Black journalists debate protest against Wash. state, objectivity Anti-affirmative action measure may spur boycott of Seattle meeting

July 29, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

It's part job fair, part schmooze-fest, part educational forum. And, increasingly, it's part political rally.

As thousands descend on Washington today for the start of the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, many already are looking to next year's gathering in Seattle.

Debate is broiling among many members over whether to boycott that meeting because of Washington state's Initiative 200, a controversial anti-affirmative action bill to be decided in November. An NABJ pullout could undermine the gathering, because the NABJ is the largest organization in the so-called Unity Convention that, every four years, gathers together members of black, Asian, Latino and Native American journalists' associations.

Yesterday, in pre-convention sessions, NABJ officers began discussing a withdrawal, which they will vote on this fall. At the heart of the matter is whether political issues should be debated by an organization that demands fairness and objectivity -- but also was created to increase blacks' presence in America's newsrooms.

"We do stand for objectivity in reporting as any journalists' organization would," NABJ spokesman Debbie Randolph Chase said yesterday. "But we also know clearly that the issue of civil rights and human rights are positions to be taken, pursued and continued even while trying to pursue one's craft and profession."

NABJ President Vanessa Williams of the Washington Post was unavailable for comment yesterday. But in an NABJ newsletter this month, she wrote: "I have repeatedly reminded my colleagues during the past several weeks that many people sacrificed their money, their jobs, even their lives in the struggle against racism and discrimination. Had they blinked there would be no NABJ."

More than 3,000 journalists -- a virtual who's-who of African-American journalism -- are expected to attend the five-day 23rd annual convention at the Washington Convention Center. The gatherings attract such high-profile public figures as President Clinton, who spoke last year and may be a late addition this year, organizers said.

Under the theme "Media and Power: Shaping Our Images," this year's convention roster includes Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Chairman Julian Bond, and John Hope Franklin, chair of Clinton's Race Initiative.

Members are expected to discuss boycotting Seattle, in informal discussions and at a Friday board meeting.

Initiative 200, which is similar to the successful Proposition 209 in California, would eliminate affirmative action for people of color and women in state and local government employment, contracting and college admissions.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is polling its members on the issue. Officials of the Native American Journalists Association voted in June to head to Seattle but also to support affirmative action. The Asian-American Journalists Association has decided to support the meeting as planned "to shed light on the controversial issue," said Benjamin Seto, its president.

In May, the eight-member Unity board voted to keep the convention in Seattle. Williams voted against it, saying she wanted the option to choose another site.

"How [would] we reconcile being so reluctant to take a position on affirmative action in this instance while pushing the news media to be more aggressive in recruiting, hiring and promoting journalists of color?" wrote Williams.

Some critics of that stance question the credibility of NABJ members who might have to cover such bills as Initiative 200.

"I'm kind of old-fashioned -- I think we should try to keep as much distance as possible on issues related to journalism," said Sig Gissler, professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in New York.

But, he added, "You can make a position for this. It does relate to what they [NABJ] are in business to do: create employment opportunities for journalists of color."

Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans comprise 11.46 percent of the nation's 54,700 newsroom employees, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. At The Sun, 17.4 percent of full-time staff are people of color, nearly 13 percent African-American.

Said A. Peter Bailey, a longtime free-lance journalist for black newspapers and an NABJ member, "I am a strong believer in advocacy journalism. I'm just not sure affirmative action generates a lot of response and enthusiasm in the black community. I don't think it should be a throw-down issue."

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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