."
Woods, 51, is one of the foremost trainers and educators in journalism diversity and the No. 2 administrator at the Poynter Institute, the school for professional journalists. He was named in December to be NPR's vice president of diversity in news and operations, a new position reporting directly to the CEO, Vivian Schiller.
NPR's diversity efforts came under renewed scrutiny this fall after Greg Peppers, a 22-year NPR veteran who supervised NPR's newscast unit, was fired on Oct. 16 and escorted out of its Washington headquarters. He was one of only two black men in NPR newsroom management.
The firing came the same day that Walt Swanston turned in her resignation as NPR's director of diversity management, citing health reasons.
Writing about the developments, the NPR ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, noted that "the only on-air African American male is Juan Williams, who is not a staff employee. . . . NPR needs to do better in diversifying its staff, especially in management."
The National Association of Black Journalists sent a letter to Schiller asking, "What is NPR doing to recruit and groom African Americans for positions in management? Of the 68 members on your corporate team and behind-the-scenes staff, only eight are people of color."
Schiller responded that "we are examining our overall diversity status critically" and released NPR's own set of figures about the staff makeup.
Woods participated in a Dec. 1 meeting between NABJ leaders and NPR executives.
Facing a $2 million deficit, NPR announced a year ago it was canceling the African American-oriented "News & Notes" ‚Äî which started life in 2002 as "The Tavis Smiley Show" ‚Äî as well as Next Generation Radio, a training project conducted during the summer conventions of the journalist-of-color organizations and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Its director, Doug Mitchell, was laid off when "News & Notes" was canceled.
For the first time in years, NPR did not broadcast from a National Association of Black Journalists convention.
Farai Chideya, host of "News & Notes," left the show in January, earlier than expected, after NPR decided it was "not feasible" for the California-based show to be in Washington to cover Barack Obama's historic inauguration. "That host seat was never very comfortable," Chideya wrote in November in a post mortem of sorts for Huffington Post readers.
This month, NPR announced that Robert Garcia, a former chair of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, will succeed Peppers¬†as executive producer of NPR's newscast unit.
Sonia Sotomayor arrives July 15 for Day 3 of her confirmation hearing. (Credit: talkradionews)
10. Latino Journalists Scarce in Sotomayor Debate
To many white observers, the Senate confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, who went on to be sworn in as the nation's first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, were "low-key" and even boring. To many blacks and Latinos, the "arrogance" on display was anything but, this column said then.
What was grating to the latter group was the grilling of Sotomayor by white male Republicans over her well-publicized 2001 statement that, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
The then-appeals court judge backed away from the statement during the hearings, calling it "a rhetorical flourish." But some senators wouldn't let it go.
"That Judge Sotomayor has to sit there with a smile on her face and take the condescending insults is not just disrespectful to Latinos but women and people of color who have been historically subjected to this kind of authoritarian treatment," Marisa Trevi?±o wrote on her Latina Lista blog.
"In an analysis of the four Sunday broadcast shows this year through April 12, Media Matters for America measured the number of Latino guests or panelists on 'Meet the Press,' 'This Week,' 'Face the Nation' and 'Fox News Sunday,'" wrote David Bauder of the Associated Press, which commissioned the study.
"The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to vote July 28 on President Obama's nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court," this column wrote two months later, as the confirmation process drew to a close, "and if the hearings last week are any indication, the preponderance of media commentary will discuss how 'civil' and unremarkable the confirmation process was, and there will be no Latino journalists among the commentators."
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Percy Sutton Services Set for Jan. 6 in New York
Services for Percy Sutton, the New York political power broker and pioneer in African American radio ownership who died Saturday at age 89, will take place at Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, New York, on Wednesday, Jan. 6, at 11 a.m., Herb Boyd wrote¬†for Thursday's editions of the New York Amsterdam News, the Harlem weekly that Sutton once published.
"The Sutton family has confirmed that they have asked Rev. Al Sharpton to deliver the eulogy. The service will be open to the public." Readers were directed to¬†the Terrie Williams Agency at (212) 316 0305 for more information on the funeral.
- Margot Adler, National Public Radio: Civil Rights Lawyer Percy Sutton Dies (audio)
- Cary Clack, San Antonio Express-News: Percy Sutton left a legacy of giving
- Statement by FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps [PDF]
- Kareen Fahim and Stacey Solie, New York Times: In Harlem, Reflections on the Life of Percy Sutton
- Malcolm Hoenlein, JTA: Remembrance: Percy Sutton, champion of the Soviet Jewry cause
- Errol Louis, New York Daily News: As a mogul, politician, trailblazer, war hero, Percy Sutton was a man of ambition
- William McKenzie, Dallas Morning News blog: Percy Sutton: Talent Texas lost
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