For minority reporters, a question of bias

July 30, 1999|By John Leo

WHEN UNITY '99, a national convention of nonwhite journalists ("journalists of color"), drew more than 6,000 people to Seattle this month, it was a strong show of force for the diversity movement.

Famous editors showed up to pay tribute to the cause and to compete in a recruiting blitz for minority reporters. Famous corporations funded lavish events and perks, referred to by irreverent convention-goers as "PC payola." But almost none of the doubts about Unity '99 and the huge impact of the diversity movement on journalism managed to get voiced.

For instance, is it really a good idea for professional associations to organize themselves by pigmentation? If it is, what objection can then be raised to a whites-only association of journalists?

When Vanessa Williams of the Washington Post, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, was asked by a waiter, "So are there any organizations for white journalists?" she told him: the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

But these mainstream groups, far from devoting themselves to white interests, are already deeply devoted to (or mired in) the diversity movement. ASNE is one of the few associations in the country publicly committed to a minority quota in its industry: 38.2 percent minorities in journalism by 2025.

How did diversity get shrunk down to Unity '99's four groups of journalists --Asian-Americans, blacks, Hispanics and American Indians -- most of whom vote the same way and have similar social and political opinions.

Richard Harwood of the Washington Post wrote in 1994 about ASNE's pinched version of diversity: "No consideration was given to ideological, philosophical, or partisan diversity, or to issues of class. It was not their intent to seed the labor force with Marxists, socialists, monarchists, anarchists, or Southern Baptists or to achieve a liberal-conservative balance."

Other diversity issues

The opportunity for intellectual and ideological diversity, he wrote, was lost. Five years later, it is still lost, and all but forgotten.

If the four groups of nonwhite journalists organize around a diversity agenda, how can their editors expect them to cover diversity issues fairly and objectively.

The conventiongoers talked sometimes like journalists, sometimes like activists. Indian journalists talked about their need to protect tribal rights, and one panel celebrated "our" victories -- legal wins for Indian causes. A listing for one panel said participants would "discuss sexism, racism and ethnic bias embedded in the coverage of the 1996 welfare law."

Was this a neutral attempt to report examples of prejudice or an announcement that minority journalists are expected to realize that coverage of welfare reform was deeply biased?

The tone of the convention seemed the same as that of the NAACP or any other activist group on the left.

"The fatal flaw of Unity '99 was its unspoken mandate of strict political conformity," wrote Michelle Malkin, columnist for the Seattle Times. "Ignore the smoke-screen platitudes about `valuing differences.' Unity demands unanimity.

Ms. Malkin is of Filipino descent, but she refuses to join race-based groups such as the Asian American Journalists Association because she wants to be judged by her ideas and idiosyncrasies, not her skin color or heritage.

Anti-Bush sentiment

The political conformity of Unity '99 was clear enough. Texas Gov. George W. Bush got sour comments for not planning to attend, so he changed his schedule, showed up at Unity '99, made a whirlwind tour of the convention, and got negative comments for not staying longer.

Vice President Al Gore, on the other hand, got a wildly positive reception with "cheering, hooting, and salivating you'd expect at a campus rally," according to Ms. Malkin. (Note: Reporters are not supposed to cheer for public figures they might have to cover.)

The connection between minority journalism and minority activism is a potentially dangerous one for the news business. Identity politics now hovers over the newsroom, and a basic principle of identity politics is that all members of each racial group share a common perspective, which should pervade their work. If so, don't journalists' groups based on ethnicity inevitably work to enforce a common groupthink?

News consumers have to believe they are getting the straight truth, not stories massaged to advance a cause. The news business is still ignoring the downside of diversity in the newsroom -- a confusion over allegiances and the shrinking of diversity down to four designated groups. How long can the business look the other way?

Columnist John Leo wrote this for U.S. News and World Report magazine.

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