Last Notes From Unity ’08

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Some last notes from Unity ’08, the joint convention of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ), Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA), and Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) that wrapped up in Chicago on Sunday.

Welfare State?

With newspapers in such a parlous state, is it time for the federal government to again subsidize local papers?

What do you mean, again? Since when did the federal government subsidize newspapers?

Since the beginning of American democracy, argued speakers at a fascinating panel discussion on media consolidation held over the weekend at the Unity ’08 convention of journalists of color in Chicago. I was the least fascinating participant on the panel, and, as a kind of proxy for the newspaper industry, found myself challenged and provoked by those on the dais and in the audience.

Juan Gonzalez, the New York Daily News columnist who founded NAHJ, and Mark Lloyd, the former journalist who is now vice president of strategic initiatives for the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, both argued that the U.S. Post Office, now the Postal Service, was founded to subsidize newspapers as a way to spread democracy. Until the Civil War, Gonzalez said, the Post Office employed more people than any other government entity, and its principal job was to distribute newspapers.

That allowed newspapers published by people of color to flourish to the point that in the early 19th century, there were 25 Spanish-language papers in New Orleans alone, including a daily, Gonzalez said.

We ought to be thinking about that kind of subsidy again, suggested Seattle Times Co. Chairman and CEO Frank Blethen, who dropped in to listen to the discussion. Tax credits or other subsidies could encourage local ownership of newspapers. That localism, in turn, would bring readers back to papers.

Obama Q&A

Before Barack Obama was to appear as the final event at Unity on Sunday morning, the powers-that-be in the umbrella organization fretted that journalists of color could look unprofessional cheering on the first African-American nominee of a major political party. An e-mail sent to members the night before lectured members on decorum.

They needn’t have worried. While Obama got a warm and even rousing welcome, the audience was not cheering his every word, and he faced tough questions when the session was opened up to Q&A.

What did he think about an official apology to Native Americans? Are there too many immigrants, too few, and who should be allowed in? Perhaps the toughest came from Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. who asked if Obama had gone “too far” in answering the whisper campaigns that he’s really a Muslim “without attacking the implicit assumption that there’s something wrong with being a Muslim.”

It was, Obama said, “a classic example of a no-win situation.”

None of the questions, though, concerned Obama’s view of the press, the diversity — or the lack thereof — of journalists, or media concentration.

More Color, Fewer Numbers

Journalists of color make up a small but increased percentage of a shrinking Washington, D.C., newspaper press corps, a study released at Unity ’08 found.

Journalists of color make up 13.1% of the daily newspaper reporters, columnists, correspondents and editors working in the capital, according to the study by Unity: Journalists of Color Inc. and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

That’s up from the 10% found in a similar study done for Unity ’04 — but the increase is mostly due to rising numbers of minority journalists in a press corps that is shrinking. The number of journalists assigned to Washington has fallen 13.8% in the last four years, the study found.

And among the top positions in D.C., journalists of color lost ground. Four years ago, three people of color were bureau chiefs. Now, the study says, only one is.

And retention is a problem: More than half of the journalists of color identified in the 2004 study are no longer working in Washington.

No Pat On The Back For Pat

Every year, NABJ gives out a “Thumbs Down Award” for “an individual or organization for especially insensitive, racists or stereotypical reporting, commentary, photography, or a cartoon at odds with the goals of NABJ.”

This year’s winners were Fox News, which NABJ President Barbara Ciara suggested at a press conference could retire the trophy with this year’s “list of atrocities” so long “that if I had to go through them we’d be here all day.”

But also “winning” was syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan, who was cited for a pieces titled “A Brief for Whitey” and “The Way Our World Ends,” which concluded that a baby boom among “black and brown people” will lead, essentially, to the end of Western Man.

“Exactly what rock is Pat Buchanan living under?” Ciara said. “The Western World was born off the backs of black and brown people.”

Senegal’s Stalin?

If Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade — whose presence at Unity touched off several incidents at McCormick Place between supporters and those who believe he is suppressing freedom of speech and press — was trying to prove he is not an egomaniacal despot in the Maoist or Stalinist vein, probably the worst way to prove it was have his people hand out to all attendees at his speech a slick flyer showing the proposed “Monument of African Renaissance,” an enormous statue in the Socialist Realism style showing an African man and woman emerging from a volcano and holding high their child.

The monument — “based on H.E. President Abdoulaye Wade’s idea,” the flyer explains, and would — would be about 900 feet high, though the scale on the illustration suggests something even higher.

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