Michael O. Allen aspired to live in a color-blind world. After growing up in Ghana and Nigeria, he became an American citizen, and by the time the Daily News sent him to cover Rwanda in 1994, Allen thought of himself as a reporter first and a black man second. But his race caught up with him at a Neo-Nazi rally in South Africa, where he was surrounded by a mob and beaten to a pulp.
Allen claims he felt the sting of racism again in November 1998, when Ed Kosner was named editor of the Daily News‘ Sunday edition. According to a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Kosner systematically shut the black man out, rejecting his story ideas and promoting white reporters at his expense. When Allen was offered a job with the Associated Press in 1999, Kosner talked him into staying, telling colleagues, “I didn’t want to lose the one black I had on my Sunday staff.” Yet the boss allegedly continued to marginalize Allen. Last October, months after Kosner became editor in chief, Allen was transferred back to Brooklyn, where he began working for the News in 1993.
Allen’s rage exploded on March 20, when he filed the EEOC complaint, charging the News with a race-based demotion. The reporter referred all questions to his lawyer, Daniel Alterman, who granted the Voice an exclusive interview last week. According to Alterman, personnel decisions “should be based on merit, and in our view the decision to transfer Allen was based on his race and his efforts to move forward with his career.” Alterman says Allen wants to continue working for the News and “be rewarded with fair and equal treatment, whether it comes in the form of more money or a different beat.”
Kosner insists he’s innocent.”I am mortally offended by the suggestion that I’ve conducted myself in a racist way,” he told me on Monday. “I’ve been a journalist for 40 years, and never has anyone personally accused me of racism.”
In a written response to the EEOC complaint dated May 18, the News calls Allen’s allegations “completely without merit,” and states that the transfer reflected a need to enhance borough coverage, as well as Allen’s “relative failure to provide high quality, in-depth articles for the Sunday edition.”
Allen is not the News‘ only disgruntled employee. According to a former staffer, the paper is “a horrible place to be a person of color.” For years, according to this source, “most of the minorities” were assigned to the outer boroughs. And Allen is not the only News staffer who seems to have been punished for poor schmoozing skills rather than poor performance. Many say the recent round of layoffs at the News targeted the unpopular rather than the incompetent, and one axed reporter was told that “it had nothing to do with me. The problem is that I don’t have a rabbi.”
The scant number of minority reporters and editors in New York is nothing new, but the disparity is starker now that minorities account for about two-thirds of the city’s population. And the Daily News is not the only paper whose newsroom is predominantly white. According to a recent survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, 24 percent of Newsday employees are minorities, followed by the News (18.6 percent), The New York Times (16.2 percent) and the New York Post (13.9 percent).
The poor representation affects Latinos and Asians as well as African Americans. But when it comes to failure to promote black talent, the News and its managers have a conspicuous track record. In 1987, a federal jury found that the paper had practiced racial discrimination against four black employees, which cost the News $3 million in damages. Alterman, who represented the victorious plaintiffs in that suit, says Allen’s case has “similar overtones” in that he was allegedly denied promotions and then retaliated against for complaining. The lawyer says the 1987 case leaves the News with a “special burden” to promote minorities.
In a 1996 City Sun article called “New York‘s Negro Problem,” Philip Nobile asked Kosner why, during his 1981 to 1993 tenure as editor of New York magazine, the power broker failed to hire a single black writer or editor. Kosner punted, telling Nobile that minorities don’t aspire to write for magazines and that the “black journalists who are available are recruited by newspapers.”
But what happens when black journalists go to work for the Daily News? In January 1993, upon buying the News, Mort Zuckerman fired about 180 staffers, including nine black editorial employees. “They fired all of the African American men on the reporting staff,” recalls Curt Simmons, a city-desk reporter who lost his job. The layoffs reduced the number of blacks in editorial by an estimated 85 percent.
With Kosner as editor in chief, one critic says, the representation of minorities has not improved. Kosner employs no black reporters on the Sunday edition or in features. Of his three black news reporters, this source says, Derek Rose is the most successful, while Leslie Casimir’s stories tend to get buried, and Martin Mbugua is often teamed with a white reporter, a practice that one black calls “caddying.” Clem Richardson, previously an editor, now writes, leaving sports editor Leon Carter as the only black face at the morning news meeting. To his credit, Kosner has three black columnists on payroll—Karen Hunter, E.R. Shipp, and Stanley Crouch. But two black critics call the last two “window dressing,” because they’re not in the newsroom and their views are not representative of most black readers.
According to one staffer, the editors barely give lip service to hiring minorities: “They keep making excuses like, ‘They’re hard to find.’ ” But even when the News hires minorities, says this source, editors don’t give them a grace period in which it’s OK to fail, or take the time to train and promote them. Management does not send the message that it’s important for minority employees to succeed, says this source, and as a result, “minorities leave all the time.” (Black features writer Denene Millner recently quit, according to one source, expressing her frustration with the lack of minority news coverage.)
Ironically, the decision to transfer Allen came at a time when News editors were discussing ways to increase the number of blacks in editorial. According to one staffer, the transfer did in part reflect Allen’s performance: While he is a “smart, energetic, and tenacious” reporter, his writing often needs polishing, and the transfer was made “to get him away from editors who didn’t want to work with him.” But this source says the editors bear some responsibility for Allen’s demise, in that “no one took the time to work off the rough edges to make him as good as he thinks he is.”
While critics see minority representation in the newsroom as half-empty, Daily News spokesman Ken Frydman sees it as half-full. “We have minority representation among our reporters and editors,” he said, citing the black sports editor and three black columnists, “and our recruitment efforts are ongoing.”