What Do Black Journalists Want?

On the sluggish employment and slow promotion of nonwhite media workers

Context clues: In 1968, the Kerner Commission report highlighted failings of the American media in covering the fight for racial equity. Gilliam, one of two Black graduates in the Columbia Journalism School class of 1961, reported for CJR in the May/June 1972 issue on the struggle to address racism in newsrooms.

They sat shoulder to shoulder in the crowded Congressional Black Caucus hearings, those black reporters, nodding affirmatively if the brother who was speaking was voicing their belief. They shifted restlessly if the witness bogged down in rhetoric. For their standards are high, these black men and women in the white media, and they have a high degree of frustration.

At the March 6-7 session the reporters heard Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus’ hearings on the mass media, saying the media were “acting to perpetuate institutionalized racism.” No one knows more than these reporters that what they say or do not say in the media has ramifications for black people far beyond the utterances of blacks in some other white institution. For the media help determine the self image of blacks—and how does a bright, sensitive person reconcile getting his bread from the same source that keeps its foot on his brother’s neck? Like the black community, the black journalist is excluded, mishandled, and exploited by the media.

Of course, it rarely comes down as blatantly as that. Few out-and-out bigoted media managers exist, but as Warren E. Howard, an international vice president of the Newspaper Guild and the first black to serve on the Guild’s International Executive Board in the union’s thirty-eight-year history, testified:

We most often face publishers tied to a system which they cannot or will not recognize as racist in its employment practices and procedures. It is the system that says, “who me? I don’t discriminate. I hire without regard to race, sex, creed, color, etc. In fact, I’ll hire the first graduate of a properly accredited journalism school who walks in the front door the next time there’s an opening and asks for a job. And I’ll do it without regard to race, sex, etc.” In fact, from some publishers that . . . would come out, “I’ll hire the next person with a master’s degree and one semester toward his doctorate that walks in the door and convinces me that he or she is qualified to be the next chairman of the board, without regard to . . . ”

The fact is that for editors and publishers, the bloom is off when it comes to hiring and promoting nonwhite reporters. For some, it never was otherwise. The history of the media up to the black rebellions of the mid-Sixties indicates where most publishers stood on the issue.

Before 1954, there was near-total neglect of the black community—as well as black journalists—unless the story dramatized some sensational aspect, by and large crime. After the 1954 Supreme Court decision, when the struggle for civil rights equality escalated, the white media helped to make known the wrongs, although they often misinterpreted what they heard and misrepresented what they saw. Then came the riots, and rebelling blacks—fired with the pent-up injustices of long years—roamed their neighborhoods, burning largely the white- and black-owned businesses that had bled them economically. Here was a new phenomenon: white reporters were chased away when they showed up. Obviously newspapers had to have some black faces. Black copyboys and messengers, even, became instant reporters during that period. And most metropolitan newspapers, wire services, and TV stations started taking the hiring of black professionals seriously—more or less.

In the wake of those rebellions, in 1968 the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) reported that its “major concern with the news media is not in riot reporting as such, but in the failure to report adequately on race relations and ghetto problems and to bring more Negroes into journalism.” It added:

In defining, explaining, and reporting this broader, more complex, and ultimately far more fundamental subject, the communications media, ironically, have failed to communicate. They have not communicated to the majority of their audience, which is white, a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of living in the ghetto. They have not communicated to whites a feeling for the difficulties and frustrations of being a Negro in the United States. . . . If the media are to comprehend and then to project the Negro community, they must have the help of Negroes.

In the intervening years, white illiberalism has grown, the civil rights movement has died, and large segments of the population are in a touchy mood. And newspapers—reflecting this conservatism as well as the economic recession—have lost their enthusiasm for hiring blacks. Some have delayed fulfilling promises to upgrade blacks already on their staffs. And the press has continued to concentrate primarily on conflicts at a time when black power and unity have become black-community themes, and antibusing and Law and Order, whites’ themes.

Caught in the dilemma is the black professional in the general media. However you view it, he has problems. He is penned into a situation where whites, refusing to see that they have as great a stake as he in racial harmony in the U.S., push all “racial” stories upon him, all the while doubting his “objectivity.” Or, on the other hand, he shies away from these stories altogether and festers quietly, seeing himself—literally—misrepresented. Further, the black community, which has been burned so often that it is crusty, often doesn’t trust him. Nor does it grasp the hierarchical gamut the black reporter must run to get news about the black community into print.

I can identify readily with the dilemma, although my own case spanned only part of that developing period of the black journalist on the white newspapers. I came along before the urban insurrections but the handwriting was already on the wall. When I graduated cum laude from Lincoln University at Jefferson City, Mo., in 1957, I applied at my hometown daily, the Louisville Times. I was told no vacancies existed or were anticipated, and I was not encouraged to apply for future reference. So I went to work for the black press until I could get “white” credentials: a degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I was one of two black people in the School’s Class of 1961. Within a month, after a trip to Africa, I had two offers from major papers, one of them the Louisville Times. I chose the Washington Post, which then had a couple of other black reporters on the city staff. Before long, two of us were stacked up behind a lone white reporter writing about welfare and poverty. The senior black reporter on the staff endured being passed over for the Planning beat five times, then left.

Today, eleven years later, the number of black reporters at the Post has risen to thirteen—highest of any U.S. daily—yet frustrations have not subsided. In March, in fact, seven black members of the Post’s metropolitan reporting staff filed suit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging the paper with racial discrimination. Before the seven did so, nearly all the newspaper’s black staff members signed a letter to the newspaper’s management, saying in part:

Nine members of the editorial staff . . . wrote you with a list of twenty questions concerning the qualitative and quantitative contribution that black people are being allowed to make in the newsroom and on the pages of the Washington Post. They asked why . . . so few black journalists have been given the opportunity to advance to some of those positions from which key decisions are made regarding the day-to-day handling of the news. We write now because we wish to make certain the heart of the issue is not obscured by a debate around the narrower question of precisely what that numerical participation ought to be. . . . 

 . . . black Americans are painfully aware of the lack of participation in the writing of the story of America in a time of change. We could not insist that all matters relative to blacks be written and reported by blacks, anymore than we could countenance the writing of all stories about women by women, all Catholics by Catholics, or all whites by whites. But the lack of black participation in the shaping of the news about the society in which they play so vital a role has led to unfortunate distortions of the basic posture of the community on such vital questions as crime in the streets and the busing of schoolchildren. The complexity of those issues has been masterfully distorted by politicians for political ends in ways that reflect almost nothing of the stake of the black community in those vital questions.

What they might have added—or spelled out more clearly—is that they are, in effect, party to the media’s distortion. “They use you, man!” one top black reporter remarked in an outburst before a group of black journalism students recently, “and when you get out there—way out there—they often don’t back you up.”

These were some of the intensifying aggravations which—combined with the idealistic conviction of some that blacks must be black and unified first and communicators second—prompted a group of Howard University students to organize a National Black Communications Conference in March. So it was with some disgruntlement that they heard Muhammad Speaks editor Joseph Woodford caution them not to naïvely think that communicators create revolutions.

Throughout the Howard conference, March 3-4, the question whether one could work in the “white” media and at the same time contribute to black progress was a major concern. But at Black Caucus hearings, working professionals engaged much harder issues. Nearly all echoed the line taken by Chairman Clay that “the black media worker and the black movement are grossly excluded, distorted, mishandled, and exploited by the white-controlled news media.”

Tony Brown, dean of Howard University’s School of Communications and executive producer of Black Journal, charged that “the traditional use of mass communications in this country has been for the purpose of oppressing nonwhites and entertaining whites.” The result, he said, was the perpetuation of present racial attitudes. “Racism in television has grave ramifications in psychological terms,” he added, and he cited statistics that more than 95 percent of 60 million U.S. homes have TV sets, 55 percent of 200 million Americans depend on TV for their news, blacks watch 33 percent more TV than whites, and more than 40 percent of black children believe what they see on TV. “These statistics merely point out the rapid rate of self-hatred rained upon blacks by television,” Brown said.

Ethel Payne, Washington correspondent for the Sengstacke Publications, criticized the “inaccessibility” of the President to black reporters, charging that President Nixon has “favorites” among the Hill regulars who are given exclusive interviews and that “no such privilege has ever been given a black or minority reporter; nor has the opportunity to question him during a formal press conference arisen.”

Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) strongly criticized the Federal Communications Commission for its apparent lack of concern over the hiring policies in the broadcast industry. She cited Equal Employment Opportunity Commission figures that in the newspaper industry, only 4.2 percent of employees are black. In the professional class—the reporters—only 1.5 percent are black. The FCC still has not compiled the reports submitted last May on racial and sexual composition of work forces in radio-TV.

William Wright, national coordinator of Black Efforts for Soul in Television (BEST), called upon the Black Caucus to support legislation that would both decentralize media ownership and abet ownership by groups broadly representative of the communities in which they would operate. He noted that blacks currently own none of the 906 TV stations, and only 2 percent of the 7,000 radio stations in America.

Wright also noted that there now are thirteen bills in the House of Representatives that would make it virtually impossible for blacks or community-oriented groups to challenge stations seeking license renewals. Ironically, the FCC, which is responsible for overseeing the broadcast industry, also favors such legislation. He charged that the FCC’s “proposed rules would have the effect of racially restricting the media,” and concluded that blacks must move now toward cable TV in order to express their views and culture.

Ernest Dunbar, writer and former senior editor of Look, detailed the case of Earl Caldwell, the black New York Times reporter who is currently fighting a subpoena obtained by a California federal grand jury that was to investigate the Black Panther Party. “Since it was obvious to black newsmen,” said Dunbar, “that Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Kleindienst, and other Nixon aides seemed to feel that the Constitution was but a frail impediment to implementing what the Administration was ‘hustling’ as Law and Order, and since so-called media radicals were clearly a Nixon target, we expected that black reporters would soon be feeling the heat.”

But it was the continuing stereotyped sensation-negative-criminal image that upset L.F. Palmer Jr., Chicago Daily News columnist and commentator. “It’s easier to get a piece in on the Panthers or a street gang than on a block club or community news,” he said, adding that there was little opportunity for black reporters to deal in depth and detail with basic issues which affect black people. “There’s no commitment to put the black man in honest perspective.” By the time a story runs the gamut of white editors, he said, often it is “laundered if not eliminated.”

The Caucus was told of more than one top reporter who, refusing to be “laundered,” was eliminated. Take the case of Samuel F. Yette. Yette was hired on Jan. 1, 1968, by Newsweek as a Washington correspondent. He had already worked on four newspapers and two magazines. Yette had appeared on Meet the Press several times while on Newsweek. Last Christmas Eve he was fired, six months after publication of his book, The Choice: The Issue of Black Survival in America. In it he documents how and why he feels the Government has, in the Seventies, acquired the psychic capability for mass black repression—even genocide. Yette has filed racial discrimination suits against the magazine with both the District of Columbia Human Relations Commission and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case is now pending.

Cases like Yette’s often grow out of accumulated small aggravations—and they are what finally send many black reporters packing. One example is the taping that Don Alexander wanted to do. Alexander was an award-winning reporter for WTTG-TV, the Metromedia station in Washington. He co-anchored the weekend news and helped to conceive and concurrently co-anchor Black News, a shoestring operation for which, as one staff member said, “We can’t get camera crews to cover things we feel are relevant to the black community.” An incident during the same week Yette was fired was the proverbial straw.

Alexander had reserved a time to tape-record an interview with Yette and Tony Brown of Howard University. Less than three hours before the men were due at the studio, however, a news executive told Alexander that the taping time he had reserved had been preempted. The news executive also asserted that the blacks-and-media story had been overdone on Black News. Alexander said it was either the taping or him. Management refused to yield. Alexander is now with WCBS in New York.

Whites have a stake in perpetuating the racial status quo and usually have just as intense a commitment to their perspective as Black people do.

Ironically, these long-simmering frustrations are surfacing at a time when increasing numbers of young blacks are being trained in journalism. Howard University’s School of Communications alone plans to graduate 200 each year by 1976. What is to be their future, given today’s discontent?

Obviously, severe discontent with the news media is not limited to blacks. Many white reporters, editors, and publishers share it. But several elements make the position of black journalists especially perilous—and this is at the heart of the rash of suits and openly voiced frustrations. It seems intolerable that still, in 1972, blacks are so grossly underrepresented numerically in American news media and coverage of the black community is so sketchy and negative; that white editors apply standards to news of blacks that they do not apply to whites; that the story is assigned by a white assignment man, judged by a white editor, and read by a white copy desk and news editor. If it is “hot,” it goes to the managing editor; if “red hot,” it goes even higher. All these decisions are made almost totally by whites.

It is true that a black newsman sometimes must assume the added burden of weighing the loyalty of the black cause against his professional commitment. Yet if there were more black reporters reflecting not only the broad spectrum of views in the black community, but also “conveying the truest picture” of what transpires, such tragic stances as those described in a recent Wall Street Journal article would not prevail. In an essay entitled THE BLACK REPORTERS’ DILEMMA [March 23], WSJ correspondent Jonathan R. Laing lamented that many black reporters feel inhibited from “telling it like it is” about black leaders. That certainly is true of some of them. But Laing is from Chicago and should know that one problem is that last year there were only sixteen black editorial employees among 487 in Chicago, so the spotlight is glaringly on them. If the percentage of black reporters and editors more nearly matched the percentage of the nonwhite Chicago population, such a situation would be less likely.

Let me emphasize, however, that I do not think black reporters should cover only “black” stories; white reporters should be sent into black neighborhoods, too. When publishers discuss not hiring or assigning black reporters and editors because of their “intense commitment to the black movement,” they overlook the fact that whites, just as much as blacks, are involved in the racial struggle. They are the other, necessary, part of the equation. Whites have a stake in perpetuating the racial status quo and usually have just as intense a commitment to their perspective as do blacks.

As Lu Palmer told the Howard student conference, two things must happen to black reporters on white media. First, they must move through the media as advocates for black people. “We must find a way to advocate for blacks as whites have and continue to advocate for whites in the press,” he said. Second, activist black reporters and black congressmen must establish a formal liaison to “hammer out together methods by which we turn white-controlled media into instruments for the advocacy of human rights for all people.” Above all, as Earl Caldwell reminded a group of black students at Columbia, despite the psychic costs of working on the white media, blacks should remember one thing: “It’s important that you be there . . . that is where the power is.”

Caldwell and Palmer are correct; black journalists must continue to fight daily the battles and frustrations built into their jobs. This means sensitizing editors to elevate blacks into positions at every notch of the hierarchy, and pushing to change the behavior and attitudes of their colleagues and the quality of their product. Yet realistically, there is a point beyond which the white-owned media will not venture. And for those black reporters whose ideology won’t permit them to work for the general press, there must be a role in the black press.

By and large, the black press also leaves many blacks disenchanted. As Ernest Dunbar told me, “Black newspapers are subject to the same economic pressures from advertisers as are whites, and they can’t pay reporters.” Then there are the traditionally conservative publishers who, while sensing the need for change, have not found the tools to become more relevant. Now, however, advertising is opening up and a few top-quality magazines have shown that the $30 million Black Market can be tapped. This offers an unprecedented opportunity to remodel and renew the black press.

I would like to see a group of bright, young black journalists acquire a fading black newspaper anywhere and dedicate it to tough, interpretative, in-depth reporting. If blessed with sophisticated techniques, it would be read. But the line need not be drawn at newspapers. Public TV also offers an opportunity for trained men and women to develop a top station and use it as a powerful instrument.

Ben H. Bagdikian, writing recently in the Washington Post about the black reporters who are now suing that newspaper, emphasized that remedying the disproportionately small share of blacks in institutional and social decisionmaking in American society will require an acceleration of hiring, promoting, and on-the-job training—not a new concept. He added:

And there is no question that to this degree it diminishes the chances for the black’s white counterpart. It is, in a sense, unfair to this generation of whites, the same kind of unfairness that was visited on young blacks for ten generations. But sooner or later someone is going to have to pay the moral dues of 300 years of a racial caste system that is destructive of the heart of this society. This is the generation that has been chosen to pay those dues. But let no one think that it is only whites who pay; the young blacks engaged in the struggle pay emotional costs that destroy some of them.

He is right. But one wonders how long white reporters of our generation or any other would stand idly by while blacks are given what has been narrowly construed as preferential treatment. Some black journalists like Yette who feel that the very survival of blacks is threatened in this technological age have given up on the white-owned press and feel the only hope is the black press. If he and the other top black journalists who concur are correct, then the Kerner Commission’s forecast of a break between the two societies will become reality.

Now more than ever, it is imperative that publishers look hard at this problem in the broader light of social justice, and make hiring and promoting of blacks a top-priority objective. Only in this way can their perspective on writing the story of America in a crucial time of change be duly recorded, and, more important, their influence be more widely felt.

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Dorothy Gilliam was the first African-American female reporter, columnist, and editor at the Washington Post. She began her career as a reporter for the Memphis Tri-State Defender, a Black weekly, where she covered the integration of Little Rock Central High. A former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, she was inducted into the Society of Professional Journalists’ Hall of Fame in 2002.

TOP IMAGE: Dorothy Butler Gilliam in Washington, DC, 1961; Harry Naltchayan / The Washington Post via Getty Images