Jeet Heer‘s remarkable cover story dissecting The New Republic’s history of racism should get major daily newspaper editors thinking about commissioning an independent, critical look at their own publication’s legacy on race.
The New York Times, for example, just eliminated a beat dedicated to the issue. Editor Dean Baquet says issues of race need to be tackled throughout the newsroom, not relegated to a single specialty reporter. It would seem to be the perfect time to examine the Times’ track record on race and how newsroom culture over the years has shaped it. Maybe Heer could write it.
For publications such as the New York Post, an honest, New Republic-style self-assessment of the past would be the only possible way to begin to think about changing their perception in huge segments of the community. If the Post was actually interested in that.
When I led the New Haven Register’s newsroom, it was a frank (but very limited) admission that we had allowed open racism to fester in our story comments that led us to seriously confront the bigger issue of newsroom diversity.
If we’d stepped back much further than that, we would have seen how decades-old, maybe centuries-old perceptions had shaped who we were and how we were seen by our own community.
In 1973, two years before I, the future Register editor, was born, a remarkable critique of every daily newspaper in New England was commissioned by the New England Daily Newspaper Association and the New England Society of Newspaper Editors. Ben Bagdikian was among the veteran journalists sent out to examine each newsroom. It resulted in a book that I’m lucky to have in my position, called “Evaluating the Press: The New England Daily Newspaper Survey.”
From the critique of the Register:
“No particular emphasis is given locally to reporting concerning minorities, although New Haven has a large black population. (Then-editor, the late Robert J.) Leeney said the paper has a responsibility to serve the inner city, but doubts that the paper is important to the black community. The Register has two blacks on its staff; Leeney said the paper has been unable to hire more because (a) they get better offers from other papers and (b) he senses that they come under special pressure from the local black community, sometimes making their positions untenable.”
A few years before, but not addressed in the book, the late famed civil rights attorney Catherine Roraback, working with the NAACP, had threatened legal action against the Register. They claimed the paper had conspired with city officials and business leaders to manipulate perceptions about the black community through warped coverage of crime and other matters.
In hindsight, I wish that when we were confronting diversity and its impact on news coverage, I had hired a smart, independent outside journalist like Jeer Heet to examine the Register’s historical and present treatment of race.
The Register and other daily newspapers serious about covering and serving their entire community still could.