Purging the Wrong Voices (2)

Posted by: June Cross

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June Cross
The last time New Orleans got devastated by a hurricane was 25 years ago.  The hurricane was called Betsy.   The lower ninth took the brunt of the force that time, too, but Congress acted through the Small Business Administration to create loans for homeowners which were ultimately forgiven.  The black community in the lower ninth ultimately organized around the city's failure to rebuild, and developed the political power which led to the election of Ernest Morial, the city's first black mayor, in 1978.


The rise of black political power in New Orleans coincided with the development of the country's first cadres of minority professional journalists.  Throughout the country, black power activists agitated for a seat at the inner sanctums and for justice in the streets.  Newspapers and television stations came to understand that they needed minorities who previously had been relegated to the ethnic press to explain what was going on to their audiences.  There was actually a time, just after Morial's election, when all three television networks had African-American in positions of influence on their Assignment Desks.  These assignment editors framed stories differently:  they saw people of color as having agency and dignity of their own.  From Bangladesh, to the Middle East, to the African famines in Ethiopia - I would argue that stories got reported differently, that public opinion was changed slowly - because of the consistent pressure.  Speaking of one who came of age in that era (although I was certainly not in any positions of influence ) - we lived in an exquisite double consciousness, pressing for coverage of our communities, but reserving the right to call it as we saw it.
Today, black, brown, yellow, and red people account for one-third of the population of the United States .  They account for 11.6 per cent of the newspaper reporters and editors. It's impossible to state with any accuracy what the numnbers are on the broadcast side because there's no reporting mechanism:  the FCC has been stalemated over whether to require stations and networks to even report their minority hiring statistics to the government, let alone make them public. What we can glean from the numbers paints a dismal picture:  3.6% of mainstream television stations had a person of color as general manger in 2007, the last statistics I could confirm.  And minority employment in radio news declined from 14.7% in 1995 to 6.2% in 2007.  Latino presence in mainstream radio has dropped to .4% - statistically, zero.  Even accounting for the rise in Spanish-speaking stations, that signifies a country polarized by the color of its news gathering teams.
Even though so much information is migrating to the web, I argue that for many Americans who don't live in big cities, don't have access to high speed internet, and who can't afford texts on their phones, television remains the great unifier.  At Columbia's Graduate School  of Journalism, where I work, we get a group of enthusiastic, determined, and dedicated students who want to go out into the world and do great work.  But most of them won't make it into the ranks of upper management even though they're trained at a school which prides itself on turning out Journalism's future leaders.  Why?  They get tired of pitching stories only to be told that minorities aren't a ratings draw.  they get tired of being asked to find someone more "likable."  Or they're not seen as assertive enough.  Or too aggressive.  Or they're seen as pushing an agenda. People want to know why Rihanna when back to Chris Brown, not explore the growing problem of domestic violence against women.   Push too hard, and in an environment where the profits are non-existent and the layoffs growing, those who are perceived as most cantankerous get laid off first.
When new executives come to the school and talk about hiring and why so often caucasians seem to rise like cream to the top of a pool of diverse candidates, and stay there even while the coffee and the chicory and the cinnamon get thrown out, what I hear most often is, "Well, they're just most qualified."  As if qualified was the only qualification.  There was a time in this country when seeking diversity was institutionalized, and the by-word then was to find candidates who were QUALIFIABLE.   Candidates who, to use Jim Amoss' words, were tough minded, dedicated, and passionate about telling stories about people, their neighborhoods, and the governments that are supposed to serve them.
The Times Picayune won the Pulitzer because they had done yeoman's work during trying times - I have their T-shirt:  "We Publish Come Hell AND High Water" in my office.  But as I researched the story of New Orleanians Herbert Gettridge, I though that even the paper which covered this community so well neglected the lower ninth ward where Mr. Gettridge lived.  There were no photos of everyday life in the Lower Ninth Ward, as there were on the streets of upton, of inthe Marigny or Gentilly.  The football games and church balls in the Lower Ninth and New Orleans East weren't covered, although their crying mothers and surviving kin were.  When I looked throught the available archives of moving images, it was even worse.  It was as if the whole community had never existed except as feathered Indians and marching bands.  Because so many private collections have been lost in the flood, it is as if a whole community has been effectively "disappeared."
I was saddened when I was NOLA three weeks ago to learn that Lolis Eric Elie, one of two black columnists at the Times Picayune, had been reassigned to his reporting job, because the paper's lost 16% of its staff since the flood.  One more voice lost in what seems like a purge of black columnists nationwide.
The pundits say that as we move towards internet distribution, a thousand voices will bloom on the internet.  We're all going to become bloggers, or run our own small entrepreneurial sites, and eventually get recognized by The Huffington Post or show up on talk tv or Steven Colbert.  I would like to think that those who lose their salaried ositions will find new careers in this new medium.  I hope we all find time to work with citizen journalists, like my friend Karen Gadbois whose work with WWL's Lee Zurik led to an Investigative Journalism Award and a Peabody over the past two days.  We all need to remember that our own voices are precious.  That our stories require attention.  I hope that we will all remember those words of Samuel Cornish and John Russworm, who, in Creating Freedom's Journal some 200 years ago, wrote a timeless editorial that begins:  "We wish to plead our own cause.  Too long have others spoken for us."
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