By Prince, Richard
The Masthead , Vol. 54, No. 4
Ten years ago, Lee Salem, then editorial director of Universal Press Syndicate, told the National Association of Black Journalists how hard it was to place black columnists without "credentials" or a "public image" in syndication.
"One of the problems we run into is that many op-ed page editors tend to put people and ideas they represent into boxes," Salem said in the NABJ Journal story headlined, "Papers Pass Up Black Columnists."
In 2002, says Salem, now the syndicate's executive vice president and editor, "I wish I could say that we're improving, but I can't. There's less space for op-ed writers, as more pages are going toward locals--the professor at a junior college who spent three weeks in Iraq and now is an expert on the Mideast. And they want distinct categories: 'I have a conservative, I don't need another: 'I have an African American, I don't need another.'"
No one knows exactly how many people of color are working on editorial boards these days, but the number is increasing. African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans are editorial page editors and op-ed editors as well as editorial writers and columnists. The NCEW Diversity Committee's admittedly incomplete informal count, developed by word of mouth, has identified about 80 editorial page professionals.
There is obviously a long way to go. The American Society of Newspaper Editors annual survey, which put the percentage of journalists of color working at daily newspapers at 12.07%, also reported that 422 newspapers, or 44%, responded that they had no minorities in any part of the newsroom.
The people I know on editorial pages are generally happy. They agree with Betty Baye of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, who says, "It is crucially important for people of color to be on editorial boards, not just to write diversity stories, of course, but also to help white editorial writers see, if they cannot, possibly a different perspective on everything from foreign policy to the economy."
But many worry that some papers may have a "one-black" (or other person of color) rule--not just in the selection of columnists for a given day, but on the editorial page staff itself They see the difference between the conservative writers of color whom some pages choose to run and others, who win prizes at the NABJ convention, who are seen more in the mainstream of black thought. And they question the expectations an editor might have of the writer of color.
These colleagues want to be free to write on any subject: "One of the things I like about the [Wall Street] Journal," says Jason Riley of that newspaper's editorial board, "is that I wasn't expected to be the 'black' writer. It wasn't assumed I was going to be trotted out to speak about race.
On the other hand, most don't want their racial bona fides minimized. One of the liveliest panel discussions at the NABJ convention in 2001 was one called "A Journalist's Dilemma: Do I Write Too Often on Black Issues?"
Syndicated Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, not scheduled to be on the panel, found a way to join it because, he said, he felt so strongly about the issue. Why is knowledge of racial issues not regarded as a specialty, as are the economy and defense, he and the others asked. …