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August 8, 2004

"The Crowd's Reaction Made Some Unity Delegates Uncomfortable."

Last week's convention of minority journalists was the largest ever-- 7,000 strong. Kerry spoke: standing ovation. Bush spoke: no ovation. Traditionalists in the press said: unprofessional! Critics on the right cried foul. Unity, coalition of minority voices, didn't know what to say. And group think appealed to all. Here's my critique of that. Plus (scroll down) reactions from the press and the blogs. A debate simmers.

See my subsequent post, with letters in reaction to the debate: Unity and the Ovation for John Kerry: Letters 1-3. Includes mine to Romenesko.

Quite a display of muscle by minority journalists in Washington this past week. Their annual Unity convention had over 7,500 registrants, the biggest convention of journalists ever in the U.S., according to Unity president Ernest Sotomayor of Newsday. President Bush, John Kerry, and Colin Powell all agreed to speak. In Washington, clout like that is noticed. Unity has clout.

Major corporations were there too as sponsors, including GM, Philip Morris, Apple, Toyota. The organizers had several revenue streams (check out the ads) and expected to turn a profit on the event. A study released during the convention (headline: “Washington press corps virtually all white”) got good pick-up in the press. And the event as a whole received fawning attention in the Washington Post.

It’s official, then: this is one powerful group. “Unity opened with a mix of pride in the big numbers of journalists who made their way to the Washington Convention Center,” said Editor & Publisher, “and frustration at the slow pace of integrating more people of color into the newsrooms of newspapers and other news organizations.”

Unity is a coalition: the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association, and the Asian American Journalists Association joined together to create it, “to heighten the need for diversity in print and broadcast newsrooms,” acccording to the Convention’s official newspaper. The first convention was at Atlanta in 1994, the second was in Seattle in ‘99.

Amid all the good feeling at a very successful convention there were some controversies last week. The convention turned out to have a few critics— within the press and without. Complaints appeared after John Kerry, interrupted repeatedly by applause, received a standing ovation from some in the crowd. (The next day, President Bush got a polite but mixed reaction— no standing ovation and audible grumbling at times.) From the USA Today account by Mark Memmott:

WASHINGTON — Journalists usually are polite but not enthusiastic when politicians speak at their conferences. In the USA, at least, most reporters and editors try to appear to be non-partisan….

There was applause nearly 50 times during [Kerry’s] address. There was laughter when he took a shot at the Bush administration by noting that “just saying there are weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq) doesn’t make it so.” He got a standing ovation at the end.

Minority journalists showing their partisan colors? Unity’s president didn’t think so. He minimized the incident:

The reception for Kerry “surprised me a little, but should not be viewed as an endorsement of him or his policies,” Sotomayor said. He said many Unity members, including those who were covering the speech or plan to report on it in the future, weren’t cheering. As for the others, “they’re people who vote, and they have a right to express themselves” when they’re not working, Sotomayor said.

The crowd’s reaction made some Unity delegates uncomfortable. “It was a little awkward for me,” said Akilah Johnson, a “night cops” reporter at the Sun-Sentinel in Delray Beach, Fla. “I guess a lot of people were acting like citizens, not reporters.”

So it’s minority journalists who have a right to political expression when off duty vs. the sin of “acting like citizens, not reporters.” That sin is not too strong a word was shown by other reactions after journalists learned of Kerry’s reception in Washington. At the Seattle Times blog, J. Patrick Coolican wrote:

Just off the phone with Seattle Times reporter Florangela Davila, who’s at the Unity convention in Washington D.C.

Unity is a conference of 7,000 journalists of color.

She reports that more than half the journalists gave Sen. John Kerry, who spoke to at least 2,000, a standing ovation. If you ever see us at campaign events or reporting on someone making a speech, you’ll note we don’t applaud or heckle, because it’s unprofessional. Giving a presidential candidate a standing ovation during the height of the campaign is as unprofessional as it gets.

“It was so offensive and awful, and I hated it. It was clearly inappropriate. It was ridiculous,” an exasperated Flor said.

Not just unprofessional, but as bad as it gets. Offensive, awful, inappropriate, ridiculous. Listen to the open-and-shut case described by ethics expert Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute, who is the go-to guy for reporters writing about such incidents. First in soundbite form for USA Today:

Journalists risk losing their credibility if they let their politics show, said Bob Steele, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. They should be “observers guided by the principle of independence,” he said.

A more nuanced view might recognize that off duty journalists who stand and applaud a political figure are declaring their independence from people like Steele and the monoculture in journalism that he speaks for. Perhaps journalists do lose credibility with some Americans when they let their politics show. Meanwhile, they lose credibility with other Americans by denying that they have any politics at all.

Press ethics should be able to handle both ideas, since both have force. But Steele’s “shoulds” are sealed tight. There is one right answer. And no diversity is allowed on the matter of the journalist’s right to political expression. Here’s Steele writing on the Poynter site:

We can, and should, express our personal beliefs and indicate our choice of candidates, but we should do so in the privacy of the voting booth. But whether we’re on duty or not, we should not be overtly partisan in our public behavior. To do so undermines our professionalism and erodes our credibility.

We should not make contributions to political candidates or causes. We should not display partisan bumper stickers and yard signs. We should not be involved in political rallies or campaign events.

And, when we attend a speech by a political candidate or officeholder, we should not express our partisan beliefs, be it support or opposition. To do so—to applaud or cheer in support or to boo or jeer in opposition—is unprofessional and unethical. That partisan behavior is antithetical to the principle of independence, one of the linchpins of our professional duty.

It’s okay, according to Steele, to be civil and show respect. “We can stand when they enter and depart. And, if we are in the audience, we may even offer respectful applause to welcome and to give thanks.”

But we, as journalists, should not abdicate our unique and essential role as professional observers of the political process. We should not tarnish our responsibility as reporters of issues and chroniclers of the candidates.

We should not be activists, we should not behave as partisans. Not only do such roles diminish our standing as professionals, but they fuel the challenges of those critics who already believe that many journalists are biased and incapable of fair reporting on political issues and candidates.

“Those critics” are out there, for sure. Michael Graham at National Review’s The Corner was struck—as I was—by this observation from Washington Post columnist Donna Britt, a Unity supporter:

Enough [minority journalists] have done well that editors and news directors shouldn’t have to be reminded—year after year at conventions such as this one—why it’s so important for the journalists who report the news to be as varied as the population they cover. At some point, it seems, diversity shouldn’t be a goal.

It should be a reality.

Here’s Graham’s reaction from the right’s corner:

This about a gathering of “journalists” who gave Democratic partisan John Kerry a standing ovation and repeated huzzahs. From a gathering of reporters in an industry where, according to the New York Times, 80% of their fellow employees are Democrats. From a gathering in Washington—where journalists back Kerry over Bush by a 12-1 margin.

Diversity sounds great, Donna! So…when do we get it?

Writing in the Philadelphia Daily News, Michelle Malkin had a similar point:

The diversity being sought is, by definition, skin-deep. They call themselves “journalists of color.” Not journalists of substance. Or integrity. Or independent thought.

I experienced this rainbow groupthink at the Unity conference in Seattle in 1999, where I was the lone out-of-the-closet conservative in a room of about 150 minority journalists.

After this Seattle “debate,” a few journalists sent me secret hand signals or left whispered voice-mail messages letting me know they agreed with my point of view. The rest groaned, snickered and rolled their eyes when I criticized ethnic identity politics and voiced my support for Ward Connerly’s California ballot initiatives to eliminate government race-based affirmative action.

What Malkin called “rainbow group think” is only one of the varieties on display in this dispute. Here’s my partial list:

Donna Britt’s notion—that it’s “important for the journalists who report the news to be as varied as the population they cover”—is worth taking seriously. But the monoculture in newsrooms works against that. It seems hopeless to deny that diversity in mainstream journalism is a liberal project. Bush voters are a small minority in the political press, but Unity is not going to be expanding any time soon to include them.

And if that’s the case, then why should participants in a liberal project have to deny that they’re liberals? What’s wrong with greeting President Bush politely, and John Kerry enthusiastically? And how is it possible that newsrooms need the perspectives that minority journalists bring to the table, but not the politics they add to the mix?

Please advise.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links

PressThink exclusive: Ernest Sotomayor, President of UNITY writes as a guest critic. The President of Unity Says Don’t Blame Us for the “Liberal Media” Charge. (Aug. 10)

PressThink: Unity and the Ovation for John Kerry: Letters to the Debate, 1-3. (Aug. 9) Includes mine to Romenesko and two from journalists Linda Picone and Jeff Shaw.

From my letter: Unity has a lively convention home page and an experiment in real time blogging going. Why don’t they say something— preferably real, interesting and responsive?

Unity 2004 convention program.

Intellectual tip: I urge you to zap around this site to get a feel for the whole convention, since the Kerry and Bush reactions were only a small part of the event. Unity 2004 was literally historic: biggest gathering ever among professional organizations in journalism.

If you believe these groups are important because they can stand for things, as well as discuss and debate them—and I believe that—then it’s obvious that putting journalism and its limitations under discussion by more than 7,000 people, in the nation’s capital, with the major candidates for president (was Nader invited?) there to address you because your opinions count, and you are newsworthy… all this is a pretty big deal in itself.

Unity, the organization, home page. Unity: Journalists of Color 2004 convention workshops. Convention schedule.

Darryl Fears, Washington Post, Aug. 4: “Minority Journalists Join Voices at Unity Convention.”

Jack Shafer in Slate, Aug. 5: If This Is Unity, Give Me Division. On the Washington Post’s “fawning coverage.”

Post reporters Darryl Fears and Roxanne Roberts have filed credulous, pandering copy only one step removed from a press release… Since when is the testimony of convention-goers that they’re happy and comfortable to be among their legion considered news?… 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.

@unity, the convention’s blog, on Bush’s speech:

Bush drew a mixed response from the room full of journalists. At times there was audible murmuring, at times applause, and at other times derisive remarks. When asked what tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, Bush’s response — “Tribal sovereignty means that it’s sovereign” — drew sneering remarks from the audience.

He said that the problem with voting in the U.S was not with the democratic process but with not having enough people show up at the polls. He said that the media had a duty along with him to encourage the public to exercise the right to vote. He dead-panned, “Of course, I will have them to vote for me.”

Jeff Jarvis responds to this post: Toward a new definition of diversity.

Perhaps it is time to come up with a new definition of “diversity” in American media.

Perhaps we should be looking for diversity of viewpoint — though that means one has to admit having a viewpoint — rather than merely diversity of ethnicity….

Like Jay, I hope we have the ambition to break up that grouppressthink.

Imagine a world where:

Imagine a world in which we value diversity of viewpoints and opinions — not just birth…

Ex-newspaper man Tim Porter at First Draft:

Journalism has enough crediblity problems without a group of conventioneering editors and reporters responding to a political speech like a bunch of yahoo-ing insurance salesman at the annual Rotary meeting.

The journalists at Unity became Rotarians yesterday when they gave a standing O to John Kerry and interrupted his speech more than 50 times with applause.

What were they thinking?

…What I want to know is what is the obsession journalists have with inviting politicians to speak to their conventions. ASNE, at its joint convention with NAA in April, heard from President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld. Neither said anything noteworthy and, in fact, Bush joked about how insubstantial his speech was going to be.

Andrew Cline at Rhetorica:

Without a doubt, journalists are citizens who enjoy—and should exercise with proper discretion—every right of citizenship. To argue otherwise may suggest something I find quite troubling: That journalists stand above citizenship. And if they stand above that, what else might they think themselves to be standing above?

But, at the same time, journalists are connected to politics as players as a normal course of professional practice. A journalist attending a professional convention is not off the job because they are attending as professionals. And they must comport themselves as professionals (at least until the evening parties begin).

David Carr in the New York Times: “The Unity: Journalists of Color convention, a gathering of minority journalists held in Washington last week, had its share of political controversy, including one man being booted from the convention center after heckling President Bush. But one knotty issue—whether gay and lesbian journalists should be members of Unity—never made the agenda.”

Kimberly A.C. Wilson in the Baltimore Sun:

Tim Graham, director of analysis for the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group based in Alexandria, Va., agreed. “I think it is embarrassing and disappointing,” Graham said in a telephone interview. “Wasn’t anybody thinking about how it would look from the outside?”

Thomas Kunkel, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the very credibility of journalists is at stake when they shift from impartial observation to reactive participation.

“Journalists are citizens, and it’s perfectly reasonable to have opinions and express them, but in this very heated election environment, I wonder if it was smart. From a public relations perspective, I don’t know how wise it was,” Kunkel said in a telephone interview.

For other press reactions see Romenesko. And don’t forget his letters column for Aug. 9th.

Al Tompkins at Poynter (Aug. 5): It’s All About the Journalism. Tompkins led a workshop at Unity and explains what happens there.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 8, 2004 11:22 AM