The Unbearable Whiteness of Journalism
July 25, 1995
Ever been to a fire in New York City? Or walked by a firefighters’ demonstration. Anybody who’s ever seen a mass of New York’s bravest can’t help but be struck by a blazing demographic trait shared by the hook-and-ladder crowd: they are overwhelmingly white. How white? According to Charles Mann Associates, a research firm that analyzed 1990 census data, more than 88 per cent of New York 7930 uniformed firefighters are white. Since — as everyone knows — only a minority of the city’s adult population is white, such an unusually high concentration of whites makes “Firefighter” New York’s fourth whitest job occupation. That little fact is one of the city’s startling racial injustices, made more shameful by the fact that firefighters are paid with taxpayers’ money.
There are, however, a few places in New York besides a firehouse where you’re even more likely to encounter nothing but white faces. Your best bet would he a publishing party. According to the same statistics, the whitest occupation in New York (of those jobs with more than 500 workers) is “author.” Almost 93 per cent of New Yorkers who call themselves authors are white. The fifth whitest occupation — 84.73 per cent, just a shade darker than firefighter — is “reporter/editor.”
Perhaps this comes as a surprise. After all, one of the most enduring American legends of the last decade or so is that the media is left-wing. (It used to be amusingly surreal to hear the media denounced as left-wing by the right-wing commentators who run most of the shows on the electronic media; by now it’s routine.) And since, the conventional logic continues, the media is the enforcer of the left-wings political correctness, it is probably overflowing with blacks, Latinos, Asians, and the white leftists who do their bidding. What else would you expect since the media and publishing worlds are headquartered in New York City, the Minority Mecca?
It ain’t necessarily so. In fact, it ain’t even remotely close. The existence of the words “New York” in a magazine’s title is no guarantee that the staff there looks at all like the city’s broader population. New York is approximately 25 per cent black and approximately 30 per cent Latino; New York is approximately zero per cent black and zero per cent Latino. And its chief competitor? “For the first five years that I was writing for The New Yorker,” says a longtime contributor, “the closest I ever got to a person of color was a young white fact-checker with dreads.”
While journalism and book publishing are separate businesses with distinct cultures, New York’s print media industries have at last one significant trait in common; like firefighting, they’ve been shielded from the demographic shifts in New York over the last several decades. But while black of minority representation in firefighting probably has little effect on how fires are put out, the workers who populate the publishing industry exercise tremendous control over a range of social and policy debates — not the least of which, these days, is about the presence of minorities in the workplace, sometimes called (in shorthand) affirmative action. And while affirmative action might get a friendlier hearing among people in publishing than among people who put out fires, the fact remains that the publishing industry resists affirmative action more than most.
Even the friendly hearing is somewhat in doubt. The issue of race in publishing is often met with silence. The silence has official faces. The Magazine Publishers of America, for example does not keep any statistics about the racial makeup of its constituent members. The silence can also take on a more subtle form: Most of the white editors interviewed for this article were either defensive on the topic or asked to rcmain anonymous or both.
This is not to say that publishing as an industry has failed to recognize that it has a color problem. On the contrary, a dramatic racial news event will often cause the industry to look at its white makeup and issue calls to do better. “After the King riots,” noted an August 1993 article in the media trade magazine Folio:, “the executive committee of the American Society of Magazine Editors called on the Magazine Publishers of America to work with its members and appropriate minority groups to recruit as many people as possiblc for hiring by magazines in all departments.’ ”
The industry might argue that there hasn’t been enough time since the 1992 Rodney King riots for marked improvement in minority hiring. But the article was referring to an ASME proposal from 1968, after riots that erupted from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is the best estimate of more than a dozen magazine staffers I have interviewed that minority representation in the magazine industry in New York — including such black-targeted titles as Essence — hovers around 8 per cent. That figure includes administrative and financial staff; the editorial makeup is estimated at 5 per cent.
If the numbers of people of color in the magazine industry as a whole seem sad, the numbers at individual titles are pathetic. In a Nation column in March, Katha Pollitt noted that left-of-center publications are among the worst offenders. She said the Nation has employed one nonwhite editorial staffer in 13 years (she missed one; there have actually been two). The New York Review of Books employs none out of nine. Harper’s Magazine currently employs none out of 14. The Utne Reader, zero out of 12. The Progressive, one out of six. Mother Jones, one out of seven. In These Times, one out of nine. The New Republic, two out of 22. Ms. magazine employs four out of 11 editorial staffers, including the editor-in-chief.
The majority of these magazines also publish few to no columnists or regular writers who are not white.
On this score, the Voice comes out better than most. Depending on the definition of “editorial” ( versus “administrative), there are 18 nonwhite staff members out of approximately 80 paid Voice editorial staffers, a considerably higher percentage than most publications in the Voice‘s category. That includes one black woman as features editor and another as chief of research, about as high as people of color ever get in the industry.
In the middle ranks, however, the numbers are less impressive: as of last week, two out of 18 senior editors, two out of 17 staff writers. (Breaking those numbers down a bit more, one senior editor is Asian, one black; while the literary editor is Latino, there are no Latino senior editors or staff writers, and haven’t been for several years.) The Voice currently has no front-of-the-book columnists who are not white, actually a step backward compared to years past.
All the ostensibly liberal publications make a fat target for reasons of hypocrisy. Some are even hypocritical about their hypocrisy. The Harvard-dominated New Republic is an important national magazine that has made several high-level hires in the last few years, all white people; TNR’s idea of affirmative action is accepting some of its interns from Yale. In an April Washington Post story on the whiteness of liberal mags, New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan begged off the hypocrisy charge, pointing out that TNR had “taken an editorial position against affirmative action.” They have not, however, taken an editorial position against hiring people of color; they simply don’t do it. Note the logic here: the only way a person of color is going to be hired at New Republic is via affirmative action, they don’t believe in affirmative action, ergo, they won’t hire people of color.
It’s difficult to explain exactly why this color gap exists at publications that portray themselves as progressive, and are the first to attack others for institutional discrimination. Jill Petty, a black former Nation staffer who wrote a letter to the editor following Pollitt’s column, describes “a real artificial climate” about race. “People didn’t want to talk about it … It’s like it was up to me to bring it up. There was no vocabulary, no manners.”
Part of the problem in addressing these issues at progressive publications is that many of us white lefties seem to act as if our commitment to liberal or radical politics is enough, that progressivism is like a really high SAT score that gets you out of a remedial class that for others is required. A protective feeling about our fragile institutions sets in; surely, we tell ourselves, there are bigger causes to take on than the fact that Harper’s could use a black editor.
But as burning as the hypocrisy issue is — readers have every reason to expect that the racial makeup of The Nation is more diverse than that of The National Review — the left-of center magazines are hardly the only white-dominated bastions of publishing. In some ways, they are an imprecise target. Liberal mags represent a tiny fraction of overall jobs and revenues in the industry, and their turnover is often so infrequent that they amount to quasi-tenured systems. William Whitworth, editor of The Atlantic Monthly — okay, we’re stretching the definition of “liberal” here — says he has not hired an editor in a decade.
Moving up the economic ladder a bit, to magazines with circulations at or near seven figures, one finds some better integrated staffs. Time magazine says that its staff is approximately 15 per cent minority, including one Latino executive editor and one Asian senior writer. Newsweek‘s staff has roughly the same.
But most popular magazines are as bad or worse than the industry standard. “I was hired as senior associate editor at Premiere years ago because Spike Lee insisted on having black journalists on his set,” says writer and editor Veronica Chambers. “It was ridiculous, but I got a job. Before that, they didn’t even have black cleaning people or black secretaries there.”
A trip through the Hearst building in Midtown will turn up entire titles — big, hefty, successful titles like Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire, Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping — where no people of color work in editorial.
Rolling Stone, despite a reputation for documenting the hip, employs no writers or editors of color; in the more than 700 issues Rolling Stone has published since 1967, it has published exactly one cover story by a black writer. Officewide, Wenner Media — which includes Rolling Stone, Us, and Men’s Journal — claims a minority employment rate of 15 per cent, though the rate for editorial staff is certainly lower. Condé Nast is scarcely better — try finding a black or Latino name on the editorial masthead of Vanity Fair, Mademoiselle, or GQ. The company won’t stoop to defend its nearly all-white staff, cloaking itself in the ultimate denial; senior vice president Paul Wilmot says, “As a private company, we release no statistical information of any kind.”
Making the question of publishing’s glass ceiling more urgent is the fact that, of all marginalized groups, people of color are the last to pull a winning ticket in what Lani Guinier calls America’s “oppression sweepstakes.” When Andrew Sullivan was appointed editor of The New Republic in 1991, it was a breakthrough: a gay white man could edit a national political magazine without — in the eyes of all but the most squeamish observers — turning the magazine into a gay-specific sheet. With Tina Brown editing The New Yorker, white women, too, have “proven” that they can run a large-circulation general interest magazine. There have been no comparable publishing breakthroughs for blacks, Latinos, or Asians.
What’s more, other media industries have had moments of ceding control to people of color. The recent squawk over Connie Chung’s departure from CBS underscores that, however briefly, a Big Three network was willing to place an Asian woman in one of its most visible — and financially important — positions. And remember the black filmmaker vogue of the early ’90s?
Newspaper and magazine editors generally offer the same excuses for the persistent whiteness of their trade. They argue that the reason they don’t put people of color on the covers of “general interest” magazines is that such images don’t sell. Like Gorbachev adorning Vanity Fair — which cut newsstand sales in half — each magazine has its little horror story about the time there was a black person on the cover.
They have less persuasive answers when asked why they don’t put the work of black or Latino writers on their covers. “I haven’t seen anybody whose stuff really blows me away,” says a white editor at a monthly magazine. “I would be more than happy to use a black writer if I thought that he or she was the best person to write on a given subject. But that’s almost never the case.” A slight variation on this rationale is that the handful of minority writers who are known in the magazine editing world are overcommitted, and thus tough to rely on.
It’s hard to underscore how deeply offensive these explanations are. “That’s a load of crap,” says Utrice Leid, a WBAI radio host and former editor of the City Sun. “If I put a bullhorn out the window and shouted for quality black writers, there would be a stampede.”
White editors usually deploy less inclusive recruiting methods. Mostly, they cull from other mainstream publications, which themselves aren’t printing many articles written by people of color. Those editors who regularly read the black press — I found no one who said they consulted any Spanish or Asian-language periodical — say it’s adequate. “Part of the problem is the lack of a farm system,” says one prominent New York editor, who asked to remain anonymous. “In any other area —environmental journalism, academia, politics — there’s one or several excellent magazines or newsletters that we can tap into. Compared to those, the black press is a joke.”
It’s pretty hard to defend the black press. New York’s two weeklies, the Amsterdam News and the City Sun, are erratic and often sloppy. There are talented people working and writing there, but the papers seem unable or unwilling to separate out their occasional scoops and original analysis from the steady flow of rubbish that fills out their pages.
Leid maintains that the mediocrity of the black media is partly due to the fact that they once were farm teams. During the civil rights era, she says, mainstream newspapers and magazines “were embarrassed by their lack of black faces, so they raided the black papers and usurped the talent.” For that and other reasons, she says that “black papers no longer are attractive as plausible careers for beginning writers. The publications are unstable and the reputations are shot .” Some staffers at black periodicals are offended at the suggestion that they should function as a recruitment squad for their white counterparts. “I work just as hard to find and nurture new writers as my white editor does” one female black editor told me, “and I am not about to start asking, ‘How will this person work in the white press?’ ”
She needn’t worry. Even if today’s James Baldwin were writing regularly in a niche publication, there’s reason to doubt that he would make the reading list of most white editors. Quasi-academic magazines, such Black Scholar and Reconstruction, often have good material. It’s true that they don’t make much of an impact on any readership, but certainly not on white magazine editors, most of whom shrug at the mention of these journals. Writing off the black press is just one more way of evading black writers.
So if the above explanations are evasions, why don’t editors recruit more writers of color? One Latina woman put it succinctly: “You can’t get in unless you know somebody. And people know people like themselves.” In fleshing out the social element of both journalism and book publishing, almost every person of color I interviewed brought up the same ritual of insularity: the publishing party.
Book parties. Winter holiday parties. Anniversary parties. Pulitzer celebration parties. Your editor’s birthday parties. Democratic convention parties. Last Thursday of the month parties. Magazine-launch parties (that is, through the late ’80s; in the early ’90s they were effectively replaced by magazine-folding parties.
New York’s publishing world is juiced by a seemingly endless stream of booze, ladled — often for free — at bars and galleries and in-house office parties. Somewhere in the city, every night of the week, there’s a semibusiness, semisocial party at which, even if lacking an invitation, a person with some connection to publishing will not be considered wholly out-of-place. These parties are a staple of the industry, the way that casting calls are for actors: trade publications such as Advertising Age and Media Week usually carry a page of party pictures every issue.
More than in most industries, these parties play an essential networking role. Writers need work, editors need writers, everybody needs intelligence on what the ostensible competition is doing. It is a kind of community formation, raising the same problems faced by all community formations. “I think it’s a club,” says Faith Hampton Childs, a black literary agent. “And like most clubs or closed societies of elites it is hesitant to open up to others.”
I have attended, conservatively, 200 of these parties over the last six years. I can say with confidence that there have been fewer than 10 occasions on which there were more than five black people in the room. On many, many occasions, there were precisely two black people in the room — often the same two (you know who you are).
The tokenism of publishing parties is, of course, a reflection of the tokenism within the industry, but in some ways it’s worse. While your publisher may dictate who gets hired, he or she doesn’t dictate everyone who get invited to a “personal” party. “I went to any number of parties and gatherings, and there would be very few people of color,” says former Nation staffer Petty. “I got so tired of people coming up to me and saying, ‘You’re the only black person here.’ And I would say, ‘Don’t tell me, tell the person who put together the invitation list.’ ”
The all-white New York publishing party becomes a deep symbol of how life and work blend together in an incestuous mix, and how segregated both can become, even in a theoretically diverse city. “You could think you were at the Chevy Chase Country Club in the twilight of 1947, instead of 1995,” says agent Childs. “I get so sick of being the only black person, or one of three in a crowd of 450 people, and having nobody think that there’s anything wrong.”
This topic, of all topics, brings out a defensiveness among white people in the publishing business. To raise the point is automatically to be perceived as critical, and the people who give the parties do not want to be criticized; criticism appears to disrupt the the all-important sense of gentility that the publishing party is designed to embody. One editor, who agreed to talk off the record, says, “We have to justify the expense as a reward for our writers and our advertisers, and very few of those people are black or Hispanic. On another level, I think people feel threatened by the anger that black people — rightly or wrongly — represent and they’d just rather not deal with it.” It’s a social catch-22: you won’t get ahead if you don’t go to the parties, but for the most part you won’t get invited to the parties if you’re black or Latino.
The withdrawal of whites in publishing into all-white social enclaves doubtlessly warps their perceptions of the few writers of color whom they do use. That is, publishing’s social apartheid conditions editors to think in race-specific terms. Jill Nelson, the author of Volunteer Slavery, a book about her experiences as one of the few black reporters at The Washington Post, complains, “As a freelancer, I find that the stories I’m asked to do are afterthoughts. I’m the one they call late. It’s almost as if I just began to exist when the white editor called me [to say], ‘give us the Negro perspective.’ ”
The workplace equivalent of not being invited to the party is not being listened to — even when asked for the “black perspective.” A midlevel black female magazine editor says: “Whenever it’s a ‘touchy’ subject, like welfare or affirmative action, if you don’t like something, you’re being overly sensitive. My opinions are always considered to be emotional whereas a white person making the same argument is considered to have made an intellectual decision.”
Added to this dead end is the role of what Veronica Chambers, lately of The New York Times Magazine and about to begin a Freedom Forum fellowship, calls “being publicly black.” Whenever her magazine printed an article on a black subject, “My phone would ring off the hook on Monday morning.” Angered black readers would call her she says because “I am the one black face that they know.” Soothing tempers “was part of my job, but it wasn’t part of the job of the white person sitting next to me.”
Under these pincerlike pressures, she says, it’s little wonder that the few people of color who break into the magazine industry ever stay. “There’s never anybody senior, there’s never a black managing editor or executive editor. People either hang with that stuff or don’t hang — and most don’t hang.”
By comparison to magazines, most of New York’s daily newspapers have done a decent job of increasing numbers of people of color in their workforces, even at high levels. Progress at The New York Times has been achingly slow, but the paper now boasts of a black op-ed columnist (Bob Herbert) and a black assistant managing editor (Gerald Boyd). Although the Times‘s total minority representation is an iffy 13.7 per cent — compared, say, to a surprising 18 per cent at The Wall Street Journal — the paper of record has also shown itself willing to give prominent beats covering more than “minority” issues to reporters of color, such as James Dao in the Albany bureau, or Mireya Navarro on AIDS.
The Daily News now has three regular black op-ed columnists (Stanley Crouch, Playthell Benjamin, and E. R. Shipp), a Latino news pages columnist (Juan Gonzalez), and an Asian news columnist (Berry Liu Ebron). Overall, the News has one of the highest minority representations among the nation’s daily papers, approximately 21 per cent of its staff. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the News achieved those figures only under the supervision of the Justice Department, after a Manhattan jury in 1987 found that the paper’s promotion practices were discriminatory. What’s more, the News‘s high figure was achieved in part by mass layoffs.
When it folded this weekend, New York Newsday, probably the city’s most liberal-identified paper, had, along with its Long Island parent, a workforce that was 16. 7 per cent minority. Its pages featured Sheryl McCarthy, Les Payne (as columnist and assistant managing editor, though he’s based in Long Island), and Merle English (in the Brooklyn editions). New York Newsday had a black editorial page editor, and listed in its staff directory both “Asian American Issues” and “Latino Issues,” followed by a handful of appropriately named reporters. Because of contract complexities, it is too early to know how the closing will affect the Long Island edition’s racial composition. One Newsday columnist predicted that the paper would become “a little whiter and a little more male than we used to be.”
But even when numbers and visible minority faces have seemed promising, these papers are still far from paradise for people of color. The Times has a tendency to lose its black reporters (such as Michel Marriott to Newsweek, E. R. Shipp to the News, and Gwen Ifill to NBC News), in part, some reporters say, because the wait for meaningful promotion is too long. The News stands charged with disparate treatment of columnists; veteran black columnist Earl Caldwell had a column spiked and, he says, was fired because he hadn’t reported both sides of a racially charged story, while News management publicly supported white columnist Mike McAlary for a similar omission. McAlary is currently the defendant in a libel case for his coverage of a black woman’s rape complaint last year in Prospect Park.
At Long Island Newsday, racial friction recently arose from what is, in New York, a rarity: the hiring of John McGinn, a half Native American trainee assigned to the tabloid’s sports desk. The imminent hire prompted a conversation between Eric Compton and Norman Cohen, both sports copy desk editors, about whether it would now be acceptable to wear a Chicago Blackhawks jersey in the office. While details of the conversation are disputed, in January, Compton, 44, was booted, and denied an estimated $27,000 in severance pay because Newsday management said he’d been fired “for cause,” meaning he’d violated workplace rules. According to Editor & Publisher, Compton had been suspended in December 1993, for showing fellow employees a mocked-up trading card, picturing a black pro wrestler and using as a caption the name of Les Payne, the paper’s highest ranking black editor. In April, a state unemployment appeal board ruled that the paper had insufficient reason to fire Compton.
Regardless of what happened, the incident underscored the raw racial tensions at Newsday. Legendary tab editor John Cotter, who died in 1991, had been pushed to resign in 1987 for referring — he claimed in jest — to a black editor, Hap Hairston, as a “dumb nigger.” Over time these tales circulate and affect hiring; according to Newsday sources, there was an unofficial black writers’ boycott of the Newsday sports desk through the early ’90s. The demise of the New York edition will no doubt fuel conflict between whites and minorities, all struggling to take the remaining jobs.
None of this comes close to the sad record of the New York Post, which doesn’t bother even trying to pretend that it’s integrated. In 1993, when the New York Times finally put Bob Herbert on its op-ed page, the Post became New York’s only English language daily that employs no black columnists. (They pick up Thomas Sowell and William Raspberry from syndication services.) In fact, The New York Post has barely any reporters of color. It does not give figures to the ASNE.
Post management has offered the same excuse for years: poverty, which is only a slightly less spurious rationale today than it was during the reign of Murdoch I. The Post managed to find the money in 1994 to pay right wing conspiracist Christopher Ruddy, who had to be dumped when his creatively sourced reporting on the death of Vince Foster proved an embarrassment. In September 1994, the Post also managed to find the resources to steal William F. Buckley Jr. away from the News.
The situation has reached a point where it fuels itself. Over the last several years, boycotts of the Post have been launched in black and Latino communities, in part over the Post’s refusal to hire minorities even in token numbers. Potential black and Latino reporters are wary of going to work for a paper perceived, in Public Enemy’s lyric, as “The Oldest Continually Published Piece of Shit in the Nation.” In response, Post managers complain that they have tried to recruit black reporters, but the potential hires won’t come.
Under the best of circumstances, the print media’s domination by whites would be a stain of dishonor. In today’s political climate, the persistence of whiteness leaves the press ill-equipped to raise persuasive challenges to the accelerating attack on civil rights. It also corrodes credibility: the arrogance and denial that accompany discussion of race in publishing shed light on why the public holds the media in only slightly higher regard than it does used car salesmen. ♦
Research: Geronimo Madrid and Ed Frauenheim
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 10, 2020