Acknowledging journalism’s white privilege problem


“For the most part—like all the white, male, Ivy League editors who preceded and succeeded me—I perpetuated the culture in which I had thrived,” write Peter Beinart in a new article at The Atlantic. He is writing about working at The New Republic. “The absence of women and people of color in senior editorial jobs was intertwined with the magazine’s long-standing, jaundiced view of the African American and feminist left.”

It is a devastating portrayal of America in the 1990s. “White men from fancy schools advanced quickly at the New Republic because that’s who the owner and editor in chief, Marty Peretz, liked surrounding himself with. He ignored women almost entirely. There were barely any African Americans on staff, which is hardly surprising given that in 1994.” If you were a woman at the magazine, you were encouraged to search for a “mentor” among one of the two Big Men, at the publication.

Beinart’s piece is an important part of acceptance of the problem and taking responsibility for it. He reflects on his time as editor: “I hired women, including for senior editing jobs. Yes, I made some effort to cultivate writers of color. But, for the most part—like all the white, male, Ivy League editors who preceded and succeeded me—I perpetuated the culture in which I had thrived.”

I decided to take a look at The Atlantic today and see what’s changed since Beinart left The New Republic in 2006. Of the top ten ‘Popular’ articles to read today, six are by men and four by women. All, but one of the authors appear to be white: O’Brien, Flanagan, Ioffe, Nagle, Beinart, Hamblin, LaFrance, Friederdorf, Anderson, Wong.  A look at the masthead seems to reveal something similar. Of the thirteen senior editors and national correspondents, two of them are African-American men and there don’t appear to be any other minorities. Nine of the thirteen are men.

I looked at The New Republic as well. Their masthead has seventeen top editors and staff writers of which eight are men. Two are minorities. In general across US newsrooms this is the pattern as The Columbia Journalism Review tells us. Newsrooms are among the least diverse places in America. “Journalists of color hold less than 10 percent of leadership roles, where major editorial decisions are made,” notes CJR. In 2017 “according to the study, minority individuals (black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or other) accounted for one person on the 11-person masthead of The Washington Post, three people on the 18-person masthead of The New York Times, one person on the five-person masthead of NPR, three people on the 14-person masthead of the Chicago Tribune, and one person on the 14-person masthead of the Los Angeles Times.”

This brings us back to Beinart’s piece. People acknowledge the problem but nothing seems to be changing. Why is this? Because newsrooms tend to be filled with white, mostly men, who acknowledge their white privilege, but by the very fact that they take up space on a masthead or in a newsroom, perpetuate the problem. Men pat themselves on the back for “hiring women,” when the very fact that women need to be “hired” by men “seeking to diversify” is part of the problem. That white men are so proud for trying to “cultivate writers of color,” is the problem. This is the elephant in the room.

Newsrooms are not just lacking in diversity in terms of having almost no women of color, and few if any men from minority backgrounds. Among the white men who are disproportionately represented there are layers of class and privilege. They are certain kinds of white men, almost exclusively from urban environments and almost all of whom are born wealthy and get their first job in journalism through connections. Often family connections.

If you want to break the cycle of privilege, you have to start at the bottom. You have to stop hiring the cousin of one of your friends or some writer who come “recommended” because he knows someone on staff and they “went to the same high school together.” You can start with your oped pages, which are also disproportionately white and male. One way to help diversify an oped page, which I’ve used as an oped editor, is to reject articles by people writing on behalf of and NGO that ostensibly helps “minorities.” Instead of letting someone named Jason Brady or Sarah Cohen write about “refugees,” let the refugees write the article. Does that sound difficult? Well the same NGO probably has the resources to interview and translate what one of the refugees says.

When an NGO that helps “Arabs” doesn’t seem to have any Arabs on staff, then the NGO probably doesn’t deserve to have a place in a newspaper. Its better to have a Native-American voice describe “health problems on the reservation” than have an academic who lives 1,000 miles away and is not native. There are armies of analysts and experts on various issues, such as Afghanistan, but its better to find an Afghan to write something about Afghanistan. That doesn’t mean you can’t also have Bob and Andy write one as well, but you can balance it by trying to find someone from the country.

Finding local voices is not as hard as it seems. It takes a little bit of work, but it is preferable than to always rely on the same voices, the same “whites only” environment that many newsrooms have been and continue to be.

Journalism tends to be a liberal and left-leaning profession, so why has it failed so miserably to recruit the very people that most of the writer supposedly support empowering? Because within journalism is an arrogant and racist mentality that continues to view people of color as subjects and objects but not equals. It is still for the most part an old boys club, one that has also become a boys and girls club, but which caters too often to the same group of people from the same class and with the same connections. It has not become an easier world to penetrate in 2017, but rather harder. This is because the larger and more globalized world has increased the competition for the relatively few spots open on the mastheads of prestigious places. Competition means the insular and nepotistic world becomes more insular, not more of a meritocracy. With such limited space and people fighting over scarce resources in journalism, the qualifications increase and the need for connections to get a foot in the door are raised. If there were thousands of journalism jobs, then minorities, who may lack certain qualifications and almost always lack connections, would find there way in the door and some would rise up. But when there are just a handful of jobs, the likelihood that anyone will take a chance on a minority hire or work to “mentor” someone is less. That means few and fewer are ever recruited.

Beinart did the right thing in acknowledging the privilege that underpins the industry. But there’s still an elephant in the room. Beinart mentions the Big Men who ran things in the 1990s, men with names like Leon and Marty. But when Marty and Leon got older they didn’t hire minority women to replace them, they hired more Marties and Leons. And those Marties and Leons perpetuated the problem. Acknowledging white privilege is a first step. But it is largely a meaningless step if it means only a bunch of other white people in the industry read it and congratulate you but nothing changes after. It is only meaningful if people say they will make sure when the next person at their workplace moves on that they will hire a minority, that they will hire someone from a lower socio-economic background who has led a different life, or a foreigner or someone who comes from a rural environment.

Another thing journalists can do is to re-tweet and share the work of people of color on social media. If you follow many western journalists you’ll find that they almost never re-tweet or share work from non-white journalists. They usually have a group of journalist friends, usually from the same socio-economic class or part of an expat community when they work abroad, and they only share the work of their little group. They might use as an excuse that they only share “quality” journalism, but often that means “western.” In fact often a western journalist will boast “I am the only western journalist in this place,” as if the work of non-western journalists is automatically worth less because they are non-white. It’s openly racist and it is common. Journalists from western publications will claim that any foreign or local publication is “biased” or has different “standards.”  Built in to these code-words is “whites only.” To balance that a journalists should make sure to share the work of women of color, of people from rural areas, foreigners, non-westerners. Don’t cater to the idea that because there is “only one western journalist there” that “you must follow him.” Instead find reputable local sources and share their work and highlight them for being on the scene. Don’t wait until one of your “fraternity” from back home, or your colleague is there. You should also friend and network with foreign journalists, so that you can get to know their work and then encourage them to write for your publication so you have local voices. Don’t dismiss locals as “biased” and having “agendas,” as if being white or western makes one automatically impartial. Too often these racist eurocentric assumptions underpin the industry.

Journalists are a critical lot. But they tend to shy away from self-criticism. That’s not helpful in this instance. We can all do better.



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