Whitewash in the Newsroom: Thirty Years after Kerner, the Media Still Reflect the Biases of White America

Article excerpt


With Zimbabwe's skyscraper-lined capital, Harare, as a backdrop, NBC's Today show host Bryant Gumbel greeted millions of viewers with his normal air of confidence in November 1992 as he kicked off a one-week broadcast out of Africa. In the days that followed, Today presented arresting snapshots of some fifteen African nations with stories on social trends, art, economic development and archeological treasures, balanced by the obvious features on famine and civil war, giving viewers a glimpse of Africa rarely presented on network television.

What viewers were not privy to was the five-year, behind-the-scenes campaign mounted by Gumbel, one of network television's most prominent journalists, to broadcast from Africa. "We only hear about Africa when people are starving or there are natural disasters, yet there are more burgeoning democracies in Africa than in Eastern Europe," said Gumbel, who repeatedly made just that case to NBC executives, only to be rejected. "They could always find a reason why they should not take the risk."

In early 1992, Gumbel wrote a thirty-five-page memo to NBC News president Michael Gartner, who read his proposal and then asked Gumbel how he would do it. Months later, Gumbel dropped a thick document on Gartner's desk that Gartner said was close to 100 pages and read like a doctoral dissertation. "It was a great work of journalism and research," said Gartner. "The thoroughness, the amount of effort that went into it--I had never seen anything like it. Never." Gartner decided almost immediately to approve the project. "I went to his office and said, "`O.K., go ahead.' He just looked at me and I thought he was going to cry."

Gumbel's uphill and emotional battle to feature Africa illustrates the challenge that blacks, who began integrating America's newsrooms three decades ago, still face in presenting balanced portraits of black life in the mainstream media. Thirty years after the National Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, released a stinging study that, among other things, chastised the media for reporting "from the standpoint of a white man's world," news continues to be firmly rooted in white interests. The report, commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of riots that swept through America's cities, said the media portray blacks "as if they don't read the newspapers, marry, die and attend PTA meetings." The commission attributed the void to the paucity of African-American journalists working ill the mainstream media and urged the media to hire and promote blacks to positions of influence.

However, despite the infusion of thousands of journalists of color into America's newsrooms since 1968, an assumed racial hierarchy, which places the interests and perspectives of whites above blacks, persists. This is happening even as the American Society of Newspaper Editors, in the face of mounting attacks on affirmative action, last year reasserted its commitment to more diverse newsrooms. At the same time, however, the society abandoned its twenty-year goal of having newsrooms achieve minority representation equivalent to the percentage of minorities in the overall population by the year 2000. By then it was clear that the media were far from realizing that objective. In fact, 1997 was the first year since 1978 that the percentage of journalists of color remained virtually unchanged from the previous year.

Progress has been glacial. In 1968 blacks accounted for less than I percent of newsroom jobs. Near the close of the century, they constitute 5.4 percent of the newsroom staff. Nationally, people of color hold 11.3 percent of newspaper jobs--one-third of their proportion of the general population--and roughly 21 percent of broadcasting jobs. Forty-five percent of the nation's daily newspapers remain all-white.

Besides being woefully underrepresented in the industry, particularly in news management, African-Americans and other journalists of color are too often restricted by the narrow scope of the media, which tend to exploit those fragments of black life that have meaning for whites. …