By: Mark Fitzgerald
To management, diversity means numbers and payback;
to minority journalists, it means newsroom transformation sp.
UNITY ’94, THE first-ever joint convention of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and Native American journalists, had, in effect, two opening ceremonies.
The first, held on the evening of July 28, was a familiar set piece of the newspaper industry: A panel of executives stiffly seated at a dais, warily taking questions about diversity, defending their minority hiring records ? but always earnestly adding something like, “But frankly, we haven’t done enough.”
In the private words of one of the panelists, it was a “shallow and disappointing” exercise that did not live up to its billing as a “National Town Hall on Diversity.”
The second opening, held the next afternoon, was an explosive celebration: An only-in-America combination of Chinese New Year, Native American Pow Wow, Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, Tet, La Posada, Black Family Reunion and the Fourth of July.
One after another, ethnic standardbearers marched through an audience that had been handed hundreds of drumsticks.
There were Cherokee hoop dancers, Native Hawaiian conch players, Mexican mariachis, African drummers, Filipino dancers, Cuban Guajira, Chinese dragon dancers and Brazilian samba musicians. They marched until they filled the stage in a swaying, throbbing demonstration of multiculturalism in which it made absolute sense that a mariachi would be fiddling next to someone pounding a Ghanian talking drum.
But the two openings represented more than two different ways to run a journalism convention ? they also seemed to symbolize the diverging views the two groups have of what newsroom diversity means.
Throughout the conference, the conclusion seemed inescapable: Newspaper executives by and large see diversity as a way of making money, while minority journalists see it as a means to transform both the newspaper product itself and the people who work at newspapers.
This disparity was apparent from the strikingly different language journalists and executives employed at the two opening ceremonies.
Several executives echoed the sentiments of Los Angeles Times publisher Richard T. Shlosberg III when he said, “In the last five years, we have doubled our minority representation in the newsroom. And we feel there has been tremendous payback.”
Similarly, Native American Journalists Association president Paul DeMain articulated the feelings of many minority journalists when he asked the executives at that opening session: “How long will we allow somebody else to shape the picture we see in the mirror every day?”
A favorite line from executives was some variation of, “We want diversity not just because it’s the right thing ? but because it’s the smart thing for business, too.”
Minority journalists themselves rarely seemed to address the bottom line. At the second opening ceremony, DeMain and other minority association leaders spoke in more symbolic terms, using the drum as a metaphor.
“The drum is a symbol of unity,” DeMain said. “Today we use the drum to create a cadence for the diversity of our people.”
“Drums express the urgency of our agenda,” said Diane Alverio, president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
And when Dorothy Butler Gilliam spoke of diversity at that ceremony, the Washington Post columnist and National Association of Black Journalists president seemed to be talking of something quite different than percentages and profits.
“We must practice diversity . . . not out of fear, but to use as a tool to energize and empower us as we enter the 21st century,” Gilliam said.
That theme of achieving a somehow transcendent diversity that can not be defined by numbers was sounded again and again.
Indeed, there seemed an impatience with numbers that was rooted in more than just the failure of the industry to hire and promote minorities in rates reflecting the community at large ? although that failure could not be ignored at Unity.
Minority journalists seemed to be saying that numbers ? no matter what incremental increase the industry might announce form time to time ? just disguise a more fundamental failure to diversify news organizations.
“I am sick of diversity being used like interior decorating,” Chauncy Bailey of the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune told one session. “You’ve got an Hispanic over here like a lamp. You’ve got a black over here like a desk. I am sick of diversity being used like Windex.”
That view was at the heart of NABJ’s dispute with the New York Daily News, which the association of black journalists singled out for this year’s Thumbs Down Award, a dubious distinction handed out to news organizations deemed insensitive to African-Americans.
At a press conference, Jacqueline Jones, city editor of the Philadelphia Daily News and NABJ’s vice president for print, attacked the paper for laying off virtually all its black male reporters in a downsizing just after the paper was sold ? and later hiring other, less experienced journalists of color.
“We think for too long there has been a cavalier swapping of African-Americans, [as if] it doesn’t make any difference whether the person has 15 days of experience or 15 years. Well, we think it does make a difference,” Jones said. “What they have done is wipe out an entire generation of leadership.”
At the same press conference, NABJ president Gilliam lauded Earl Caldwell ? whose departure from the N.Y. Daily News provoked the Thumbs Down ? as “an authentic minority voice” the industry needs more of.
“We feel we have reached the point in this industry that . . . it is for columnists to be an authentic minority voice,” she said. “That is really the meaning of diversity. It isn’t just numbers . . . . It has to reflect authentic minority voices.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson made much the same point at Unity’s final session. He was talking about Time magazine’s decision to darken the mug shot of O.J. Simpson for a recent cover ? a decision made by a small group of editors that included no African-American. But Jackson had a larger point.
“While one of the lessons is a black should be at the table,” he said, “he or she should not have to pay the price of being a de-ethnicized black to be at the table. Because this could have gotten by a de-ethnicized black as well.”
While this discussion resonated through the meeting, executives seemed to stick to figures and percentages. Some newspaper companies, for instance, staged pep rallies of a sort, designed to help retain minority employees who might be tempted by Unity’s huge job fair.
By all accounts these affairs hewed to the same script: lots of talk about new hires and percentages. No talk about drums symbolizing unity.
“It was O.K., and I think they are really trying, but I don’t know. It wasn’t too inspiring,” an African-American woman on a management track said of the Gannett Co. session.
To be sure, some executives did address the bigger issues of diversity. New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., for instance, told the opening session that diversity is “about changing the way we view each other and the way we view the news.”
And not all minority journalists share the same feeling about diversity. New Republic magazine contributing editor Stanley Crouch, an African-American who played the curmudgeon at a session on political correctness, argued that all minority complaints come back to jobs.
“If somebody starts saying, ‘Well, what about the so-and-so [minority group] opinion?’ you can be pretty sure they’ll tell you there is somebody you can hire,” Crouch said.
“This audience doesn’t give you the impression that black people are excluded from journalism, that Hispanics, that women are excluded . . . . In these discussions, there always come the comment, ‘We’re tired of???,’ and the ‘We’re tired of’ is usually connected to a raise or a change in responsibility,” Crouch added.
Still, that theme was little pursued at Unity ’94. The rhetoric, at least, was about cooperation.
At the opening session of the National Association of Black Journalists ? the group that dwarfed the other three and the one with the most clout ? president Dorothy Gilliam called NABJ the “older sister” with a duty to reach out and protect the other minority associations.
“We are a family,” she said, soon after the Divine Music Ministries choir had sung the African-American anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
“We’ve always been a family. But at this convention, this family will grow and grow and grow.”