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Farai Chideya Headshot

Can Howard Kurtz See Race (if It's White)?

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Uber-media critic Howard Kurtz has gotten it coming and going in the past month. First, CNN got lambasted for mis-covering the Iran election and protests. In an age where Twitter is fetishized, a hashtag (or searchable ID) called #CNNFail became all the rage.

This article on MediaBistro links to video of Kurtz's own coverage of Twitter. Despite calls to mention #CNNFail in his Washington Post Column, Kurtz didn't...so NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen led a charge to make Kurtz accountable. As a media critic, mind you, Kurtz's entire conceit is give-no-favor journalism.

Now Kurtz is under fire for failing to look at the dynamics of race and privilege in reporting.

In a recent column asking whether black reporters have gone soft on Michelle Obama, Kurtz said:

They [the beat reporters assigned to the First Lady] are all African American women. Perhaps this gives them a richer cultural understanding of Obama as a trailblazer. Indeed, most write with enthusiasm, in some cases even admiration, about the first lady as a long-awaited role model for black women

.

I will give Kurtz credit for speaking to a variety of voices, from Harvard-based academic and producer of Eyes on the Prize Callie Crossley to Newsweek editor John Meacham to the black women-on-Michelle Obama-beat (including Allison Samuels, who I know personally, in disclosure). But Kurtz fails in two ways. First, he says the black women covering the First Lady are both biased and ineffective: "None of the beat writers has been granted an interview since the Inauguration." Second, he throws in the words that "the White House press corps remains predominantly white," but he does not even attempt to explain how newsrooms are engines of "social replication" -- where likes promote like -- and of scrutiny and tokenism inhibiting the success of non-white employees. (Check out Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter's seminal work on tokenism and social replication for more.)

One of the tropes of American life is that whites seem raceless, by default; and that only non-whites have racial attributes, and thus distinctions and biases. This presumption of transparency when it comes to whiteness is particularly dangerous in the newsroom. At the same time, for example, that my now-canceled show "News and Notes" was scrutinized for any bias towards then-Senator Obama, one of the people constantly reminding us not to be biased would use the phrase "my friend Karl Rove" without the slightest sense of irony.

Was the disconnected chit-chat about Rove/Obama a racial failing, a political failing, a journalistic failing, or all three? Sometimes it's hard to parse the reason because all these issues fall under an "intersectionality" of interests. (Thanks to Professor Kimberle Crenshaw for her work on intersectionality.)

Among the many issues of media favoritism that stands out in my mind is one concerning former President George W. Bush. As we all know, being vetted for offenses concerning alcohol and drug use is a part of the race for the presidency. And we also know that George W. Bush had an alcohol problem in the past.

Fine, you say.

But although the outcome of the elections may have been the same, at least one editor played a critical role in covering up Bush's actions...thus preventing what could have and should have been a robust discussion of responsibility early in the race.

As the American Journalism Review puts it:

In July [2000], [Portland Maine] Press Herald reporter Ted Cohen, 49, discovered George W. Bush's 1976 drunk driving arrest in Kennebunkport, Maine -- a story that mysteriously eluded the national media, which claimed to have combed through every inch of Bush's background.

But his editor, a man named Andrew Russell, told him it was not a story.

I won't comment further, except to say that Russell later regretted his decision. So did a lot of voters who we reporters promise to inform, so they as voters can decide.

So what's the big picture here? It's fairness and favor. And as if the fates were making a broader point to Kurtz and all of us who care about journalism, the Washington Post is now engaged in a much broader, more troubling controversy. In essence, the Post promised lobbyists and folks with $25,000 to a quarter of a million dollars paid access to newsmakers. Now the Post is apologizing, and Kurtz noted it in today's CNN broadcast. (The NYT reports on the story here, perhaps too gleefully.)

Again, big picture: I would argue that reporters of color face a constant scrutiny about our motives that actually inhibits favoritism, and that white, heterosexual reporters, especially men, see themselves and their actions as neutral even when they are not. You may find a black reporter talking about her "sista-girl" circle in an article on Michelle Obama...but I've never seen an example in the mainstream media of a black reporter signing off on a program that broke one of the fundamental tenets of journalism -- that paid access for lobbyists and journalism don't mix. (Some of the pay-to-play antics of traditional African-American media outlets will be another story for another day...)

Of course, Kurtz went on CNN today to criticize the Washington Post. Who isn't chiming in? But I wish Kurtz would do a deeper investigation of the fig leaf of white neutrality, and take a harder look in the mirror as well.

Farai Chideya is a broadcaster, author, novelist (Kiss the Sky) and the founder of PopandPolitics.com

Farai's disclaimers and IDs:
I used to work for
Newsweek, which is cited in Kurtz' article on black women reporters.
I know
Newsweek reporter Allison Samuels.
I used to work for CNN and sometimes still appear on their air.
I don't think #CNNFail was smart because it could have been #MSNBCFail and #FoxFail as well.
I wrote a seminal book on race and media titled
Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African-Americans.
And I am a black woman, last time I checked.