Friday, February 09, 2007

Will More Black Reporters, Pundits Get Play in ’08 Campaign Coverage? Gwen Ifill Hopes So

In 2005, the National Urban League released a study that showed that more than 60 percent of the Sunday morning television news talk shows had no black guests during an 18-month period and that when there were black guests, more than 69 percent of the appearances were by three people -- Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and journalist Juan Williams.

With the early start to the 2008 presidential campaign season, the debate begins anew about whether there are a significant number of black newsmakers, reporters and columnists lined up to cover and comment on the race.

The National Association of Black Journalists has called on major news organizations -- print, broadcast and online -- to ensure their coverage teams are diverse.

“Nearly one-third of Americans are people of color,” Bryan Monroe, NABJ president and vice president and editorial director of Ebony and Jet magazines in Chicago said in a news release announcing the organization’s prod to the national news media. “It is finally time that the press corps covering the campaigns also looks like America.”

“There’s kind of a stable of people who do punditry that get called on regularly,” said Michael Fletcher, a White House correspondent for The Washington Post who said he seldom gets calls to talk about presidential politics on the major network shows.

Even The Politico, a new print and online publication launched last month dedicated to covering congressional and presidential politics and the business of Washington lobbying, announced with great fanfare that it hired away two high-profile white political reporters from The Post to be editor and executive editor, but mentioned no major steals of black or other reporters of color.

“That kind of tells you where we are in this thing,” Fletcher told “I’ve done NPR here and there; I’ve been on ‘Countdown with Keith Olberman’ and other shows on MSNBC because The Post has a contract with them, but I haven’t been on the big ones. Basically, (editors, producers, talk show hosts) go for who they know.”

Gwen Ifill, senior correspondent on PBS' "News Hour with Jim Lehrer" and moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week," said when it comes to analysis and opinion, “there is a lack of people of color on both sides of the line.”

Ifill, who moderated the 2004 vide presidential debate and has worked for The Washington Post, The New York Times and NBC as a political reporter, invites reporters who cover the major news stories of the week to participate in a roundtable discussion on “Washington Week.” She told that while there are number of black columnists who make the talk show circuit, the number of black reporters available to talk about presidential politics, Congress and other issues of the day is small.

“There is a lack of reporters of color,” Ifill said. “If you’re looking for reporters who can talk about politics, there are maybe a hundred who fit that. Then the number who have the ability to summarize and present the news in a way that is understandable and clear for a TV audience is smaller still. Then you come down to a handful of people who are available to talk about the issues of the day, and then, with politics, there are even fewer.”

It’s not that black reporters are incapable, they just haven’t been hired in significant numbers to be in the pool from which the talk shows choose, she said.

“I left The Post in 1991. I don’t think they have had more than five reporters on the national staff in that time,” Ifill said.

But the need for black reporters and columnists to put news events in perspective has never been clearer.

When Sen. Joe Biden was quoted in the New York Observer characterizing fellow presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Ifill said, “every black person I knew zeroed in on the problem.”

She said The Post’s Eugene Robinson and The Times’ Lynette Clemetson were able to pinpoint what it was that offended black people in a way that white reporters discussing the issue didn’t get.

“They never heard this. They never lived it before,” Ifill said of white reporters. “You need people who recognize these things and who have had different experiences. This is why you need us there.

“Why aren’t we there? I don’t know. It’s the same treadmill we’ve always been on,” Ifill said. “Bosses promote and hire people who remind them of themselves, and there aren’t enough of us who are bosses.”

“We have not seen a big change” in the number of black reporters, columnists and newsmakers on the television talk shows, said Stephanie J. Jones, executive director of the National Urban League Policy Institute. “It looks like they’re making slight but sporadic efforts, and that disturbs me.”

The 2005 report studied the newsmakers who were interviewed on the talk shows and, separately, the reporters and columnists who analyzed the news during the roundtable discussions.

“The determination of who is a newsmaker is very cramped,” Jones told, and the networks argued that they had no control over who was a newsmaker; they were at the mercy of events, they claimed, and that determined who was interviewed.

“With the changes in Congress, you have a lot more black people in a position of power,” Jones said, noting that there are five black chairs of key committees in the House of Representatives. So by the networks’ argument, she said, one would expect to see more black newsmakers being interviewed.

With the roundtable discussions, Jones said, “we really looked at that with a different stand. It’s the networks’ decision, and they are not limited to a particular pool of people. So the bottom line is I haven’t been happy with the efforts.”

With the Biden incident, “on many of the programs throughout the news cycle, you often had whites interviewing white guests while dismissing the fact a number of African-Americans treated it very differently,” Jones said.

In some cases, she said, white pundits suggested that black people were being overly sensitive about Biden’s remarks. “I heard one pundit who kept saying, ‘Come on, Biden isn’t a racist.’ No one accused Biden of being a racist,” Jones said.

“So unless you are an outright bigot, you are never to be called on for saying something with insensitivity, ignorance or from a misunderstanding,” Jones said. “It’s a straw man. The issue is not whether Biden is a bigot or whether the word articulate is a compliment. It’s the sense that many African-Americans feel tired of being treated as if accomplishment is something unusual and worthy of comment wrapped in astonishment.”

That is why, Jones said, “it’s important to have diversity in the discussion. It helps to have different people with different backgrounds.”

“At some point, you get the feeling you’re going to get a different kind of coverage” with black journalists in the mix, Ifill maintained.

“White folks need to learn how to cover black folks,” she said. “But since we’re not there, you will need the (columnists) Gene Robinsons, the Rochelle Rileys and the Cynthia Tuckers, people who will bring a sense of that.”

Ifill told of being at a party recently where people talked about Obama’s chances and what it would be like to have a black man in the White House.

"Someone said, ‘How cool would it be to dance to ‘Flashlight’ at the Inaugural Ball?’" she recalled. "That’s why it’s important to have us in the mix."

Jackie Jones

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