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Recession Undercuts Diversity

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Recession Undercuts Diversity

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Recession undercuts diversity

If pervasive sentiment at the recent National Association of Black Journalists convention is any guide, increasing numbers of the best and brightest black journalists believe many news organizations are using the recession as a convenient excuse to retreat on newsroom diversity.

In public speeches and hallway conversations, NABJ convention-goers were quick to say there are newspapers, chains and broadcast groups that are pressing ahead with affirmative action in the newsroom.

Still, again and again, the bottomline accusation stood: This recession has revealed that the news industry's commitment to newsroom diversity is shallow and evanescent.

As if to underscore the point, NABJ members elected officers who hammered that argument most forcefully.

"I think there's been a complete retreat from any attempt at diversity, under the guise of economic austerity," Sidmel Estes-Sumpter said in an interview at the convention.

Estes-Sumpter, evening news producer for WAGA-TV in Atlanta, narrowly defeated Sports Illustrated senior editor Roy S. Johnson to become the first woman president in the NABJ's 16 years.

Like other NABJ members, Estes-Sumpter argued that blacks and other minorities - who are often the first fired because they are the last hired - should be spared in recessionary layoffs.

"We should not be losing any people of color in our newsrooms because we have too few already [and] because [otherwise] we will go back to newsrooms that are lily-white," Estes-Sumpter said.

Washington Post columnist Dorothy Gilliam, who was elected vice president for print, said that, based on "a lot of anecdotal evidence," she saw a retreat from diversity in the newsroom as part of a wider political attack.

"We are in a political maelstrom," she declared in a speech. "The guns are trained in this country against diversity . . . . We have downsizing in the industry, we have recession, we have veterans in this industry who are threatened with losing their jobs.

"The response from many in the industry is, |We've given you enough. We've had enough with diversity.'"

In an interview, Gilliam raised a frequently cited statistic - the fact that, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 51% of daily newspapers have no minority newsroom staffers - to argue that "the record of this industry is abysmal.

"Yes, there are certain newspapers, certain chains that will continue to make progress," she said, "but I see diversity really coming under attack. The more the face of the nation changes, in demographics, the more there is a hardening of the opposition."

On the broadcast side, Sheila Stainback, reporter and anchorwoman for WPIX-TV in New York City, was elected vice president-broadcast largely on a platform of putting more pressure on the biggest broadcast news association, the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

"ASNE has studied us to death, but at least paid attention to us, while the RTNDA does nothing. We've got to put pressure on them. RTNDA is |dissing' us," Stainback said, using the street term for disrespecting.

This belief among many of the journalists at the Kansas City, Mo., convention, July 24-28, was echoed by a doleful report on the state of blacks in business, economics and politics. The report was presented at the meeting and sponsored by the NABJ business writers' task force.

"I am not a racist, but I do not - repeat, do not - believe the vast majority of whites in business want to see the empowerment of black people," former Maryland Congressman Parren Mitchell said at a press conference on the report.

"Some of you going to white schools, working on white newspapers, will say, |My boss sees me as superior.' Yeah, he tells you that," Mitchell said, suggesting black journalists would be naive to think that is a true feeling. …

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