How media companies approach structural racism

It's a long and winding road.

On Friday Fox News’s Tucker Carlson’s head writer was outed as posting racist, vile and hatred anonymously on message boards. On Monday, Carlson read from a script:

“What Blake wrote anonymously was wrong, We don’t endorse those words, they have no connection to the show. It is wrong to attack people for qualities they cannot control. In this country we judge people for what they do, not for how they were born. We often say that because we mean it. We’ll continue to defend that principle often alone among national news programs because it is essential...Blake fell short of that standard and he has paid a very heavy price for it.”

Beyond the obvious fallacies here—a quick search can find hundreds of examples of where Carlson “attack(s) people for qualities they cannot control” and “judge(s) people for how they were born”—we should take a step back and look at the systemic racism embedded in newsrooms across the nation. 

It’s easy to dunk on Fox News for leading the charge here, but as the last two months have shown us, structural racism finds itself in every corner of media.

Yesterday, the New York Times reported how Black ESPN employees have explained to “their bosses and colleagues what they see as behavior and long-entrenched practices that have led to embarrassing missteps and kept many career Black employees from rising through the ranks at a company that devotes a significant amount of its coverage to Black athletes.”

On a conference call of more than 200 people to discuss college football coverage, Black employees began sharing their personal experiences with discrimination. As Maria Taylor, a fast-rising star who has hosted several shows, spoke about her treatment at ESPN, she was interrupted by a white male play-by-play announcer who apparently did not realize that his microphone was not muted.

The announcer, Dave LaMont, could be heard complaining to someone that the call was just a griping session for Black employees.

“It was such a slap in the face,” Taylor said in an interview. “When I was in it, that was horrible. But now, looking back, it was an awakening moment. This is part of our culture. There are people that feel this way.”

When asked about the call, ESPN said it had “addressed it appropriately,” without elaborating.

Writing for Medium’s Zora publication yesterday, Nafari Vanaski wrote why, after 17 years as a reporter, she left the industry in 2016. She writes that she never got the guidance or support expected for a journalist to grow. 

This is part of the systemic challenges newsrooms face; it’s not solely about hiring diverse staff, but instead providing mentorship, guidance and what I think is the most crucial aspect of our jobs: empathy.

But once I got this [columnist] job, I had to beg for someone to considerably edit my work and provide any kind of personal feedback. I was replacing another lone Black columnist, and no one advised me until about two years into the position. When I began to write about race, someone called me one day and told me the reason I had my job was because I was Black. I hung up and told my co-workers what the caller said and one of them said, “It’s true, isn’t it?”

And Vanaski gets to the heart of the newsroom problems:

But when you think about it, the newsroom is the perfect place to shelter racism and white supremacy. Racism is well-baked into all the institutions in our country, and journalists are told to remain objective. So any attempt to point out flaws in a racist system, especially by a Black reporter, is usually met with some sort of lecture, often from a White editor, about how important it is for news writers to remain neutral. Or met with the proverbial head being chopped off a story about the long-term consequences of police misconduct.

So the solution media companies are taking are, on the surface, responses to Black staffer’s concerns. They’re hiring more diversity for newsroom gigs up and down the ladder. This is a good thing.

For example, yesterday, CNN’s head honcho Jeff Zucker (side note: if it wasn’t for Zucker greenlighting Donald Trump’s tv show “The Apprentice” who knows where we’d be.) sent out a memo describing CNN’s new beat covering race:

“This team will break news and cover the stories and conversations around race,” Zucker wrote in a memo. “The struggles, progress, and triumphs. The systemic racism that the majority of Americans now acknowledge exists. The latest polls and studies and data. How race is intertwined with inequality in business, politics, sports, media, housing, healthcare, and education. Lack of representation in leadership roles in so many industries. The still-present signals and symbols of racism. Voices who provide solutions, inspiration, and leadership. Black, White, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Multiracial, and all races.” 

This comes a week after new NBC News chairman Cesar Conde laid down the diversity gauntlet saying that the Peacock news network will be half female and half people of color (though he didn’t say by when), arguing in a memo that “The demographics of America have been changing for decades… and that change is accelerating.  Women today make up nearly half of the American work force and already earn well over half of all bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. This year, for the first time, a majority of Americans aged 18 or younger, will be people of color.  In twenty years, more than half of all Americans, will be people of color.”

Variety reported:

Conde outlined plans to enlist more candidates of color for NBC News Group’s associates program and to invest in long-form investigative efforts devoted to issues of diversity. 

These initiatives look like they address structural racism, but some questions linger as to whether this is the right approach. 

For example, why have a division dedicated to covering race when race is at the center of every story? Our systems were created and perpetuated by rich white men, and all the effects that run off, like a river’s tributary, stem from this. You can’t talk about the health care, education, penal, financial systems, for example, without talking about race. You can’t talk about the haves versus the have-nots without talking about race. So while having a dedicated team sounds nice, it might be better suited to cover each beat through the lens of race and hire appropriately.

Second, will these divisions be around in three years? Newsrooms have success metrics like any other business, and if these particular divisions don’t hit their KPIs, will management shut them down? 

These immediate solutions are a step, but newsrooms need to look at their policies, written and unwritten, first. Hiring, yes. But also creating a newsroom culture that makes the journalism cliche “with neither fear nor favor” a reality for reporters to be able to speak their minds without fear of retribution is vital for establishing an equitable newsroom, let alone business. 

Have editors teach and encourage Black and women reporters to grow; provide the support and mechanisms that let them move up the company ladder the same way white male reporters have for generations. Open up the opportunities for everyone to fail up, not just mediocre white managers. 

We should also be talking about the lack of diversity across all media company departments: legal, sales, marketing, ad ops. Don’t just put this on newsrooms.

Also, don’t hire Diversity and Inclusion or editorial consultants to tell you things you should already know. In other words: do the right thing. 

And this brings us back to Tucker Carlson, who did not apologize for his head writer’s racism. He ended his scripted monologue on Monday night with a warning, one that should he actually heed, would turn Fox News on its head:

But we should also point out to the ghouls beating their chests in triumph...that self righteousness has its costs. We are all human. When we pretend we are holy we are lying. When we pose as blameless to hurt other people we are creating the gravest sin of all and we’ll be punished for it. There’s no question.  

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Bill Withers, “Lean On Me”

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