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Unity Reverses, Will Open Meetings

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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Updated Oct. 8

Group to Reexamine Striking of "Journalists of Color"

"Let's Be Honest About the Name Change and the Damage It Has Done to UNITY's Credibility"

Group to Reexamine Striking of "Journalists of Color"

The board of the Unity Journalists coalition reversed itself Sunday and decided to reopen its meetings, and after hearing a stinging message from a departing board member decrying its decision to strike "Journalists of Color" from the Unity name, voted to reexamine the change.

Joanna Hernandez

"I don't agree that the UNITY and NLGJA partnership has worked," Peter Ortiz of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists said in a letter read to board members, referring to the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. "It doesn't mean it can't, but based on everything I've seen and experienced during this partnership, I can't endorse NLGJA becoming a permanent member of the UNITY Alliance," said Ortiz, a reporter for Ignites, a Financial Times publication.

"My primary concern is the damage it has caused (with) the reunification effort with NABJ and the failure in not allowing our alliance members a true opportunity to participate and vote on the name change," Ortiz continued, referring to the National Association of Black Journalists. "This was too important an issue for the board to decide without serious feedback from alliance members. They should have been allowed to vote.

". . . Some might say journalists of color are just words. UNITY: Journalists of Color are not just words." [Text of Ortiz's statement below, with response from NLGJA President Michael Triplett.]

Yvonne Latty

Joanna Hernandez, Unity president, told Journal-isms by telephone that "there was a stunned silence in the room" Saturday when new board member Yvonne Latty of NAHJ read the report from Ortiz, who was unable to attend the meeting at Gannett Co. headquarters in McLean, Va. "It took the wind out of the room."

Sue Green, an NLGJA representative who is also a black journalist, was upset and left the room after Ortiz's statement,  board members said privately. "I did not agree with adding the line, 'Journalists of Color' to the name . . . ," Green wrote last year.

In April, board members voted 11 to 4, with one abstention, to change the name of the coalition from "Unity: Journalists of Color" to "Unity Journalists" to accede to the wishes of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, admitted to the alliance last year. NLGJA was invited to join after NABJ departed, citing financial and governance issues.

NLGJA was admitted with the understanding that either side could opt out after a year.

David A. Steinberg, immediate past president of NLGJA and a continuing member of the Unity board, told Journal-isms by email, "I decline to comment on Peter's statement."

In other action at the meeting, which was open only to board members, staff and officers of Unity and the alliance groups:

  • Doris Truong, national president of the Asian American Journalists Association, defeated Doris Truong fellow AAJA member and Unity representative Janet Cho for Unity vice president, 9 to 7. Those elected take office Jan. 1.

  • Latty, a New York University professor newly appointed to the board by NAHJ, was elected secretary, ensuring that each alliance partner will hold a Unity office. Latty is also a member of NABJ.

  • Tom Arviso Jr., publisher of the Navajo Times in Window Rock, Ariz., and a representative of the Native American Journalists Association, was elected president. He was unopposed.

  • Hugo Balta, newly elected president of NAHJ, replaced Michele Salcedo, the previous president, on the board. Balta took positions opposite those advocated by Salcedo and forcefully challenged Steinberg, who has become a growing force in the meetings, board members said privately.

  • A task force will examine the Unity name change.

  • A task force will examine the feasibility of holding Unity conventions every two years, rather than every four.

  • A summary of board minutes is to be posted on the Unity website within two weeks.

  • Financial information is to be available by the end of the month. "The convention made money. Everybody made a profit," Hernandez said. "We did better than expected."

Hugo Balta

The decision to close the board meetings was widely panned by members of the journalist-of-color organizations who learned of the decision in this column on Saturday. Hernandez explained that the motion from Steinberg came in the closing minutes of the April meeting in which most were focused on the vote to change the name of the group to "Unity Journalists."

Steinberg explained by email Sunday, "I am ok with opening up the meetings as long as the rest of the board is comfortable doing so. I brought two proposals to the board earlier this year regarding open/closed meetings on behalf of the Governance Committee, which I chair, after concerns were raised by a member of the board. The board discussed and unanimously adopted one of the proposals."

He said Monday that the competing proposals were to open or close the meetings, but would not identify the concerns or name the board member who raised them.

"I don't feel comfortable speaking for others, so I'll leave it at that," Steinberg said.

The Sunday vote to reopen the meetings was unanimous, save for the vote of NLGJA President Michael Triplett. Steinberg held Triplett's proxy and abstained in his name.

Truong said by email, "I told the UNITY board today that AAJA's policy has been to have open meetings, several of which you have attended and reported on. "Peter is entitled to his opinion. We appreciate his years of service in the cause of journalism diversity."

Balta told Journal-isms by email, "I voted for making [the meetings] open and congratulate the Unity board in its decision. It is important to be transparent and inclusive — open meetings reinforces this philosophy and commitment.

David A. Steinberg

"As far as Peter's message: I respect Peter's opinion as a member of the Unity board and NAHJ representative," Balta said. "I believe many members of NAHJ and the associations that make up the Unity alliance share his sentiment.

"As a member of NAHJ at the time the Unity board voted to make the change, I would have appreciated the chance to voice my opinion about removing 'journalists of color' from Unity's official title.

". . . As far as the board deciding to assign a task force to explore Unity's official title: I support it. I think it merits the attention of the board and members. It was a mistake to rush through the decision to change Unity's official title."

Arviso said by email on Monday, "Peter is man who I have much respect for as a person and a journalist. He is passionate about life and what he does for a living, and is really proud of his representation on the UNITY Board. He's a guy who will speak from the heart and mind and that is what he did.

"It would have been better if Peter was there in person to deliver his comments or read his letter himself but he could not attend the meeting for personal reasons. I respect Peter's right to voice his opinion and I also respect all of the responses and comments that were made by the UNITY Board after the letter was read. It would have been good to have Peter there in person to hear them. It was certainly an emotional part of our board meeting. I feel that those kind of moments can make either really separate a board or it can make them stronger and more united.

"In this case, I think it made all of us realize the amount of respect and admiration that we have for one another and the memberships that we represent. We can't change what happened in the past but I feel we are now more united and we know what we have to do in the future to make UNITY a strong and proud organization."

Hernandez said that she had recommended the task force in her president's message and that the motion for it, made by Arviso and seconded by Cho, passed unanimously. Arviso and Cho had voted no on the name change in April on grounds that the associations' memberships had not been consulted.

Hernandez also said she was appointing the executive directors of the associations to a task force on holding Unity conventions every two years, an idea that has been advanced as a way for the groups to combine resources and save money. Balta urged that the exploration of this idea be speeded up, Hernandez said.

Departing from the Unity board at the end of the year are Sharon Pian Chan and George Kiriyama of AAJA; Ortiz of NAHJ; and Patty Loew and Michaela Saunders of NAJA, Hernandez said. The presidents of each association appoint their representatives on the Unity board.

Chan said by email on Monday, "I have not submitted my resignation to UNITY or AAJA president. I indicated I was hoping to step down at the end of the year at our UNITY board meeting, but I realized had not talked it over with the incoming AAJA president Paul Cheung and he wanted me to discuss it with him first. He and I are continuing to talk, so stay tuned." [Updated Oct. 8]

"Let's Be Honest About the Name Change and the Damage It Has Done to UNITY's Credibility"

By Peter Ortiz, Unity representative, National Association of Hispanic Journalists

I'm sorry I can't join you for my last UNITY meeting. And I want to thank Yvonne [Latty] for reading this on my behalf. This report reflects only my opinion and experience as a UNITY board member.

Unfortunately, I don't agree that the UNITY and NLGJA partnership has worked. It doesn't mean it can't, but based on everything I've seen and experienced during this partnership, I can't endorse NLGJA becoming a permanent member of the UNITY Alliance.

Peter OrtizMy primary concern is the damage it has caused (with) the reunification effort with NABJ and the failure in not allowing our alliance members a true opportunity to participate and vote on the name change. This was too important an issue for the board to decide without serious feedback from alliance members. They should have been allowed to vote.

As UNITY board members we are caretakers of an organization that was a historic collaboration of journalists of color. But we are simply the caretakers. It was the alliance members who owned UNITY: Journalists of Color. They owned the name that embodies who we are.

Our name let the industry know that we would not apologize for proclaiming who we are, journalists of color, and that they could not ignore us. But those who owned UNITY: Journalists of Color did not have a role in deciding to keep or kill our name. Our alliance members, not this board, needed to make that decision. And now we are seeing the consequences of excluding those who helped create UNITY: Journalists of Color and the thousands more who said: "This is ours. We own this." Some claim the mission has only expanded to include NLGJA's concerns. But this rings hollow for many journalists of color who watched us wipe out the name that symbolized that mission. Some might say journalists of color are just words. UNITY: Journalists of Color are not just words.

NLGJA made it clear that they would not be part of an organization that embraced itself as journalists of color. Despite this, NLGJA joined when we were UNITY: Journalists of Color. NLGJA was embraced as an equal alliance partner when we were UNITY: Journalists of Color. NLGJA was treated with respect when we were UNITY: Journalists of Color.

But within two hours at that April board meeting, the name was gone. Leading up to that vote, NLGJA warned that its members would boycott our convention, just a few months away, if we did not remove journalists of color from our name.

Other than anecdotal accounts from the NLGJA alliance members on the UNITY board, I saw no survey or other research indicating how the NLGJA membership felt, including from the NLGJA journalists of color.

There was plenty of time for NLGJA to poll its membership before that April meeting. We would at least have had some sense of what the entire membership felt. But we do know what UNITY: Journalists of Color co-founder Will Sutton thinks.

Peter, this is plain and simple. UNITY: Journalists of Color has existed since 1994 when we agreed after a highly successful, joint national convention that we should continue to work together on diversity issues of importance to journalists of color, and to do so formally.

There was concern, and, yes, disagreement, about whether to solidify this coalition. The one thing that pulled us together was the clearly stated focus on "journalists of color."

Co-founders Will Sutton, left, Mark Trahant, Juan Gonzalez  and  Lloyd LaCuesta recall the 1988 meeting creating  the Unity: Journalists of Color alliance. (Credit: Unity News photo By Marie  DeJesus)

The UNITY history says, "In 1994, they established UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. as a permanent, not-for-profit, strategic alliance of journalists of color acting as a force for positive change to advance their presence, growth and leadership in the fast-changing global news industry."

Of course, the name change wasn't what led to the split with NABJ. But let's be honest about the name change and the damage it has done to UNITY's credibility and to moving the reunification process forward.

Again, from Will Sutton:

"My suggestion to the existing UNITY board: Drop all false hope that NABJ will return to a UNITY without a focus on 'Journalists of Color.' That's not going to happen."

If you don't want to put a clear focus on "journalists of color," drop the NABJ concerns as things that no longer matter and broaden the diversity efforts to include civil rights, education, engineering, gender, science, sports and more.

The board action to drop the name was ill-advised, and it further damaged a disappointing, frustrating and totally unavoidable split with NABJ. My native organization's concerns still stand as relates to finances, focus and leadership.

These issues were not resolved, no resolution was reached and NABJ left the coalition. If NABJ even thinks about rejoining without the name including "Journalists of Color," I will advise against it. It is at the core of what the original UNITY was all about. It's at the core of what the future UNITY must be about if we want a coalition that includes NABJ.

Will Sutton is right. If we want to advocate for journalists of color, then the world needs to know we will not hide who we are because the name offends some or does not fit their ideal of what the organization represents. The convention would have been the perfect venue to hear from our members. They could have voted via online ballot. [Alliance partners] were already voting online, so this was very doable. It would have shown our members that UNITY truly belongs to them and their input counts. This was too important an issue not to make a serious effort to learn what alliance members felt. They deserved better.

But the online voting idea was shot down.

From UNITY's first president, Lloyd LaCuesta:

"I am very disappointed by the actions of the board. "Journalists of Color" was a badge of honor for many of us who came into newsrooms in the 1960's-1970's. But most of us wore that badge hidden because some may have viewed it as violating journalistic objectivity. There is no doubt in my mind that when the four associations came together in Baltimore to plant the seeds of Unity our common bond was the fact that we were racial minorities who were journalists. We wanted a larger body to speak out for what we could not do individually.

The NABJ President who I worked closely with during those formative years was the late Tom Morgan of the New York Times. Tom, early on in our friendship, confided to me that he was Gay. But he saw himself as the representative of an African American association first and foremost. We both knew that there were Gay and Lesbian members in all of our four associations. But the issues that we were championing and working for was racial equality in the journalism industry. It just made sense.

Now some may argue that the times have changed and the goals are wider. But the history is there. Unity was founded to promote racial diversity in newsrooms and to call for fair news coverage in our respective racial communities. It's the old adage from the Sixties, united we stand, divided we fall. I am proud of what we did as Journalists of Color. Whatever the future holds for Unity, history and the work of so many who came before should never be denied.

Though times have changed, UNITY's mission to promote racial and ethnic diversity in the newsroom and advocate for fair news coverage for communities of color are even more important today. We still have too few journalists of color.

And it's journalists of color who have been and still are most impacted when news organizations decide to layoff or downsize. This needs to be the primary focus of UNITY, NAHJ, NABJ, NAJA and AAJA. Without our presence in the newsrooms we won't be in a position to make real change. Watering down our name sent a message that UNITY is no longer committed to journalists of color. In rushing through a name change vote we lost some of our most important advocates for reunification — the NABJ members themselves.

Even with all the drama surrounding the split, our NABJ supporters spoke out at the Philadelphia meeting last year and insisted that the NABJ leadership start the reunification talks.

Here is how some NABJ members felt after the name change.

[Quotations from the NABJ listserve deleted]

We had strong supporters. We were far from fixing this, but there were enough NABJ members who still cared about UNITY when it was UNITY: Journalists of Color.

There is no reason for this to have happened. What if NLGJA in joining UNITY: Journalists of Color instead said how they were honored to be part of a group that embraced journalists of color as its brand? What if NLGJA said we are proud to work for the advancement of all journalists of color and to have UNITY: Journalists of Color embrace a majority white group? Imagine the powerful message that would have sent to all journalists of color. Instead, we now have NABJ and other journalists of color feeling betrayed.

At the April board meeting, I stated that NLGJA would one day have a member serving as [UNITY: Journalists of Color] president and the odds were good he would be a white man. The executive director of NLGJA responded by saying it would be a joke. I guess that says it all.

Michael Triplett, president of NLGJA, responds:

Michael Triplett

I respect Peter's commitment to UNITY's legacy and history, although I disagree with his overall view of NLGJA's role in the future of the organization and NABJ's ultimate decision on whether to rejoin the alliance. Expanding UNITY to include gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender journalists was a recognition of the reality of how diversity is viewed in newsrooms and the country. That acknowledgment doesn't have to happen while downplaying the real challenges faced by journalists of color.

NLGJA has already demonstrated that there are times that UNITY's historic voice for journalists of color should take priority and we honor that history. But there are LGBT journalists of color and there are unique issues that impact LGBT journalists and I believe UNITY is a strong enough alliance to speak on those issues also. Our founder (and a founder of the Maynard Institute) Roy Aarons believed that when he first asked to join UNITY when the alliance was created, and I believe it now.

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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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