If the 1960s epitomized the modern civil right movements, then the 1980s were the golden age of affirmative action. In the wake of deadly riots and widespread civil disobedience that rocked urban America into near revolution in the earlier decade, diversity—nee affirmative action, integration, desegregation—was seen as the workplace answer to the problems.
Whether from guilt, fear or earnest efforts to correct the damage wreaked by centuries of racism, Americans—well, some of them—went on a tear to repair, even repent. All branches of the federal government, and a few state and local governments, participated in the efforts to turn around the past.
Some major industries and business leaders joined the battle. My own chosen profession, journalism, became intimately involved, chastised over how media could cover the issue, point finger at others, yet not clean their own house. My career at The New York Times switched from reporting and editing to helping the company to become less white and more inclusive.
And it worked. For a while.
I never dreamed my chosen profession would be confronting the exact same racial issues in the 21st century as it did in mid-20th century and earlier periods.
The decade of the 1980s brought more diversity to the Times and most American media than at any point in the nation’s history. It was a tough fight against strong foes, we found: It turned out that all efforts and programs to fight and reduce racial discrimination in the workplace faced interminable resistance that rendered questionable results.
I cite my career in journalism, particularly my work in affirmative action, as living example of the contortions that the battles to break down racial and racist barriers have gone through the past few decades. I, for one, never dreamed my chosen profession would be confronting the exact same racial issues in the 21st century as it did in mid-20th century and earlier periods.
An unusually strong, passionate, and poignant reminder of the depth and severity of the problems came in a provocative and sometimes harsh critique of its own diversity efforts published by the Times in December, an article that put the issue squarely back out front, where it belongs, at least for some of us avid supporters and veterans of the long, good fight.
But Times Public Editor Liz Spayd charged that the paper of record has “less diversity than you’ll find in Donald Trump’s cabinet thus far.” She noted, “Of the Times’s newly named White House team, all six are white, as is most everyone in the Washington Bureau.” While the top man in the newsroom, Executive Editor Dean Baquet, is African American, she found only three people of color heading major departments.
Spayd, a veteran journalist and former Washington Post and CJR editor before the Times signed her on, did not stop there:
Metro has only three Latinos among its 42 reporters, in a city with the second largest Hispanic population in the country. Sports has one Asian man, a Hispanic woman and no African Americans among its 21 reporters, yet blacks are plentiful among the teams they cover and the audience they serve. In the Styles section, every writer is white, while American culture is anything but.
She was unsparing in her conclusions, noting that “the whiter the newsroom is, the whiter it will stay.” And, “I can tell diversity isn’t a priority here by looking at what is.” Strong stuff that elicited a rather meek mea culpa from Baquet. She asked him “what he believes minorities in the newsroom would say about his senior team’s dedication to diversity.”
“I think they’d say we have a problem,” he answered. “We’re not diverse enough. But I think they’d say I have a commitment to it and that it’s gotten better in the past year.” Indeed, some of his black staffers agreed with him.
Baquet later reconfirmed his comment when he told Richard Prince, author of the popular and respected online Journal-isms blog, “It’s true.” Since the article appeared, Baquet has made some changes, including adding another African-American reporter to the Washington bureau.
To me, Spayd’s article was a blast from the past. A group of us formed the National Association of Black Journalists in 1976, with the aim of prodding our profession to thoroughly integrate its newsrooms as soon as possible. At the time, our enthusiasm was extremely high, we felt that we were on to something big and good, that we were on the right side of history. We felt empowered, on a righteous mission to lead America in the right direction, to egg it on to finally live up to its promise and principles
We were so naively optimistic back then.
The American Society of Newspaper Editors (now the American Society of News Editors) began keeping records that same year that found the great majority of newsrooms in the country were all-white, with little inclination to change. However, some key white editors were open to opening their doors to us, mostly in big and medium-sized publications and broadcast companies, mainly north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Of course, riots and unrest of the 1960s helped. The media needed us, we felt, if only to get a handle on what was happening in their changing cities.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission on Race, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of urban rioting tearing apart many cities, reported that blacks represented fewer than five percent of newsroom staffers. The Commission also penned remarks that have echoed through the decades, warning that America was rapidly becoming “two nations, black versus white, separate and unequal.” Many believe the statement is as true today as then; others are convinced things are worse.
In 1978, ASNE set a goal of newsroom parity with the percentage of nonwhites in the country by the year 2000. When it became obvious, in 1998, that it would not be reached, the organization extended the time to 2025. Richard Prince and others do not believe even that timeframe will be met. The organization reported that last year that the percentage of minorities in newsrooms stood at 17 percent. Many news officials are embarrassed by the statistics and the slow progress, and some companies have stopped releasing racial data, especially new media and online companies that are accused of being unconcerned about diversity.
Spayd’s December article was a stark reminder of extreme backsliding not only in the media but in most of America in nearly every area; newsroom diversity has been as spotty as race relations in America in general. The future looks as bad as the past, if not worse. She pointed out that at the Times, nonwhites make up 22 percent of the workforce and, “When you ask managers about the issue individually, everyone genuinely seems to care. Collectively, however, not much changes.”
They begin by saying this is an industry-wide problem, not just a New York Times problem. That is true, unquestionably. On the other hand, it’s also true that data from the American Society of News Editors shows that The Times is less diverse than large papers like The Washington Post (31 percent), The Los Angeles Times (34 percent) and The Miami Herald (41 percent). The Times is more diverse than The Boston Globe (17 percent) and The Philadelphia Inquirer (14 percent).
Starting from zero black reporters in the early 20th century (there might have been a daily paper here and there with one black reporter, but the numbers would not have impacted the statistics), 17 percent appears to be great progress. Again, using myself an example, my first daily reporting job was at the Dayton Daily News in 1963. I was its first black reporter—the Ohio city’s other daily, the morning Journal-Herald (both owned by the Cox chain), had hired the first black reporter a few years earlier, but Sam Yette had left to join the Kennedy administration in Washington.
I departed Dayton four years later to join the Washington Evening Star. The traditional practice in many, if not most, newsrooms at the time was to hire one black and when he left, replace him with another. At the Evening Star, when Clarence Hunter quit to work for the federal government, he was replaced by Lawrence Still. When Still followed Hunter into the federal workforce, Star editors replaced him with three of us—Ernest Holsendolph, Paul Hathaway, and myself—but it was not lost on any of us that the city by 1963 was predominantly black and had been for a decade.
By the time I was hired by The New York Times, from the Evening Star in 1969, news managers across America were beating the bushes for black journalists. I was the first and only black reporter in the Washington bureau, until I was transferred to the Chicago bureau, where I also was the only black reporter. And, I became the paper’s first black editor in 1977, joining the national desk as an assistant editor.
My last job at The New York Times, as senior editor, was to help change the color of the staff in the roaring 1980s. Major media companies were in competition for the best nonwhite professionals around. An additional incentive at the Times was an agreement that settled a lawsuit against the paper, filed by minorities, ending court proceedings that began in the early 1970s. Management agreed on a plan to hire, train and promote more nonwhites.
The action at the Times was watched closely by media companies, but just as importantly and with great anticipation, by minority journalists across the country, extremely anxious about their own situations. If the mighty New York Times agreed to an integration plan and actually implemented it, their companies surely would follow. Indeed, that did happen.
The overall effort was led by newly-named publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., who was being groomed to take over from his father. The young publisher took diversity seriously and quickly established an affirmative action committee, which I served on, for the entire company, not just the newsroom. A black woman, Leslie Mardenborough, was committee chair. That effort was responsible for the brief success the company enjoyed.
We increased the numbers of African Americans, Asians, and Hispanics in the newsroom and in other departments, as well as at Times’ properties across the country. The numbers for women hires and promotions were already much greater than ours and growing more rapidly. There was no question, women fared much better than minorities at the paper and in the profession—indeed, across the spectrum of American industry.
(Women at the Times also went to court, on November 7, 1974. They settled four years later, on terms that they, and we, thought were ridiculously low, less than $250,000. They collectively were already in much better shape than we nonwhites; they were in more substantive, higher-paying positions and poised to gain even more. But we accepted each other as allies, and by agreement supported each others’ fights and plight regardless. The women’s case was detailed by my late friend and colleague, Nan Robertson, in her excellent book, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and The New York Times).
Several veteran reporters refused to assist us and act as teachers and mentors to young minority hires and trainees.
Our own efforts were not without bumps from within the paper that caused bruised feelings and occasional friction. A number of white staffers were against the attention devoted to nonwhites after our case was settled, and a few let their sentiments be known. Several veteran reporters, when requested, refused to assist us and act as teachers and mentors to young minority hires and trainees.
Additionally, there was a bit of undercutting and some sabotage by a few editors. I knew that every editor had a list of people, all white, they wanted to hire when they had an opening. Many of us firmly believed that, in general, many white managers did not think that blacks measured up to our white counterparts.
During one hiring freeze at the paper, the executive editor, Max Frankel, made an exception for nonwhites so not to interrupt or interfere with our diversity drive—we continued recruiting, interviewing, and bringing on new people. Some white prospective hires spotted the discrepancy and complained. A few editors told white prospects that they were not hired because of affirmative action. I heard this directly from the horse’s mouth, mostly from young white journalists appalled by the undercutting, as well as a few white manager colleagues who were equally concerned.
The 1980s were a decade of tremendous change in the field and at The New York Times. Longtime executive editor Abe Rosenthal finally retired in 1985 and was replaced by Max Frankel. That process caused much unease, naturally, and some disruption in the newsroom, but the integration programs—more reporters, trainees, summer interns, copy editors, and promotions—continued. In fact, Frankel’s commitment to diversity was much stronger than Rosenthal’s; after all, he had integrated the Washington bureau by hiring me.
At one point, Frankel instituted one-for-one hiring—one minority reporter for each white hired. Some editors fumed; they could not hire favorite whites they had in the pipeline. He ended the policy in frustration when some editors simply stopped adding to their staffs, even though it left them shorthanded. Threats to withhold bonuses, deny pay raises and promotions did not work either; I cannot recall a single occasion where a white editor was so punished.
As the industry’s money woes worsened and new media squeezed out old ad revenues, newspapers felt the brunt of the changes. And one area, diversity, already not too well regarded, suffered immeasurably. As layoffs became more than common, newsrooms began to resemble the old pre-1970s days, as they became whiter and whiter. How bad is the situation? Richard Prince and other monitors complain that many companies nowadays refuse to release information on diversity.
If Liz Spayd found the Times “newsroom’s blinding whiteness hit me when I walked in the door six months ago” that striking, she should have accompanied me on my career path—the loneliness of the one and only. She did, nevertheless, capture the obvious and the nuances of racial prejudice.
Another colleague, Bettye Anne Williams, a former editor at Gannett and longtime keen observer of the profession, said gold-plate outfits such as the Times have special internal problems.
“How can a manager create a nurturing, learning environment, especially at a place like The New York Times, which has a well-deserved reputation for being a snake pit since it represents the top rung of journalism, so that journalists of color will stick around and make their way up the hierarchy? No single editor or individual can do that alone”
She also tackled the possible dilemma of black editors like Dean Baquet who seek to replicate themselves through the “snake pit” that they negotiated successfully.
“Why can’t other black folks swim with the sharks and make their way to shore as he did? I’m speculating, of course….But if you lack confidence in any deviation from the ‘straightforward’ process that led to your own success, you may not be quite as enthusiastic or supportive or protective of those who come along using a different path.”
In addition, Williams raised another question she feels the profession faces over diversity. She commended the Times’ Race/Related project begun last year, but asked, “Should that be called ‘diversity’? And if so, how do you avoid the age-old problem of having ‘diversity’ stories covered by a special subset of journalists, while journalists on select beats steer clear? How do you make diversity a part of every newsroom journalist’s responsibility?”
And, Liz Spayd did not hold her tongue about what she found at the Times: “I can tell diversity isn’t a priority here by looking at what is,” she wrote
“The issue has challenged most every newsroom manager, myself included,” she went on. “The newsroom I came from, The Washington Post, is quite diverse, but its leadership is heavily white and male. At the Times, on the other hand, people of color seem shut out of all sorts of coveted jobs: the top digital strategists, the top managers, the precious ranks of cultural critics, the White House press corps, the opinion columnists, the national politics jobs — all are overwhelmingly white.”
Just as they were when I joined the Times in 1969, only one year after the famous Kerner Report.
To say that I’m disappointed today by the entire situation, not only at The New York Times, but in my chosen profession, is an understatement. However, truth be told, I’m not surprised at all. It’s still a racial and racist thing the nation cannot seem to take hold of nor shake, after all these centuries.
Spayd captured it best when she wrote:
In the past three months, I have interviewed people across the newsroom about the issue of race…I’ve spoken with journalists of all racial and ethnic identities, in jobs high and low; white men and black women, editors and reporters, department heads and news assistants. It left me believing there is a level of frustration bordering on anger that would be institutionally reckless not to address.
Exactly the way we felt when we founded NABJ 40 years ago.