By WAYNE DAWKINS
On the eve of the National Association of Black Journalists 40th anniversary on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, its 44 founders can point with pride to these media industry luminaries:
- Gwen Ifill is co-anchor of the PBS NewsHour;
- Lester Holt anchors the NBC Nightly News;
- Gayle King and Robin Roberts are co-anchor morning news/talk programs respectively on CBS and ABC;
- Curt Menefee moderates FOX NFL Sundays;
- Dean Baquet is executive editor of the New York Times;
- Kevin Merida, former managing editor of the Washington Post, is now editor-in-chief of ESPN’s The Undefeated website; and
- Oprah Winfrey, who owns a cable TV network; her diversified empire includes movie production,
- publishing and philanthropy.
In 1975, NABJ’s founders sought to change a racially barren media landscape so white and male it was rarely called the mainstream media. Instead, critics and dispassionate observers defined it as the “white-controlled media.” Many of the founders were the first or second black journalists hired at daily newspapers or TV news outlets. Many of them did not major in the craft in college; they were drafted and participated in boot camp-style programs such as the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at Columbia University in order to desegregate newsrooms. Meanwhile, scores of African-American students began considering journalism as a career. In 1972, the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund announced that “162 Negroes received journalism degrees, a 184-percent increase from 1969.”
For a number of founders there were strange trips to newsrooms. One of them, an iconic Washington, D.C., anchorwoman, was asked at the start of her career to style her hair as an Afro and change her name – to King. Seriously.
On an oppressively hot day in Ohio, another woman, who was working for a utility company, retreated to an office building and completed a job application, which was a ruse in order to enjoy some air conditioning. Her name was called for an interview. The reluctant applicant was hired as the first black journalist at that TV station.
Another co-founder, who made American media history as co-anchor of ABC “World News” in 1978, began his career in 1959 as an anchor at a Virginia TV station where the management declined to show his face. When the newsman convinced colleagues to remove the slide, the uproar in his Jim Crow market prompted his firing. Max Robinson was jettisoned to a better career in D.C.
NABJ was created because a committee of organizers led by Paul Brock invited dozens of black journalists to cover a conference of black elected officials. Once that work was done, the news people were encouraged to get together and form a national association.
At least 100 people were at the founding at the Sheraton Park Hotel (the site of NABJ’s 2016 annual convention), which Maureen Bunyan said recently was one of the few D.C. hotels welcoming to black patrons; however only 44 were deemed full-time working journalists, not partisans or lobbyists, eligible for membership. The founders stated 12 objectives:
- Strengthen the ties between blacks in the white media and blacks in the black media;
- Sensitize the white media to the institutional racism in its coverage and employment practices by monitoring EEO and FCC regulations and work to seek compliance where
- Award scholarships to journalism programs that especially supported minorities;
- Expand the white media’s coverage and balanced reporting of the black community;
- Become an exemplary group of professionals that honors excellence and outstanding achievement among black journalists;
- Critique through a national newsletter examples of the media’s reportorial deficiencies as they affect blacks;
- Encourage journalism schools to appoint black professionals through the work of a liaison committee;
- Work with high schools to identify journalists;
- Act as a clearinghouse for jobs;
- Expand opportunities for black journalists by assisting in recruiting activities;
- Work to upgrade black journalists in managerial and supervisory positions; and
- Maintain a national office with a paid secretary for the clearinghouse.
These modest objectives were not achieved easily. From 1976 to 1983, the leaders worked without a national office and struggled to keep NABJ functioning. About 300 members attended annual conferences. A periodical – the NABJ Journal – did not launch until 1981. Like the Colonial-era founding fathers who pledged “their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor,” NABJ’s founders endured adversity and hardships, yet stayed true to their mission to integrate and elevate the American news media, mostly from within.
At its peak in the late 1990s, NABJ had 3,300 members and in 1997 brought 4,000 attendees to an annual summer convention in Chicago. That was a time of saturated news media: emerging digital, established cable news, and deeply rooted and prosperous newspaper companies and TV networks.
That universe changed violently in the 21st century. The once all-powerful news media that NABJ and its members confronted and also collaborated with took hits during the tech boom-and-bust of the early 2000s, and then absorbed a critical blow when new media startups and social media platforms became content providers too, expanding the menu of where to get news and entertainment, but thinning employment at traditional media outlets.
Four decades ago, majority news managers said they could not find qualified journalists of color. That claim is not credible today. The new digital companies that sometimes lacked traditional news values and mission rebuffed inquiries about presenting its workforce numbers. That information was “proprietary,” those owners claimed. After repeated needling by diversity advocates, including NABJ, some companies revealed their numbers. They revealed unsatisfactory inclusion of African-American media workers. Company leaders have pledged to do better.
NABJ co-founders Sandra Dillard and Paul Delaney said the news industry can do better in increasing the ranks of black journalists despite the media stars who shine now and were not considered possible four decades ago.
“What’s different is there is no longer a need for special programs to train black journalists,” said Dillard, a longtime theater critic who is retired from the Denver Post. “They can come out of college. Students and emerging journalists also have role models. I did not have any. Today, I expected to see more, not less progress.”
Delaney said, “I expected to see much more by this point in the 21st century. We were so upbeat 40 years ago. The future looked so promising because the past was so dismal.
“We were on the move in the mid-1970s. The post-civil rights movement era produced the greatest advancements in our profession. Finally, we had turned the tide of resistance as the majority of daily papers had integrated their newsrooms, as had television networks and quite a few broadcast newsrooms across the country. Many major company executives lent their names, time, funds and efforts to changing the color of their organizations – examples included my boss at the New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Don Graham at the Washington Post and media leaders in Detroit, St Louis, Miami, Louisville, Philadelphia, Nashville and Boston.
“Then it all came to an almost screeching halt by the turn of the century. Then came new media that brought crushing financial problems to the model, which we’re still dealing with. New media set back integration to near pre-1960s levels, with an attitude of ‘who cares about that [diversity] stuff,’ tokenism run rampant – one black anchor here an editor there; no network presidents, no chain owners, ad nauseam.
“It’s nearly 2016, for goodness sake.”