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Diversifying The Crimson

By Marc J. Ambinder

We hope you decide to read The Crimson in part because you have faith in our ability to present a comprehensive portrait of Harvard life. It is sometimes hard to tell how well we are doing that job. Aside from the occasional snap in the Independent or the Salient, few voices exist to hold The Crimson accountable. The Crimson, as an influential interest at Harvard, deserves scrutiny. Internal criticism must suffice as the first line of defense against sins of omission, commission and malpractice. Happily, the debates inside 14 Plympton Street are usually rich.

With growing frequency, outside critics have charged that the lack of skin color diversity on The Crimson’s news board undermines our mission and our integrity. Every Crimson board is peopled by students of all ethnicities. But on several of its key content boards—news being the most visible and most important—The Crimson does not comply with the reigning standard of diversity on this campus. There are not enough students of color. That darned elite news board is too white.

This is true. There are too few non-whites. Why? Well, there may be different pressures on students of color to perform and succeed at college. The Crimson might be tagged a “white” or “Jewish” institution and thus not a socially desirable choice for talented Asian, black or Latino reporters. In the judging eyes of parents, peers and cultures, positivist journalism with a pretense toward objectivity might have acquired a stigma.

Second, maybe The Crimson subtly discriminates against minorities in its editorial processes. Some news editors have charged that black students are always assigned to the “black beat.” And black students tend to leave the comp distressingly early.

Third, statistically, class correlates with race, making The Crimson’s exacting comp difficult for those who benefit from financial aid. Maybe more blacks and Hispanics at Harvard are on financial aid and can’t afford to put in the time that a successful Crimson career requires.

Fourth, recent coverage disputes with a myriad of interest groups—the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance, the Asian American Association, the Black Students Association—and several historical incidents of questionable editorial decisions have become the stuff of institutional memories for both sides. Crimson editors sometimes fail to acknowledge that the past has psychological resonance, and campus interest groups sometimes feel the need to revisit single incidents for their own political purposes.

Our critics believe that this leads The Crimson to make coverage decisions that blight or marginalize minorities on campus. They claim that the hue of our skin blinds us to motley realms of experience. White reporters and editors, it is alleged, cannot meaningfully report on minorities. I used to believe that such frets were the products of intellectual sophistry. But I’ve come to realize that many students—many of them more intelligent and eloquent than I—believe this to be true. I don’t. I think it is manifestly unfair and subtly disingenuous. But at the same time, part of the implication is correct: The Crimson needs more color.

Harvard’s social fragmentation has led many students to conclude that viewpoint diversity is the same thing as racial diversity. In their estimation, organizations can never escape the enduring particularities of class, race and gender. I think the truth of The Crimson’s dedication to fairness, tolerance and viewpoint diversity can be established independently. Writers of all stripes are, in fact, conscious of gender and race distinctions. People intrinsically check and re-check their prose for language that stigmatizes, divides or labels. On listservs and on campus, in our daily log and in the newsroom, editors carefully weigh the effects, sources and content of the news coverage against a background of pitched emotion. They know that perception matters at Harvard.

My opinion that skin color is a poor proxy for ideological “diversity” does not settle this issue. There is, in fact, a consequence of The Crimson’s color problem. It concerns the supply of news itself. If the campus segments itself racially, events might happen, and The Crimson might never hear of them. Journalists frame the news more by choosing stories and crafting prose to match their respective importances. If we don’t hear about a conflict, or if few of us do, then it likely won’t be considered as important. In short, we need diversity not to satisfy dubious pieties but to make sure we accurately, comprehensively and sensibly cover the campus.

Diversifying The Crimson requires pioneers. Aspiring journalists of color need to test the validity of the stigma. They need to join the comp, write their stories and become role models for other students. Leaders of campus organizations should encourage their members to cross boundaries, real and imagined. The Crimson, in turn, needs to find creative ways to promote its financial aid program.

I made my home not in Lowell House but at a small desk to the right of the white eraser board under the bright lights in the busy newsroom at 14 Plympton Street. The more Harvardians who decide to join, the better, for their knowledge and for The Crimson’s.

Marc J. Ambinder ’01, a history concentrator in Lowell House, was an assistant managing editor of The Crimson in 2000.

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