Racial issues in journalism often a delicate matter

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 17, 2003

Journalism and race have been much in the news over the past week since the New York Times admitted last Sunday that reporter Jayson Blair had fabricated and plagiarized stories.

While Blair certainly brought the sanctimonious Times down a notch, much of the attention has not been focused on Blair, but on his supervisors, who reportedly harbored strong suspicions and evidence that Blair was a liar and fraud, yet chose to conceal it as they shuffled him from assignment to assignment.

Blair, of course, was black. So critics of affirmative action have been quick to blast the Times for covering up Blair’s shenanigans because he is black.

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&uot;What would they have done if he had been white?&uot; I’ve heard more than one ask.

Rush Limbaugh this past week to particular delight last week in citing the incident as another failure of liberalism and its ideals of equality and diversity. The Times is often criticized for being overly liberal in its editorial page opinions.

Race is always a sensitive and volatile issue, and nowhere is that more so than in news coverage. This is true from the mighty New York Times down to the tiny Suffolk News-Herald. The sensitivity may be even more acute for small southern newspapers – around which I’ve spent my nearly two decades in this business – such as this one, which as recently as the 1960s ran front page photos of smiling local Klansman making preparations for a weekend rally.

People have long memories, so whenever the newspaper writes a story or an opinion that could even remotely be considered unbalanced, they are quick to point the racism finger.

As recently as last week, a caller subtly threatened to organize a march on the News-Herald. On Tuesday, we published a lengthy letter to the editor critical of columnist Robert Pocklington’s comments on the Fairgrounds revitalization project and the liberation of the Phoenix Bank building from Andy Damiani. Our press in Ahoskie apparently has a low spot on one of its blankets and a week or two ago a large section of column by Florence Arena was whited out. It happened again on Tuesday and a small section of the response to Pocklington was whited out.

The caller accused us of doing it on purpose for some bizarre racially motivated reason. The caller intimated that many people were upset and asking whether they should organize a march.

I attempted to allay the caller’s concerns, apologized and agreed to rerun the piece in question.

By the same token, it’s not uncommon for white readers to come in and complain about the newspaper’s alleged &uot;political correctness.&uot; I’ve even had callers who complain that Evelyn Wall is allowed to write a column because she is black.

We do strive for balance in our coverage. I don’t go so far as to actually count the number of photos of white people and black people that appear in the paper, but we try to be fair to everyone. I figure if we are properly doing our job, the numbers will be in relative balance in the long run. I imagine such balancing acts are even more intense at the nation’s larger papers like the Times or Washington Post, where they probably do have people counting photos and stories.

While that may be the case, I think Limbaugh is mistaken in his assessment. The effort to achieve balance and diversity in the newspaper business is not as much about the ideals of liberalism as it is about the ideals of conservatism – namely, the pursuit of profits.

Newspaper circulation has been on about a 35-year nosedive. In the late 1980s, a movement was finally set afoot to try to stem the tide (we’re really on the ball). Up until then, newspapers had primarily been produced by and for middle-aged white men. Meanwhile, our society and potential readership was growing increasingly diverse. We finally realized that maybe the reason blacks, Latinos, Asians, young people, and women weren’t reading us is that they weren’t interested in coverage of the stock market, golf, martinis, and reviews of Lawrence Welk’s latest work. We weren’t providing them with anything that was relevant to their lives.

So an effort was undertaken among the major newspaper companies to attract more minorities in positions of news writing and management in an attempt to connect better with their communities, grow circulation and raise the bottom lines.

So while there’s no disputing that the Times’ management erred in this case, in general, I think the effort to make the nation’s newsrooms more diverse has been a good thing. Never before have newspapers better reflected their communities. But don’t think it’s the result of liberalism or political correctness. It’s the free market at work.

Andy Prutsok is editor and publisher of the News-Herald.