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Joel Dreyfuss

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We Need You Now, Bill Raspberry

Posted: 07/27/2012 11:55 am

Yesterday, we gave Bill Raspberry the kind of send-off he would have appreciated. Prominent journalists, editors, politicians, ordinary people and friends gathered in Washington, D.C.'s majestic Washington National Cathedral to pay their last respects; there were flowers, music and frequent retellings of one of the most remarkable careers in our business.

Raspberry, a son of Mississippi schoolteachers, had worked at black newspapers and managed to snag a job as a Teletype operator at the Washington Post. As happened with many of us, the black rebellions of the 1960s propelled his journalistic career forward when mainstream newspaper editors suddenly noticed they had few, if any, black faces to send out to cover the riots. Raspberry used that foot in the door to become one of the first black columnists to reach a national audience (after Carl Rowan) and to win a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Raspberry was a member of the first generation of African-American journalists to barge into an exclusive all-white club. Forty years later, we find ourselves regularly recording the deaths, retirements or buyouts of black reporters who once made their mark on our journalistic institutions. The questions not often asked are these: What has been the impact of these departures? Is TV and print news better and more complete because of the legacy of black journalists?

The pioneers of the 1960s -- Thomas A. Johnson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, C. Gerald Fraser and Earl Caldwell at the New York Times; Claude Lewis at the Philadelphia Bulletin; Ted Poston at the New York Post; Austin Scott at the Associated Press; Hal Walker at CBS News; and a handful of other "firsts" -- brought new voices and new perspectives to the news. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had been covered for the major media almost exclusively by white journalists, while black journalists had been largely limited to the black press.

Once black reporters began penetrating the mainstream media, they enriched the dialogue by telling the story from the inside. Scott, who later moved to the Washington Post, was allowed into the strategy meetings of the first National Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., in 1972. Hunter-Gault set up the first Harlem bureau for the New York Times. Caldwell was the only reporter at the Lorraine Motel when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In 1972 I witnessed a comical confrontation between the militant Jewish Defense League and the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party from inside the Panther headquarters.

My group, the generation that followed those pioneers, sought to expand coverage of the black community from crisis to routine. There were four black staffers in the Style section of the Washington Post in the 1970s, and we made it a point to write not just about pathology but also about the normal and extraordinary lives of black America: I chronicled a day at the historic Florida Avenue Grill and wrote about a Sunday ride through the Virginia countryside with a black Corvette club.

Hollie West wrote a three-part, 15,000-word interview with Ralph Ellison. Jacqueline Trescott wrote about the downfall of Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes, who ended up on welfare and saddened a generation of fans. Trescott also chronicled the many clubs, some steeped in the professional circles of doctors and professors, that led social life in black Washington, including the annual Kappa Dawn Dance.

Our group defined Howard University as a cultural center full of people who were pioneers in their field, from the physicians at Howard University Hospital to poets Sterling Brown and Stephen Henderson to esteemed librarian Dorothy Porter. Many of our articles were edited by Dorothy Gilliam, another pioneering black journalist.

When more than 50 of us from all over the country crowded into a Washington hotel room in 1975 to create the National Association of Black Journalists, our goals included increasing black representation in the news media, helping redefine news to be more inclusive and tackling some of the barriers we still faced. There were very few black editors making decisions then; there were almost no black foreign correspondents. Black anchors were still rare on local and network television. But NABJ was not welcomed with open arms by our employers; some of the people in that hotel room in 1975 dared not sign the charter. After all, some editors were questioning our "objectivity" for joining an advocacy group.

Almost 40 years later, one could argue that our efforts were a success. Some 2,500 journalists attended the NABJ convention in New Orleans earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden spoke and many of the major media institutions that once looked on NABJ with alarm now send recruiters to the annual event.

Black faces are common on local and network TV news. Several major newspapers are edited by African Americans. Black journalists like Helene Cooper at the New York Times cover the White House. African-Americans middle managers are no longer a rarity. Many newspapers have a black columnist. But as the old media companies cut back, it isn't clear that the next generation of news managers will be as diverse as the last.

The long-term impact of black journalists remains murky. The New York Times may have many more African-American journalists now than the three or four black journalists of the early 1970s, but it is more difficult to see their impact today than when that handful of black reporters regularly made the front page.

One explanation for the reduced impact of blacks may be that the black story is no longer as important as it once was, although I would argue that both the upward mobility of African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s and the degree of black suffering during this latest Great Depression have been underplayed. Another argument is that black Americans have penetrated the mainstream -- like the man in the White House -- blurring the traditional boundaries of the "black" story. Yet how often have we seen stories on the extraordinary success of blacks like American Express Chairman Kenneth Chenault or Nintendo North American President Reginald Fils-Aimé, who made the Wii a household word?

We ourselves may have contributed to the lower visibility of the black story by moving on to other topics. For more than a decade, I edited technology magazines like PC Magazine and Red Herring, where race -- other than the paucity of black journalists on our staffs -- was not a major issue. Last week Roy Johnson, a former Time Inc. colleague and fellow NABJ member, was appointed editor-in-chief of the History Channel Magazine and websites. I expect to see more articles focused on black history, but Johnson's primary responsibility will be to produce the best magazine he can for all his constituents.

What alarms me about this era is the trend toward racial resegregation in both old and new media. African Americans have been especially invested in newsprint, particularly since magazines have largely remained a white club. But newspapers have borne the brunt of the major media reshuffling -- and black journalists are disproportionately losing their jobs. A recent survey by the American Society of News Editors shows a 34 percent decline in the number of black journalists in newsrooms in the last 10 years.

That isn't surprising to me. Finding a mentor or champion who will sing your praises or fight for you can be a challenge for the African American in a corporate or institutional setting. I've been in enough personnel discussions at mainstream news organizations where black journalists are barely mentioned -- and rarely praised.

"Why are we never considered stars?" a bright young black journalist at Time magazine once asked me. It surely hasn't been for a lack of talent. There's a famous story of a New York Times Magazine editor who came down to the newsroom late one evening and drew the attention of a small group of black journalists who were chatting. "Can we help you?" asked one of the reporters. "No," said the editor. "I was looking for some journalists for stories I need done, but I see they've all gone home."

Black journalists tend to be invisible in new media, too. From the Huffington Post to Salon to Slate to Politico, black faces, voices and topics are few and far between. Instead, black writers tend to be channeled to the new black online media like The Root (of which I was managing editor), the Grio and HuffPost Black Voices -- a kind of nostalgic regression. On one hand, these new outlets give us a friction-free channel in which to express ourselves, but the resources -- and the audiences -- are also far more limited than in the mainstream news products. Most disappointingly, the mainstream websites and news outlets rarely engage the views in these channels.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 a.m. Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. Today, intellectual and political discourse has become as segregated as church attendance 40 years ago. Surveys consistently point to the lack of diversity among Sunday-morning TV's talking heads.

But that is just one aspect of an increasingly racially segregated dialogue: Major newspaper op-ed pages, and publications like The New Republic, the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review, can go weeks or months without publishing or reviewing a black writer. Both liberal and conservative think tanks routinely organize panels on the future of America, the energy crisis, the court system or the U.S. economy without minority representation.

When George Wallace was shot in 1972, legend has it that Bill Raspberry rushed into the emergency news meeting. A senior editor held up his hand and stopped Raspberry, saying, "This is not for you, Bill," implying that the story was outside the columnist's domain. But Raspberry shook off the exclusion and went on to write a series of finely crafted columns on Wallace and what he had reaped.

If we are to achieve the diversity of views and ideas that we were seeking in 1975, we need more Bill Raspberrys today who will not be stopped by the ancient idea that some topics are too important for black people to be involved.

Joel Dreyfuss is a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and The Root's senior editor-at-large.

This article originally appeared on The Root.

 

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