Breaking journalism’s barrier

I was shocked today when I read the obit of Thomas A. Johnson, the first black reporter for The New York Times. Of course, I’ve known that the news industry has had a serious problem with diversity by many definitions; one can’t have worked in it without knowing that. But I did not know that the first black reporter arrived at the Times in 1966. I couldn’t have imagined it was that late. Jackie Robinson broke the barrier in major-league baseball 19 years before, in 1947. And this isn’t the Mississippi Daily Disgrace we’re talking about; it’s The New York Times.

On the one hand, one can be unsurprised that journalism as a power structure didn’t let outsiders in. It’s a club that in some circles is still trying to be clubby today (see, just as a latest example, Michael Calderone in Politico complaining that the great outsider, Mayhill Fowler, dared to criticize another reporter’s story). But how journalism can argue that it has been there to right wrongs when it was so wrong itself?

I realize that I can’t help but come off as naive saying that. So this is part confession: I didn’t know how shameful this recent history was. I entered the business only seven years after Johnson arrived at The Times. I should have known.

  • http://www.bellebooks.com Deb Smith

    The “Mississippi Daily Disgrace?” As a native southerner I’m always intrigued by the casual ignorance and bigotry displayed toward my region. The assumption is that we backward southern hicks harbor a brand of ugly racism not practiced anywhere else in this glorious nation. And yet incidents of egregious racism are evident in every part of this country, and the smug big cities of the north and the west coast are often the most vile little hotbeds of inhuman treatment for people of color. So why should anyone be surprised that the NYT had no black reporters before 1966? And I betcha there are more African Americans working in southern-based newspapers today than anywhere else.

  • Mary

    First of all, how, as a media “expert” could you not know about this shameful history? I think you owe it to your audience to do some reading.

    That aside, I think your comparison of breaking the color barrier to reporting on the questionable ethics of a huffingtonpost blogger is disgraceful and totally off-the-mark.

    The problem isn’t that Mayhill dared to criticize the Vanity Fair article (which had plenty of faults, for sure), it’s that she misrepresented herself while doing so. She ambushed her subject– that’s shoddy work and bad for the professional as a whole.

    And your comparison of her questionable ethics to the horrific legacy of racism is not only faulty but actually offensive.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    First, I’m making no such comparison. I am talking about the clubbiness of journalism.

    Second, of course I know the shameful history. I am fully confessing here how I did not know the timing.

    Third, to get into a discussion of Fowler, as I’ve blogged here and at the Guardian before… Whether or not a witness to news is a journalist will become increasingly irrelevant as all witnesses have the means to share what they see and hear with or without journalists.

    Finally, I note that this comment comes from a domain of Albritton Communications, owner of Politico. Perhaps you are misrepresenting yourself, “Mary.”

  • http://www.politico.com/blogs/michaelcalderone/ Michael Calderone

    Jeff,

    We’ve already spoken on the phone and I disagree with you on the press ethics issues that came up here. That’s fine. I also told you that I thought you were equating my criticism of Fowler’s ethics to those who kept African Americans out of the news business. I didn’t think that was fair. Again, you see things another way.

    And I did not leave a comment on your site just now. A colleague did on their own without any prompting by me. We just happened to be discussing the ethics issue and they felt obliged to respond.

    Michael Calderone

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    I just received a voicemail and an email from Calderone telling me he did not write the comment. I didn’t say he did.

    Calderone confirms that this comment did come from someone at Politico. I ask who that is. This seems like a case of sockpuppetry from within the newspaper — ironic especially given the context of the discussion about Mayhill Fowler and Calderone’s allegation of her misrepresentation.

    [Note: These last two comments were being written at the same time. Calderone's appeared first but we had not seen each other's comments. -jj]

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