A blistering memo and revolving door of directors: NABJ’s history of conflict

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On the eve of its annual convention, the National Association of Black Journalists, the nation’s largest minority journalism organization, has named a new executive director, thereby, perhaps, dodging another bullet.

For the fifth time in eight years, the association has a new executive director. Drew Berry was named to direct daily operations, days before the start of the group’s annual convention this week in Detroit, expected to attract some 3,000 journalists and guests. Berry’s appointment follows a bruising controversy involving the previous director, a feud that is almost certain to linger in Detroit this week.

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Berry’s predecessor, Sharon Toomer, was named amid much fanfare last September. She resigned—officially—less than a year later following a blistering memo she wrote in April criticizing NABJ’s leadership.

Toomer accused NABJ leaders of being arrogant, meddlesome, and unprofessional, and suggested that the body’s board of directors needed outside help “to facilitate the necessary organizational turnaround.” Such charges are not new and have been made repeatedly by members and leaders in the past. (Disclosure: I should know. I have been affiliated with NABJ since its founding in 1975 and involved in many of its activities.)

Toomer wrote that since assuming the top job, “I have witnessed and observed conduct toward staff, members and even fellow board members that are disruptive, destructive and a disservice to the mission, necessity and value to this nonprofit organization,” adding that “undermining tactics and backbiting” create “an environment where a lack of trust is pervasive, effectively compromising systems and infrastructure integrity throughout all organizational operations.”

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And, she aimed this zinger at board members whom she accused of failing to address the problems: “It is my assessment based on first-hand experience and observation, that the board is not self-aware enough to recognize its own flaws or its contribution to perpetuating a profoundly troubled culture. Or, as bad, the board may recognize the cultural deficiency and not think it is an albatross around progress, or they are either intimidated by an individual board member’s authority and don’t want to poke that authority for fear of retaliation in whatever it takes.”     

Her memo set off a firestorm. There was immediate blowback from past leaders, led by Vanessa Williams, a former NABJ president and a reporter at The Washington Post. In an email to founders and other past presidents, she accused Toomer of acting in “a cowardly way” to undermine leadership, concluding that her actions were “the absolute wrong way to address the very real issues with the governance structure of our organization.”

DeWayne Wickham, another former NABJ president and dean of the Morgan State University School of Global Journalism, wrote that “staff should not be led by a rogue executive director who has sought to heap public humiliation on our organization.” Alternatively, in an appeal for calm, founder Joe Davidson, a Washington Post columnist, called on members to “Please chill. Dial it down. What’s happening is not a mess. It’s a process. Time to grow up, people. Do your job. Stay in your lane. . .” The back-and-forth continued for weeks, until Toomer’s departure on June 22.

Though Berry has been portrayed as a rescuer—and indeed he has been called upon several times in the past to help lift NABJ out of other crises or near-crises—he, too, has criticized the group’s leaders. Last year, Berry sent a four-page letter criticizing NABJ’s operating procedures after he was passed over for the executive director’s position, for which he had applied twice.    

Berry noted that he had problems with some board members and he knocked “NABJ politics,” but emphasized that his work had left the organization with a “record-breaking almost $1.3-million surplus.” Eventually, he left because “I was not going to risk losing the other opportunity because of a politically charged ‘process.’”  

From the beginning, the group founded to fight racism in journalism has suffered from infighting. The current dustup is only the most recent following years, even decades, of internal problems the minority journalism organization faced, and overcame. Indeed, NABJ was formed in 1975 after several futile attempts by the few black journalists who had integrated the newsrooms of the nation’s white daily media companies, along with those in the always-beleaguered black press. In the decades since, NABJ has survived serious funding and financial crises and frequent staff changes and turnover, often as a result of board interference that sometimes bordered on harassment.

Over the years, the organization has been run by journalists, but eased regulations eventually allowed people from other professions to become associate members. The membership has changed significantly, from the veterans of the beginning to young aspiring professionals more attuned to the fast pace of new media—to the consternation of some older leaders concerned about the negative impact of the changes on the craft. Founder Joel Dreyfuss, whose career included stints at the New York Post and The Washington Post, now retired and living in Paris, lamented the altered atmosphere. He says NABJ grew out of efforts to support Earl Caldwell, the New York Times reporter who fought attempts to force him to turn over his notes on coverage of the Black Panthers at a trial of the group’s leaders, and to assist the Congressional Black Caucus’s hearings on racism in the media.  

“Unfortunately, the initial militancy of NABJ was compromised once we began to depend on mainstream news organizations to finance our conventions,” he says via e-mail. “It was hard to critique the hand that feeds you. The conventions also became the raison d’etre of NABJ, with a focus on jobs and flashy programming.”

However, he concludes, “I have toned down my criticisms since then, realizing that the growth and de-politicization was probably inevitable. However, I miss the analysis and the pressure on publishers and broadcasters to do better.”

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Paul Delaney is an award-winning reporter, editor, and journalism educator. He worked for 23 years at The New York Times, and was a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists.