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August 10, 2004

Guest Critic: The President of Unity Says Don't Blame Us for the "Liberal Media" Charge

Ernest Sotomayor: "The downslide in the credibility of the media began long before this convention was held, and it began when nearly every publisher, nearly ever executive editor and nearly ever TV and radio news director and station manager in the business was a white male."

Special to PressThink

By Ernest Sotomayor
President, UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc.,
Long Island Editor,

August 10, 2004

For a week media experts, ethicists and observers—liberal, conservative, moderate, whatever—have ranted about the applause for—or lack thereof—for Sen. John Kerry and President Bush at the UNITY: Journalists of Color convention in Washington.

University journalism school deans, journalism purists, conservative and liberal commentators and others have called the convention a sham, a discredit to our profession, a questionable alliance that will erode the credibility of the news media.

Let’s be clear: the downslide in the credibility of the media began long before this convention was held, and it began when nearly every publisher, nearly ever executive editor and nearly ever TV and radio news director and station manager in the business was a white male.

The charge that the news media is soundly liberal and dismissive of conservative viewpoints was levied long before our convention, and it was levied against a media workforce that still today is overwhelmingly white, and has been for more than two centuries.

So it seems disingenuous to blame UNITY for making people in this nation believe that “the media is liberal” just because some journalists applauded Sen. John Kerry during his appearance.

Many of the times that Sen. Kerry was applauded came when he spoke on issues that we are gathered to address as a coalition, such as media ownership, press freedoms, having more people like us among the press corps, or when he raised the names of people whom we hold up as heroes: Frank del Olmo, Ruben Salazar, Frederick Douglass, etc. He cracked plenty jokes and drew laughs, as the president did before the publishers association convention earlier this year. We heard no outcry after that appearance.

The president was greeted with a warm standing ovation out of respect for his office, though certainly not as enthusiastically as Kerry. Would an equal showing have been ideal? Would seated applause have been appropriate for both? Total silence from introduction to goodbye?

Overwhelmingly, the people in the room were professional journalists, not on assignment at the time, and were also as voters who responded as each deemed appropriate. We expect they will return to their jobs, and as they did before gathering in Washington, fulfill their duties as professionals.

The reasons for having the candidates are simple and as journalistically sound as ever: to raise issues that are important to the people in the communities from where we came, but aren’t parts of the discussions on the campaign trail. They include questions about sovereignty on Indian reservations, media ownership, affirmative action, Filipino-American veterans getting their dues, immigration, etc. If we felt we had more people in the press corps who understood these issues, or understood that they are important to tens of millions of Americans, there wouldn’t have been a need for us to ask the candidates to appear before us and discuss them.

These are issues that, unfortunately, received only a cursory examination at these appearances, but at least they were raised, and if they fall off the table, then the people of the nation and the news media have a bigger problem than you can measure with an applause meter.

As for the charge that we’re activists, the plea is guilty. We advocate for fair, representative, accurate journalism, by changing the complexion of newsrooms, not just racially and ethnically, but through the natural diversity of thought that occurs when you bring in people with different backgrounds. Does that make us liberal? You decide. Either way, we’ll continue on our path to point out the disparities, and find ways to make the media more open.

We draw no distinction between our advocacy and those who have filed brief after brief and taken lawsuit after lawsuit to the Supreme Court to get Nixon’s tapes released, to establish protections in libel cases, or to reopen court hearings closed by rogue jurists who don’t believe in a free press.

Those people all stand on the convention that it makes journalism better. We stand for the same thing.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

The debate continues… Just posted, August 12: Guest Critic Juan Gonzalez, Unity Board Member: Our 2008 Convention Must Go Beyond Journalists of Color.

The New York Daily News Columnist, Unity principal, and former head of the NAHA: “As our alliance has moved from the fringes to the center stage of American journalism, I believe we have a responsibility not only to advocate for more hiring and promotion of journalists of color but to press for raising the general standards our industry and profession.” His agenda for Unity: “head in a more inclusive direction.”

For background see PressThink (Aug. 8): “The Crowd’s Reaction Made Some Unity Delegates Uncomfortable.”

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

PressThink (Aug. 11): Guest Critic: Former TV News Director Terry Heaton Says Diversity Falls Apart in the Workplace :

The fear of being branded a “token” interferes with the mission of diversity, because the only response offered is the theoretical “anybody should be able to cover ‘those’ stories.” And anybody should. But I thought diversity efforts in journalism were supposed to acknowledge the special contribution minority journalists could make to some stories. Is asking a black reporter to cover a dispute involving the black community really an attempt to “ghettoize?”

Columnist Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe (Aug. 12): When diversity is only skin-deep.

It would be nice to report that Bush and Kerry used their time at the Unity podium to condemn the organization’s obsession with skin color, and to remind the journalists in the room that true diversity, the only diversity worth fighting for, is intellectual diversity: the diversity of minds.

But there was no “Sister Souljah moment” last week. Instead, Bush and Kerry pandered shamelessly, telling Unity’s racialists exactly what they wanted to hear.

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 10, 2004 11:55 PM