Posted on August 12, 2004

If This Is Unity, Give Me Division

Jack Shafer, Slate, August 5, 2004

First, let me state that I have no quarrel with the Unity: Journalists of Color convention confabulating in Washington, D.C. The convention has gathered 7,000 journalists and fellow travelers culled from the ranks of the Native American Journalists Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and the Asian American Journalists Association for five days of what people do at such gatherings: Listen to speeches, drink, look for jobs, look for people to hire, carry on until the wee hours, complain, sing praises, and network. I wish its members great success, influence, longevity, and recovery from hangovers.

But will somebody please suture a backbone to the Washington Post’s coverage of this event? In the past two days, Post reporters Darryl Fears and Roxanne Roberts have filed credulous, pandering copy only one step removed from a press release. In yesterday’s Post (Aug. 4), Fears celebrates the diplomatic miracle of black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American journalist organizations overcoming mutual distrust to establish and run Unity as if they have negotiated eternal Middle East peace. Blacks didn’t want Unity to meet in Seattle in 1999 because of the state’s efforts to end affirmative action, he reports. But the Native Americans had given into the black contingent’s desire to hold Unity 1994 in Atlanta, even though the Georgia location galled them because that’s where the “Trail of Tears” started. Ultimately, the black journalists compromised and agreed to go to Seattle.

“By pressing on despite disagreements, Unity has become admired by civil rights organizations such as the National Urban League and political groups such as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” Fears writes, I assume with a straight face.

In today’s paper (Aug. 5), the Post’s party and society reporter Roberts gathers from the lips of Unity’s attendees the blandest collection of paeans to diversity collected since Jesse Jackson reached his rhetorical peak in 1984.

“We all sort of feel some solidarity on advancing more people of color in the newsroom,” said Vindu Goel, business editor of the San Jose Mercury News. “This is the modern equivalent of the old boys’ network.”

“We’re a majority in this space, and that’s very affirming and supportive,” said Mark Hinojosa, assistant managing editor of electronic news at the Chicago Tribune and an NAHJ board member. “A lot of journalists tend to be chameleons — they have their own culture, and they assimilate into the dominant culture. Here, you can let your hair down.”

“It’s like you belong to a subgroup, but it gives you access to these other groups and the larger group, which is journalists. It’s kind of obvious who’s in which group. You feel like these people are like you,” [said Christina Lucuski of the New Jersey Network].

Since when is the testimony of convention-goers that they’re happy and comfortable to be among their legion considered news? Will Roberts return to the Washington Convention Center for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (Feb. 25-26, 2005) to collect similarly affirming quotations?

Roberts also discloses that, damn, those Unity folks sure do know how to party! She writes:

So the atmosphere was both hyped and relaxed, like a giant frat party where everybody knows and likes each other. The line to get into the party went on forever. Guests walked in with cell phones glued to their ears, catching up with old and new friends.

This isn’t reporting, this is videotaping your washing machine during its rinse cycle and playing it back for 800,000 readers.

Today, Fears returns with Unity’s predictable (and true, I must say with regret) findings that the Washington press corps does not reflect the racial makeup of the country and does “only a ‘fair’ to ‘poor’ job of covering race related issues.” But rather than explore the how and why of the press corps’ whiteness or mediocrity, Fears flees for the safety of comments from the Unity leadership quote machine. “There is no justification for any media company to staff its bureau in Washington, D.C., without people of color,” says Unity President Ernest R. Sotomayor in a statement lifted by Fears from the report. “The numbers generated by this survey quantify what black journalists have always known,” says NABJ President Herbert Lowe. You can almost hear the second rinse cycle kicking in.

Couldn’t Fears find anybody outside Unity’s campfire circle to speak intelligently about diversity or race coverage? Doesn’t anybody have anything sharp or insightful to say about the group’s goals and positions? Not even the Washington Redskins get this sort of free ride from the Post.

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and company president Donald Graham have invested themselves in increasing Post diversity, which all right-thinking people can applaud. “When all of our staff came from the same background, we missed what was going on,” Downie told the New Republic in 1995. But being open to diversity isn’t the same thing as serving as its publicity machine, something Post editors might want to discuss during trust exercises at the paper’s next “Pugwash” editorial retreat.