Confronting racism within the press 

June 5, 2020

On Wednesday, nine days after police killed George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis, anti-racist protests continued in cities and towns around the word, and Glamour magazine heard from eight women journalists of color—including CNN’s Abby Phillip; Errin Haines, of The 19th; and Marissa Evans, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The journalists spoke about “reporting while Black.” They described the physical threats and emotional trauma involved in covering moments like this, the need for self-care, and the long-term media-industry biases that hinder their work, including racist notions of “objectivity” and colleagues ignoring Black reporters’ concerns and expertise. “There’s only so much harm to Black people that I can see in the field, through a lens, or on a screen before I begin to feel that I’m unraveling,” Antonia Hylton, of NBC News, said. “I wake up anxious—not just about what might happen in the news, but also about the private worries that I might have to find a way to compartmentalize or suppress in order to do my job.”

Since Floyd’s death, many other journalists of color have published similar testimonies. A week ago, Patrice Peck—a freelance writer who recently launched a newsletter, Coronavirus News for Black Folks, at the intersection of race and the pandemic—wrote, in an op-ed for the New York Times, that “investment in black journalists is critical, not only through equitable compensation for our contributions, but also in addressing burnout, layoffs and mental wellness, particularly among those of us who keep on keeping on.” Over the weekend, L.Z. Granderson wrote, for the LA Times, that journalism schools don’t offer courses on “managing your mental health when you are repeatedly reflected in gut-wrenching stories.” Amanda Barrett, a senior editor at the Associated Press, wrote of her anger at having to “explain, again and again, how dehumanizing this all is.” On Monday, Shamarria Morrison—a reporter with WPSD, an NBC affiliate in Kentucky—wrote on Twitter that she had given up her “rights to opinions to tell your stories.” She added, “Please know we are in our newsrooms giving context and educating our colleagues.” Yesterday, Jimmie Briggs wrote, for Vanity Fair, that he feels “unmoored as never before. As a journalist, a middle-aged black man, and a father, I have reluctantly reached a place at which I’ve long fought against arriving: giving up on ‘America.’”

Related: New York Times public editor: Sen. Cotton’s op-ed was dishonest, not only reprehensible

These messages (CNN’s Brian Stelter collated many similar pieces) have highlighted that newsrooms still are nowhere near diverse enough, particularly in the upper ranks, and that top editors too often make major mistakes when it comes to covering race. This week, we’ve seen concrete examples of that—and of Black staffers pushing back. According to Pittsburgh City Paper, management at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—a paper that, in 2018, ran an unsigned editorial comparing the use of the word “racism” to McCarthyism—pulled Alexis Johnson, a Black reporter at the paper, from covering protests in the city, after she posted a (perfectly innocuous) tweet that editors considered to be biased. The union that represents Post-Gazette staffers notified its members of Johnson’s treatment, demanded that she be reinstated to protest coverage, and suggested that the union would pursue (so far unspecified) legal action.

Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a piece about damage caused by the protests under the headline “Buildings matter, too”—a shocking equivocation of architecture and human life. On Wednesday, dozens of staffers of color wrote their management expressing frustration; “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age,” they said. Yesterday, more than thirty of those staffers called in “sick and tired” and refused to work; according to HuffPost, seven staffers instituted a byline strike, meaning they refused to have their name appended to their work. (Management, for its part, issued a public apology for the headline and stated that it wouldn’t make staffers use an official day off for their strike.)

And then there’s the Times. On Wednesday, its opinion section published an inflammatory and inaccurate piece in which Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican of Arkansas, argued—under the headline “Send in the troops”—that the US military should be deployed against protesters. Many Times staffers voiced public objections, tweeting, “Running this puts Black @nytimes staff in danger”; internally, more than 800 employees signed a letter of protest. James Bennet, the editor of the Times’s opinion section, defended the op-ed—even though, as the news desk of the Times reported last night, he hadn’t read the piece prior to publication. (Bari Weiss, a controversial columnist for the Times, defended the decision to publish the op-ed in a Twitter thread that slammed “wokes” in the newsroom; Weiss’s colleagues said she mischaracterized the dynamics of the office.) By yesterday afternoon, the paper did a screeching U-turn; a spokesperson acknowledged that the op-ed “did not meet our standards” and that the opinion desk would review its editorial processes going forward. The spokesperson hinted that fact-checking failures and a high volume of submissions were responsible for the op-ed’s appearance. That may be the case, but the vocal stand taken by Black Times journalists and many of their colleagues was surely influential in reversing the official stance. (Today, Bennet; Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor; and A.G. Sulzberger, its publisher, are set to face staff at a town hall.)

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Far too many powerful people in media approach racism as a bias, or one side of an argument, rather than as a condition of life. Newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white, and that comes at a cost to the quality of coverage. In her contribution to Glamour’s package, Haines, who has written for CJR about the importance of the race beat, addressed what a dearth of Black voices means for journalism. “This is not just about our feelings,” she said. “This is about telling the most transparent truth that we can about America. One of the tenets of journalism is to afflict the comfortable. Well, white people are too comfortable in America. And if we are not pointing that out and showing people the disparities and being honest about and clear out about those disparities, then things are not going to be different.”

Below, more on journalists of color, and this week:

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, two medical journals, The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, retracted high-profile studies on medications for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Both studies relied on data from Surgisphere, a private company that was called into question post-publication; Surgisphere had refused to cooperate with auditors. The Lancet’s study—which went further than others in asserting the dangers of using chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID patients—led the World Health Organization and several countries to suspend clinical trials. (Despite the retraction, safety concerns persist around the use of the drugs.)
  • Also yesterday, the Senate confirmed Michael Pack, a right-wing documentarian and ally of Steve Bannon, as head of the United States Agency for Global Media, the body that oversees state-funded broadcasters including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Democrats opposed Pack’s appointment—because he is under investigation for allegedly embezzling funds from a nonprofit, and because Trump reportedly wants Pack to politicize USAGM’s broadcasters, which are supposed to be editorially independent. (Trump has called Voice of America’s coverage “disgusting.”)
  • Last weekend, Ben Smith, of the Times, reported that CNBC may start airing right-wing talk shows in prime time. Joe Pompeo, of Vanity Fair, confirmed that the network is weighing the idea, but isn’t sure how seriously. Pompeo reports that right-wing talk shows would be hard to sell to CNBC’s advertisers and editorial staff; the latter “are keen for the network to remain a down-the-middle business-news operation.”
  • Starting next week, Facebook will label the posts of various state-controlled media outlets—including CCTV and Xinhua, in China, and RT and Sputnik, in Russia—to identify them as government propaganda. To begin with, the labels will be visible only to people in the US. In the immediate run-up to the election, Facebook will ban these outlets from running ads in the US.
  • This morning, the BBC appointed Tim Davie as its new director general, replacing Tony Hall, who announced his intention to step down earlier this year. Davie has been the head of BBC Studios, which is responsible for monetizing BBC programming internationally; in his new role, he’ll have to confront challenges to defend the BBC’s public-funding model against a hostile Conservative-led government.
  • And Piers Morgan and Rudy Giuliani had a screaming match on British breakfast TV. Morgan called Giuliani “completely barking mad”; Giuliani mocked Morgan for the implosion of his TV career in the US. You can watch the whole interview here.

ICYMI: The Story Has Gotten Away from Us

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.