The First Choice

Illustration: Sonia Pulido

I didn’t set out to become a journalist, but I have always loved language and the power of storytelling. At 6 years old, I wrote and performed a one-woman show, about a vibrant young woman who lived alone and dusted her bookshelves all day with great focus and care; my parents gave it five out of five stars. For a while, I thought I might become a playwright or a screenwriter. (I still think I might.) I lived in a small New Hampshire town where I was the only black person for miles around, and I had an intense desire to not merely know what was going on in the world outside, but to be of that world—and others of my creation. Storytelling was how I could enter, marvel at, and thrive in those worlds.

Every Sunday, my parents would go down to the local grocery store to pick up The New York Times. Unfolding its inky and cumbersome layers, I perused the news stories, but I was drawn most to the texture and nuance of the Arts & Leisure section. I’d delight in the open secret of searching Al Hirschfeld’s theater caricatures for “Nina” (his daughter’s name). Then I’d move on to Style, the magazine, and finally, the Book Review. I interpreted none of this as capital-J journalism, but rather as access to a broader, more astute guide to cultural relevance. The Times was then, oddly, a kind of aspirational genre to me, not in the how, but in the what. 

What I couldn’t have known, or challenged, when I was growing up, was the extent to which the commitment of the Times to “objectivity” upheld America’s status quo. And so, as I read, I was effectively learning to internalize the normalcy, as a black girl in this country, of not being seen. On its own, the meaning of the word objectivity is fairly straight-forward, demonstrating a lack of bias or prejudice. But when paired with journalism, it becomes a matter of priority: the selection of what’s worthy of coverage and whose stories are valuable. Setting priorities requires gatekeepers, and in the field of journalism, gatekeepers were—and still are—disproportionately white men. This worked out pretty nicely if you were a white journalist who wanted to push a white agenda because, in the rules of dyed-in-the-wool journalism, objectivity always was the white agenda. Less convenient for black journalists interested in, say, racial justice or a full representation of black life. To this day, black journalists are too easily dismissed as “race warriors” incapable of distancing ourselves from systemic racism. Meanwhile, choices about what gets covered of the black community too often perpetuate a notion that we are a monolith, connected to the same, singular experience. 

ICYMI: A reporter asked for 20 years of lottery winner data. After analyzing the records, he noticed something unusual.

I went to the University of New Hampshire for three semesters, and while I was there, I wrote for the college newspaper. The school was demographically representative of the state: out of 10,000 students, roughly 33 were black, including me. My editor was white. My pitches for stories about the need for a black student union, the history of black presence on campus, and racial profiling were routinely rejected for not appealing to enough of the student body. But could I do a story on the black students who had defied all odds to attend UNH on basketball scholarships? Or perhaps I’d like to write about my own beleaguered experience in a personal essay? Clearly, to my white editor’s mind, what I was proposing was not journalism—not “objective” reporting—it was personal-interest storytelling.

I finished college across the state line, at Hampshire College, with a degree in literary journalism. By then, I had become enamored of New York magazine and the Clay Felkerian model of literary journalism—intellectually irreverent and lush with humorous insights and experiences. It was called New Journalism, developed in the ’60s and ’70s as a kind of counter to traditional, objective journalism. The writing was provocative and conversational, often the product of extensive interviews and months-long research. It provided an opportunity to be fully ensconced in the rhythm and tenor of its subjects. It was the kind of journalism I longed to pursue.

But it was a paradoxical calling: there were no black writers at New York and seldom any stories that centered black culture. New Journalism, despite being a kind of rebel movement, was steered almost entirely by white men—writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Pete Hamill. Later, Joan Didion and Gloria Steinem were allowed into the club. But whether objective or subjectively objective, capital- or lowercase-J, this journalism consistently demonstrated that it was synonymous with “what matters to white men.” 

I used my college thesis, a collection of single-voice narrative interviews with black women writers, to sign with a book agent. She sold my idea to a major publisher. It seemed I might be on the path to making a dent in the world of New Journalism. But between 1994, when my first book was published, and 2012, I sent probably more than half a dozen cover letters, resumes, writing samples, and references to New York for various writing and editing jobs. Sometimes I would get an interview, most of the time not. I was never hired.

Even if New Journalism offered a better model for black journalists, it has remained largely unwelcoming. This antipathy came on display in 2016, when, during a writers conference, Talese made a comment about not being able to identify any women writers who inspired him. An inevitable Twitter storm ensued, and Talese was dragged for being sexist and tone-deaf by, among others, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Times journalist. In an interview about the event and her comments, Hannah-Jones said that after his talk, Talese had pressed her about how she got her job with the Times. (The following year she would receive the MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “genius grant.”) When the Times covered the controversy, its own struggles with objectivity were laid bare; Talese was quoted calling Hannah-Jones “duplicitous,” which elicited criticism from readers. Dean Baquet, who had become the paper’s first African-American executive editor two years prior, issued a statement on the article. “Nikole was treated unfairly,” he wrote. “Too often, we are clumsy in handling issues of race and gender and this story was another unfortunate example. We have made strides in our coverage and culture, but the best solution is to continue building a more diverse, inclusive newsroom.” (Baquet may have been referring to the fact that, not long after he took the helm, in a review, Alessandra Stanley referred to Shonda Rhimes as an “Angry Black Woman” and described Viola Davis, the star of How To Get Away With Murder, as “a performer who is older, darker- skinned and less classically beautiful.”)

Since Baquet became executive editor, there has still been deeply problematic, if not openly racist, coverage of black people, and fairly few black journalists guiding coverage—Monica Drake, who was appointed assistant managing editor early this year, is the first African-American woman on the paper’s masthead. After the 2016 election, the Times labored for an uncomfortably long time over whether or not to label President Trump, with his well-documented history of racism, a racist. The Times continues to use euphemisms like “racially charged” to describe events that were clearly racist. It’s a demoralizing observation to bear as a black reader, and an almost impossible reality to navigate as a black journalist.

Here’s the thing: neither traditional journalism nor New Journalism has ever been for us, black people. Howard French, in a 2016 piece for The Guardian, writes movingly about his experience as a young black reporter starting out at the Times, but he also offers a clear account of our lack of representation in the industry: “Naturally enough, the history of black people in journalism shadows the history of race in America itself, which across the ages has slowly and ever reluctantly ceded space to people of African ancestry,” he explains. “In the public sphere, this happened first in entertainment, meaning song and dance, then in sport, all areas where black people still enjoy heavily disproportionate representation. The opening eventually reached journalism, which for most of its history in America had been a strictly segregated industry.” And if journalism remains segregated, can we call it objective?

Two years ago, I finally had a piece published in New York—a Q&A with Van Jones, a CNN commentator. The article was well received, and I felt readers got something out of the conversation that they might not have with a different (white) interviewer. But I wasn’t the magazine’s first choice. At the bottom of the initial query from the editor, I saw a prior email thread that had likely not been forwarded to me intentionally: the writer originally assigned the interview was a regular New York contributor whose byline I recognized—a white guy. There was no indication of whether he withdrew voluntarily or if there was another reason for changing writers. But it struck a loud and familiar chord. New York has published more black writers in the past few years, yet the staff is still predominantly white and the editorial vision is established through a white lens. The first choice of white editors for a writer to conduct a Q&A on a black public figure, for a special issue reflecting on America’s first black presidency, had been a white man. That promises something neither new nor objective. Maybe it’s time for an overall, new journalistic blueprint.

ICYMI: A reporter attended a school board meeting for 3 hours, longer than other journalists. That ended up being a very good decision. 

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Rebecca Carroll is a cultural critic and the editor of special projects at WNYC and a critic-at-large for the Los Angeles Times. She is also the author of several books about race and blackness in America, including 1997’s Sugar in the Raw. She is currently at work on her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze, due out from Simon & Schuster in 2020.