The White Papers
Editors' Note: As part of the ongoing debate over race on campus and in the media, and in an attempt to advance that debate, The Crimson will hold two panel discussions on these issues beginning tonight. The first deals with minorities in journalism and at The Crimson. Lee Daniels '71 of The New York Times will join us for this discussion tonight at 14 Plympton following our third introductory comp meeting at 7 p.m.
The second deals more broadly with race relations and journalism and will involve Anthony Lewis of The Times, Barbara Guiterrez of El Nuevo Herald Miami and Terry Tang of The Seattle Times. This conference will begin tomorrow at 10 a.m. The public is invited to attend both events.
As I prepared to begin a fellowship at Harvard's Institute of Politics, I was certain I wouldn't lack regular examples in the available media for use in my Kennedy School study group, entitled, "Race and the Media." I knew I could rely upon these items to bolster my premise that the national and local news media remain deeply implicated in what New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley likes to call America's "Original Sin," which, in another time, was called the race problem.
In this, Boston-Cambridge is little different from most media markets. They are saturated with news media that, in the main, are dominated by white men whose news judgments inevitably are affected by their cultural limitations--to say nothing of their biases.
As I prepared for my trip here this fall, I recalled my first visit to Boston, in the 1970's, at the height of the school busing crisis here. the Boston Globe's front page greeted me at Logan Airport with the photo of a suit-and tie-wearing Black man being impaled by a white man wielding a flag pole supporting Old Glory.
My mind's eye then turned to the infamous Carol Stuart case, where everyone, including police, reporters, and the public rushed to the judgment that an African-American was guilty of that heinous murder.
While cautious in drawing hard lessons on race, I nonetheless believe there is a connection between ethnic stereotypes in long-term news coverage and the behavior of white men, oblivious to daylight or cameras or crows, in hot pursuit of innocent Black. The media also have some responsibility, it seems to me, for fostering attitudes that leave Whites all too ready to arrest and convict Black men accused of vicious crimes.
Such stereotypes, I submit, go a long way toward explaining how an all-white Simi Valley, Ca. jury could ignore what most believed to be incontrovertible evidence, and acquit white cops of the vicious beating of Rodney King.
Those white jurors, like everyone else, are fed a steady diet of Blacks as criminals, gang bangers, drug users or dealers and welfare queens. To them, and anyone else who bought into the stereotype, big, Black, uncooperative Rodney King just had to be guilty.
While stereotypes largely remain perpetuated by the absence of minorities in decision making roles in the news industry, there are other reasons as well.
A case in point: To his enormous credit, Nightline Anchor Ted Koppel has acknowledged publicly that, prior to the broadcast's first visit to South Africa in 1985, African-American employees had lobbied ABC News executives for years to do just that. It may seem strange that it would take five years to convince a major news network that South Africa was a good story in the early 1980's, but that's exactly what happened.
Following Nightline's visit, the broadcast went on to become the most honored series of news reports in the history of broadcast journalism. Now, when the company's African American journalists are recalled from that period, they are not credited with having come up with one helluva great idea--perhaps the best news programming any employee has produced until that time. Rather, they are mostly recalled for having been a pain in the butt all those years.
This is perhaps only the most striking example of what occurs every day in many news organizations. Subjects concerning race are avoided at almost all cost. And African-American, as well as other minority, opinion is systematically devalued.
In the short term, nothing can be done about white news manager attitudes. Equal employment is what counts. More than half the daily newspapers of the nation have no minorities representation whatsoever. The number of minorities in broadcasting is actually going down. Until minorities have a place at news-deciding tables, the few non-whites in a place will continue to be reduced to occasional pains in the butt.
Kenneth R. Walker, an independent television producer and columnist, is a Fellow at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics.