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.