Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran may owe the Congressional Black Caucus for helping him beat back a tea party challenger in his state’s primary last month, but journalists have the Associated Press’ Jesse Holland to thank for breaking the news last month in the first place.
As a race and ethnicity reporter at the AP, the tale of mostly Democratic black voters helping a Republican incumbent keep his job is just the kind of story Holland was hired to uncover. If the AP didn’t have someone specifically watching for these type of stories, then the Cochran affair might not have gotten covered, Holland said.
He broke the story not by relying on local reporters closely following the behavior of black voters in the GOP primary, because no other reporters were actually doing that. Several had noticed advertisements in two of the state’s black newspapers, but no one knew who was behind them. “I picked up the phone and called the black newspaper and asked who placed the ad,” Holland said. “I’m not sure why no one else thought to do that.”
Holland spoke with the publisher of one of the black newspapers, who not only gave him the name of the man who paid for the ad, but also the advertiser’s cellphone number. Holland went from there, calling one person after the next, including the advertiser. He passed along information to the statehouse reporter about the political action committee behind the ad, which was not registered in state or federal databases. AP’s statehouse reporter only reported the name of the political action committee, while Holland broke the larger story the next day.
“It’s not as if there aren’t local reporters who aren’t looking at these same things, but, once again, it’s in my job description,” Holland said. “There used to be a lot of race and ethnicity reporters around the nation—their numbers have decreased. Hopefully there is a resurgence. Hopefully those numbers are going up again. And hopefully, with the increase, stories like this won’t be missed.”
The race beat does indeed seem to be on the rise at mainstream news organizations. As the US becomes a majority minority nation, news executives are grappling with how to cover ethnic groups and the issues they face. For the AP, that meant hiring two race and ethnicity reporters. In February, Holland joined Jesse Washington, who was already on the race beat on the national features writing team; Holland is assigned to the political writing team. The Washington Post launched theRootDC, which was separate from its stand-alone website, theRoot.com, to focus on black communities in the nation’s capital, but later killed the initiative; NPR is currently advertising for a new digital editor for Race, Ethnicity and Social Issues; the role has not yet been filled. And The New York Times moved Tanzina Vega to what was billed as a “new” beat—race and ethnicity.
But the paper had a race beat back in the 1970s and ’80s, called the race and demographics beat at the time. In fact, this growth of race beats isn’t so much a new phenomenon as a resurgence of past practice at US newspapers. Lily-white newspapers first started hiring black reporters in the 1950s and 1960s to cover the civil rights movement in the wake of the 1968 Kerner report, a study of why race riots erupted in 1967, commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson. For the black journalists who were hired, that meant reporting on riots, marches, the Black Panthers, segregation, integration, affirmative action, bus boycotts, church bombings, the fight for black voting rights, and more. Newspaper publishers formally started recognizing race beats around the late 1960s and early ’70s, although by different names. Some called them “minority affairs,” “urban affairs,” or “metropolitan” beats.
“Newsday was early in establishing one of those beats when it got a bunch of reporters in 1969 under publisher Bill Moyers,” recalled Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who became the first “minority affairs specialist” there. “There were about nine of us, reporters who met with Moyers regularly. We wanted someone at Newsday whose sole job was to report black stories. But also to flag other stories for reporters on other beats—sports, for example. At the time there were so few reporters that we needed a dedicated beat, otherwise stories wouldn’t be written about. We needed a stop-gap measure to ensure black news would flow into the normal flow of news.” At the time, Payne said, the paper had trouble filling the beat; several of its black reporters didn’t just want to write “black” stories.