THE BLOG
08/01/2014 05:05 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2014

Media Money and Power in a Post-Post-Racial Age

Friday, Aug. 1, marks the final episode of NPR's Tell Me More, an hour-long show that focuses on top news and diverse communities. A show I hosted on the network, News and Notes, was cancelled in 2009. In both cases, managerial churn and budget deficits were partly to blame for the end of shows with diverse hosts, topics, and audiences. Public radio, in particular, about which I care deeply, is a mix of indecision and innovation (like NPR's award-winning Code Switch and State of the Re:Union). And there's a rarely spoken-of pattern of micro- or macro-aggressions in the newsroom that undermine the ability of diverse editorial talent to do their best work.

After 25 years in journalism, I've worked in print, television, radio, and online -- mainly for big companies but increasingly independently. I now host a one-on-one podcast about visionaries called One With Farai. But -- and I have never spoken publicly about these incidents, because, to be honest, I didn't want it to seem like whining -- while I was hosting News and Notes for NPR, our show received a grant from a major foundation impressed with our work to do an in-depth reporting series. NPR first instructed us to split the money with the general operating fund. Yet those in management at the time (now long gone) redirected all the money and later told the funder that we had failed to execute the project.

Another time, at a freelance job, my co-host pulled me aside, shut his door, and told me in a syrupy voice that I didn't have to take the open job just to fulfill a diversity mandate. He told me instead to take time off and slim down. (That's pretty obnoxious in television, but considering this was radio and he wasn't trim himself, it was just beyond.) After much soul searching, I relayed the conversation to management. The news executive in charge expressed horror during our meeting, but to my knowledge nothing was ever done to course-correct the host. My ethos throughout my career has been "Be a professional." But I fear if we don't discuss things like this at all, we'll end up tacitly approving that kind of staff and managerial behavior.

For every person like me who's willing to talk about newsroom tensions, there are many more who've quietly taken a golden parachute to walk away without a lawsuit, or sued, or just gritted their teeth. These newsroom hostilities are part of a bigger picture in a post-post-racial America. We have a black president... who got called the "N" word by local law enforcement. We should not be shocked that journalism is going through a mix of progress and regress, including on very basic issues of whether or not you can serve a diverse population without sustaining a diverse workplace.

Diversity in American media has been publicly championed as an essential part of American civil society since at least the 1968 Kerner Report. Privately we're stagnating or backsliding. Print diversity is less than it was at the all-time high in 2006, nearly a decade ago. The RTNDA reported in 2012, "In the last 22 years, the minority population in the U.S. has risen 10.4%; but the minority workforce in TV news is up 3.7%, and the minority workforce in radio is up 0.9%." Online media, particularly the lauded newer companies including Vox, First Look Media, and FiveThirtyEight, seems to be shaping up to be just as white and male, or whiter and more male, than old-line newsrooms.

Why does staffing diversity matter? In my experience, the staff leads the process of inquiry that drives journalism. That means everything from debate over story selection to how you reach potential interview subjects. Having a less diverse newsroom means you get more of a yes-man feel in story meetings, and quite often a less diverse reach. Each reporter has a work Rolodex (or, of course, "digital contact database"). Our personal and social connections are paths to the secondary links we need to find someone who is willing to speak to us on deadline for our story. When, for example, I want to find blue-collar workers in a specific town to talk about the labor economy or a breaking news event, I go through my personal sources as well as institutional ones. Our lived experience affects how we approach news reporting. That's not a question of balance or fairness but of fact. If you are a news supervisor and someone on your staff says they "can't find anyone" of a certain demographic in your city, you probably should question your staffing strategy.

And what about diverse ownership? When entities like Black Entertainment Television are sold to other major companies, the news divisions often lose ground to more profitable entertainment programming. On the other hand, production companies like Maria Hinojosa's Futuro Media and Soledad O'Brien's Starfish Media Group produce material for, respectively, public radio and television, and CNN, Al Jazeera America, and HBO, among others. Yet few independents led by people of color have the brand recognition, backers, or business savvy to achieve these gains.

I personally would like to see a truly integrated media, with diversity threaded throughout big and small companies, legacy news organizations and startups. Media entrepreneurs need to understand why integrated media is not "feel-good" but essential in an America rapidly becoming majority-Latino and non-white. Race-based stories are often precursor indicators to larger societal shifts. For example, what if media had paid more attention to the predatory mortgage lending in communities of color, which was documented in groundbreaking work by Colorlines' Kai Wright? We may have spotted the larger crisis sooner and given regulators information that helped stop the destruction of American wealth. On the other hand, women and diverse journalists need to understand how business works. We need to train ourselves to seek and engage in the right partnerships, get investments, and use them wisely.

If companies like Google can publish their diversity numbers, warts and all, then every public media entity should have readily available and updated figures on its editorial staffing demographics, hiring, and retention. We individuals who support public media should demand those figures as we consider our gift making. And foundations, most of all, should take responsibility for using their fiscal leverage to demand results. The problem of diversity is systemic to media, but in public media we seem to rhetorically set ourselves a higher bar, yet fail to make the investments necessary to achieve it.