New York Times debate focuses wildly on diversity issues

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Ray Hanania’s Column

When I was a Chicago City Hall reporter, the city’s first Black Mayor Harold Washington often made the argument that the press core that covered him did not understand him, because, he said, “You don’t know the hood.”

The “hood,” as he explained, was the inner city neighborhood where most African Americans lived. All of the reporters (except me) were White. How could they cover him fully if they didn’t understand where he was coming from?

That didn’t mean that every reporter had to be Black, but shouldn’t there be some Blacks in journalism to insure that the full picture is presented.

It’s not too surprising that issue 20 years ago continues today, playing a role in the debate involving the professional misconduct of New York Times reporter Jayson Blair centers on the fact that he is African American.

Too often, when a White reporter is fired for misconduct, the issue of race doesn’t come up. But when the fired reporter happens to be “of color,” the issue immediately turns to race. And then it turns to diversity.

That’s because in Americans are fixated with race and ethnicity. And minorities are still victims of discrimination, a bias more subtle today than it was in the 1950s when you could hang a Black person from a tree and not expect to be punished.

Today, bigots are punished and racists are forced to a more subtle form of discrimination. And, people who might otherwise speak up, remain silent or find other ways to deal with problems, which apparently was the problem at the Times.

Blair had an amazing record of inaccuracy and suspicious behavior — according to the Times, he “fabricated quotes, falsified datelines or lifted material from other newspapers” just in the past seven-month period. Despite the fact that it was apparent to everyone, including his editors, no one spoke out. At least publicly, that is. Many editors whispered about Blair’s “problems” and was given many chances to redeem himself. But he continued to lie and make up stories.

What did his editors fear? That he was Black and questioning him would raise issues of racism? That Blair’s race might be a factor was addressed by Time’s executive editor Howell Raines during a closed-door meeting May 14 with editorial staff.

Many observers seem to be coming to the wrong conclusion, that Blair is the result of diversity gone-wrong. Blair, many say, shows that diversity is a misguided path to “fairness.”

Well, I don’t agree. Diversity, especially in a newsroom, doesn’t promote problems. It prevents them.

For example, if there were more Black editors and reporters at the Times, maybe people wouldn’t have been so quiet about addressing Blair’s track record of suspicious behavior.

But the issue of diversity isn’t just a Black versus White challenge. It also involves other ethnic groups and races, too.

For example, there are very few Arab Americans working in media newsrooms. Why? Because they don’t apply, or they are shut out like Blacks were shut out until their numbers became so strong the media was forced to respond. The largest race focused journalism association in the country is the National Association of Black Journalists, which has a powerful voice but uphill battle to get more Blacks hired in the nation’s newsrooms.

Just as more Blacks in newsrooms will insure a higher level of journalism — from preventing misconduct to expanding views — more Arab Americans in newsrooms would also insure journalism accuracy on the subject of Middle East coverage.

Why is the Middle East so important? Do I need to really answer that question? The Middle East dominates our news coverage and costs Americans billions and billions in taxes to fight wars, protect against terrorism and build alliances in a region that is more than 9,000 miles away.

But instead of finding more Arab or Muslims in American newsrooms, we see very few. And worse, we see even less of their opinions be published on newspaper opinion pages.

Diversity isn’t just about skin color or national origin or religion. It’s also about insuring that a newsroom’s product reflects the society around it. Is everyone’s view included on the pages of newspapers? In television and radio news reporting?

The end result of diversity is a more complete news report and a better informed public.

The answer to the complex challenges of diversity is not to bring in less, but to hire more. More Blacks. More Hispanics. More Arabs. More Muslims. And maybe we also might want to see a few more women in sports and put some heat on another area of bigotry, in the PGA.

(Ray Hanania is a Palestinian American writer based in Chicago and a regular contributor to Media Monitors Network (MMN). His columns are archived on the web at www.hanania.com)

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