Now that the U.S. has lost its moral compass, it is the job of the predominantly white press to confront its lack of diversity—and the reporting that supports systemic racism.
White people have an extremely hard time naming racism. Whether out of ignorance, shame, reluctance, apathy or sheer bigotry itself—most likely a combination thereof—white folks would just rather not call racism what it is, wherever it is. Of course. We are racism’s primary perpetrators and beneficiaries. We are powerfully incentivized to pretend that racism is always elsewhere—that it is not here, that it is not now. The white jury is always out when it comes to what’s racist.
In the meantime, racism soldiers on. Bigotry takes to the streets. Hate gathers on our college campuses. And when the cameras show up and the reporters pile out of their vans, many of the people behind the bylines struggle to describe what they see. Because they are seeing racism, and the mainstream American media—which is, no surprise, overwhelmingly white—doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want to know how, to describe it.
There’s no doubt that journalism in this country has a diversity problem. According to the American Society of News Editors, people of color make up less than 13 percent of America’s newsrooms. In supervisory and leadership roles, the stats are even grimmer: People of color hold less than 10 percent of those roles. To put that in perspective, as of 2014 people of color made up more than 40% of the population in thirteen states, and the Bureau of the Census projects that by 2044 the United States will have no clear racial or ethnic majority with whites making up 49.7% of the population. What’s more, the lack of diversity in newsrooms is a self-perpetuating problem: the persistent racism of newsrooms often pushes the few people of color who do work there out.
Social scientists will tell you that those who are best equipped to identify societal norms are those who fall outside those norms; the people who are best suited to see America’s deeply entrenched cultural bigotry for what it is are simply not in our newsrooms.
I’m not talking about one magazine, newspaper or television station. I’m talking about the systemic whiteness of the mainstream media and the ways in which that systemic whiteness has made an institution—a free press that is key to the very success of our democracy—into, if things do not change, an instrument of its demise and a tool of an increasingly, shamelessly, racist state.
It’s not just implicit bias that keeps newsrooms from hiring more diverse staff, it’s also a consequence of the floundering traditional media business model. Many publications pay reporters so little that in order to be a staff writer anywhere, or a full-time freelancer, you need to either be rich, have married rich, or have some sort of lucrative side hustle going. This limits the labor pool before the hiring process even begins, and affects who writes the news, what they cover, and how they cover it.
It’s a local problem and a national one; it happens in media markets large and small. It happens on local broadcasts, in print and in digital publications, on talk shows and cable news. The effect manifests differently, but it’s as much a problem on the front page as the opinion page. “Alt-right” has become the wiggle word that gives cover to racist, neo-Nazi, and white supremacist groups when editors are anxious to deflect accusations of left-leaning bias. In the lead-up to the election, millennial racism’s poster boy, Richard Spencer, got media attention for what apparently passes as fashion sense. And both sides? It’s any and every side! In the wake of the Charlottesville attack, the Dallas Morning News ran an appallingly argued commentary by a former Texas land commissioner calling anti-racist activists “snowflakes,” suggesting that if any Confederate monuments are to be removed, so should the Lincoln Memorial. Meanwhile The New York Times gave air time to columnist Bret Stephens’s suggestion that a young white man known to espouse Nazism, who attended the Charlottesville white supremacist rally with a white nationalist group, and who police say drove his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters, might merely have been “a fatherless, troubled individual,” who was “moved to violence for motives about which we can only guess.” That’s the kind of hot drivel that belongs only in the dregs of your uncle’s Facebook page. And yet, we’ve gotta hear all sides, lest someone fail to take up the cause of the poor, beleaguered Nazis in all of this.
Indeed, the president insists upon this kind of equivocation. Donald Trump, who took days to condemn this act of domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, has said that there are “many sides” at fault following the young Nazi sympathizer’s attack on peaceful protesters. Tuesday afternoon, Trump doubled down, blaming the “alt-left” for being present in Charlottesville and, as a result, putting the responsibility on them for the violence perpetrated by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
This was bigger than another word-salad blunder from the commander in chief; it was a statement of antipathy to the fundamentals of justice and equality. No one who supports democracy can pretend that it is possible to have a reasonable exchange of ideas between the torch-wielding neo-Nazis who, according to the governor of Virginia, placed strategic weapons caches around the area, and literally anyone else. Trump isn’t merely obfuscating or yammering or hollering inanely about this or that, he’s abetting the latest rise of white nationalism on American soil. If journalists are truly going to act as 2017’s active and engaged Fourth Estate, they must challenge their president.
Because Trump doesn’t merely insist upon maintaining debate over whether Nazism is dangerous—his political success depends on it. Trump is no media genius, but he undoubtedly knows that the young men chanting his name in Virginia this past weekend are his ardent supporters, and his adviser Steve Bannon knows that these guys must be coddled and reassured. The former Breitbart honcho has to be betting that journalists who report on Nazi attacks—and the president’s subsequent responses—have been taught that they have an ethical obligation to present all sides of a story. That they will be afraid of being accused of being unfair or lacking objectivity, of being “the liberal media”. That they will be reluctant to name Trump’s defense of racism for what it is, or write about white supremacy as if it is a fact of life.
Reporters must resist this, and push back against editors and producers who don’t believe the word “racist” can be used as an adjective in a news story. Thoughtful editorial boards must decide that Nazi apologists and racist bigotry have no place in their pages. Journalists—white journalists—must decide whether we will produce work that operates from the premise that the existence of racial hatred is an objective reality shored up by the man occupying the highest office in the nation, or whether we advance the objectives of the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and bigots who make up the very core of our racist president’s base.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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