By: Joe Strupp
The nationally televised debate last week between a controversial author and a prominent Hispanic reporter set off some new sparks, but it was just the latest skirmish in a yearlong battle over newsroom diversity that has spread into the venerable National Press Club in Washington.
The Nov. 18 debate, presented live on C-SPAN, pitted Coloring the News author William McGowan against Juan Gonzalez, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and a columnist for the New York Daily News. As expected, McGowan argued that efforts to increase minority presence in newsrooms have hurt quality and news judgment, while Gonzalez defended diversity programs.
But even more interesting than their lively faceoff were developments before and after it. The latest twist is a war of words between McGowan and John Aubuchon, president of the National Press Club. Two days after the debate, McGowan told E&P that Aubuchon “hung me out to dry” in first giving him an award and then acknowledging doubts about it. Aubuchon responded by calling McGowan’s attack on the club “insulting and absurd.”
The uproar began a year ago with the publication of Coloring the News, which has drawn both condemnation and praise for its claim that efforts to increase the number of minority journalists in newsrooms through affirmative-action-type recruiting efforts have diverted attention, in many cases, from keeping the best people on the job, and led to more “politically correct” reporting in the media.
The controversy came to a head in July after the National Press Club bestowed its Arthur C. Rowse Award for Media Criticism on McGowan, drawing howls from NAHJ and the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Condace L. Pressley, president of NABJ and assistant program director for WSB-AM radio in Atlanta, debated McGowan on CNN and invited him to attend the NABJ convention in Milwaukee in August. Citing scheduling conflicts, McGowan did not attend the convention.
Soon after, responding to NABJ and NAHJ complaints, the National Press Club sent an unusual letter to both groups that defended the choice of McGowan as its award winner, while also highlighting his critics. “Some members [of the club] found the level of scholarship and research severely lacking and the book seriously marred by factual errors,” excerpts of the letter posted online stated. “Still others find serious fault with the case the author makes.”
Going further, the club offered to host a debate on the subject, which McGowan and NAHJ accepted, but NABJ’s Pressley bypassed. “I didn’t see any reason to continue the debate to help him sell more copies of his book,” Pressley said. “I believe his 15 minutes of fame are up.”
In last week’s debate, McGowan pulled no punches. “The diversity crusade has opened the door to hypersensitivity, political correctness,” McGowan said during the event, moderated by Terence Smith of the Public Broadcasting Service.
Among McGowan’s targets was the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ (ASNE) ongoing diversity program, which seeks to increase the percentage of minority newsroom employees annually. He claimed such an approach amounts to a quota system. “They’ve got to get rid of this obsession with numbers,” he said during the debate. “They look foolish.”
An emotional Gonzalez defended the need to increase minority staffing in the nation’s newsrooms, saying that diversity efforts have not hurt newsroom operations as much as other factors, such as corporate control. He also questioned a number of the claims in McGowan’s book — including the assertion that many journalists believe that diversity trends are hurting news quality and driving away readers — as well as certain “distortions of facts.”
When Smith asked McGowan why he had not included any examples of overt newsroom racism in his book, the author said “it just doesn’t exist today.” That drew a sharp rebuke from Gonzalez, who argued that “racism in America has been much more disguised, but the problem still exists.”
Directing his attention to Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., McGowan accused the publisher of The New York Times and chairman of the New York Times Co. of hindering his own reporters in giving affirmative-action programs a complete review because he is so pro-diversity. In response, a Times Co. spokesman issued a statement from Sulzberger to E&P: “We are committed to diversity because it enables us to better perform our mission of covering the world in all its diversity. As with other topics, we report with objectivity and thoroughness.”
Also reacting to McGowan, ASNE Executive Director Scott Bosley told E&P that he stood behind his group’s efforts. “We don’t set quotas,” Bosley said. “Our goal is that newsrooms reflect the make-up of their community.”
Two days after the debate, McGowan ripped the National Press Club for its comments in last summer’s letter to NABJ and NAHJ, which he said were not presented to him until he showed up to collect the award. The club was “extremely timid and skittish,” McGowan told E&P. “I found that professionally distasteful. The behind-the-scenes effort to distance themselves [from the award] has highlighted their racial anxiety.”
Aubuchon shot back: “He has voiced no complaint to me, ever. If he did, I would suggest he is sorely mistaken.”