I’ll never forget the day the publisher spotted me as I was returning to my desk after lunch. She dressed me down in the middle of the newsroom, with more than a few of my colleagues within earshot. She scolded me for a column I had written, upset that I had once again upset a core portion of our mostly white, conservative readership.
I took it. I said nothing but later told my wife to expect me to be fired any day and made sure my resume was up-to-date. It didn’t matter that I was an award-winning veteran in the newsroom by then and the reason many readers said they subscribed to the paper.
Nor will I forget that an influential, white businessman met with my editors when I was covering real estate. He was upset by an article I had written about his having lost a lawsuit. I was biased against him because he was white, he claimed. I was black like the couple who had won the suit, he told them.
He didn’t know that I didn’t know the couple was black because I had written the story by interviewing their attorney and using court documents.
That meeting resulted in a non-correction correction that allowed him to tell his side of the story – even though he had declined comment when I reached his office before the story was published. Then he was given space to write a 20-inch piece on our Op-Ed page calling me out by name.
My editors never sat me down to explain why I hadn’t been invited to a meeting about my work or why I wasn’t consulted on any of the decisions they made about it. I was a young reporter who didn’t know his voice mattered inside the newsroom.
As I was fact-checking my forthcoming book, “Why Didn’t We Riot?: A Black Man in Trumpland,” slated for release in October, I contacted that former publisher and a handful of my editors and supervisors, all of them white. I wanted to ensure I wasn’t exaggerating those incidents, and several others, that had nearly driven me out of the industry.
Here’s what I found: My editors barely remembered incidents I won’t ever forget, while that former publisher stopped returning my messages.
There have been plenty of recent stories about this country’s racial reckoning seeping into newsrooms. Young black journalists are being bold and defiant in Pittsburgh. Journalists at The New York Times openly and passionately expressed their disagreement with a decision to publish a controversial column. Axios is allowing its journalists to participate in protests. Executives at outlets such as ABC News are being put on leave while investigated for a history of toxic comments.
Journalists of color took to Twitter to tell stories from inside the industry they’ve long felt compelled to silently endure.
The trend has disturbed many journalists who have a traditional view of our craft. I’ve even seen some describe it as a moral panic and the end of objectivity or journalism itself.
I don’t agree with them. It’s a long overdue corrective and one of the healthiest movements to occur within our industry in a long time. It will answer whether editors, supervisors, and executives actually believe diversity is an invaluable, indispensable journalistic tool or whether talk of it has long been little more than window dressing to make us look better on spreadsheets and in comparison to other industries we frequently scold for not being diverse enough. It means they’ll be forced to answer why our industry has never been able to achieve its diversity goals; is more likely to spill barrels of ink to report on brown-skinned terrorists than white ones; has so frequently associated crime with dark skin; and treats women politicians more harshly than men.
How can an industry which purportedly cherishes “objectivity” so consistently produce such uneven results on such important topics? We don’t like to admit it, but how we’ve been doing our job has even affected the criminal justice system in ways that have hurt society’s most vulnerable.
The reckoning we may finally be facing will be painful for a lot of longtime journalists, particularly those who’ve never asked themselves what should be obvious questions. Why have we so consistently preached one thing but produced another? Could it be on purpose? Or because of neglect? Or maybe an arrogance born of the belief that there is only one right way of doing what we do, and that way just happened to be established by white men during the height of this country’s most painful spasms of blatant segregation, and the rest of us felt compelled to adopt?
What we are witnessing isn’t an attempt by journalists I’ve seen derisively referred to as “the wokes” to squash dissent, dump the principle of objectivity or supposedly to rewrite history. It’s about making our craft better. It’s about ensuring voices that have been marginalized for far too long no longer will be. It’s about exposing the lie that what we’ve been doing all these decades has really been “objective,” as though the perspectives and backgrounds of the mostly white editors and executives who control so many media outlets have never affected coverage. It’s about being more accurate and fairer, not less.
Questioning whether an incendiary idea from an already-polarizing high-profile U.S. senator in the middle of nationwide unrest would be better handled by the news side, which can provide broader context and deeper fact checking, than on the Op-Ed page is a legitimate journalistic endeavor, not an attempt to create a “safe space” for black journalists.
Those kinds of debates will make us better when every voice in the newsroom is heard rather than a significant minority being muffled.