From the Inside
A Detailed, Damning Look at Race and the News
On a warm weekend this past spring, a flaxen-haired young white man was stabbed and killed on the streets of Baltimore. That same weekend, two other young men, ages 16 and 22, were shot to death in the city. They were not white. The news media seized upon the senseless stabbing of the just-graduated white dental student. Reporters interviewed the 26-year-old's friends and family, who bore witness to great promise lost, and the media extended the narration by covering the victim's funeral as poignant public mourning. But they told different stories about that weekend's shooting victims, treating those deaths as statistical increases in a city's crime rate, part of the background of inner-city life, victims of an internecine drug war. The news media covered these other dead young men as sociological data, copy for the police blotter, not as tragedies of stolen potential.
In America, skin color has always mattered. Arguably, the news media are the single most important set of institutions determining how we talk about race. In 1967, after a couple of years of frequent urban rioting, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Known subsequently as the Kerner Commission, its report on an America that was "two nations, black, white, separate and unequal" included a damning indictment of the nation's media. According to the report, "by failing to portray the Negro as a matter of routine and in context of the total society, the news media have, we believe, contributed to the black-white schism in this country." Last month, The New York Times, as part of its extensive "How Race is Lived in America" series, published some poll results. "In question after question the poll revealed a core of blacks who find little to celebrate even today. . . . [T]hey thought that race relations in the country were generally bad and that there had been no real progress in eliminating racial discrimination since the '60s. On many questions . . . blacks and whites seemed to be living on different planets."
Conversely, more than a third of whites polled thought too much is made of the challenges African-Americans face. Many believe that we have overcome and that racism is only a quaint anachronism among certain retrograde Southerners and the subject of a few chapters in our history books.
Two nations, different planets. Pamela Newkirk's Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media throws itself into this gap. In today's discussion of race, Newkirk's book makes a heroic effort to clearly explain how our continuing racial dilemma plays itself out in and is influenced by the news media. In the book's preface, she states her desire to subject the news media to "criticism [that] stems from a deep and abiding respect for an institution that has the greatest potential to stir our best impulses, as well as deepening our disappointment with its unfulfilled promise." In striving for a balance between advocate and critic, between booster and judge, Newkirk slips now and again, but she has produced an ambitious book that enlightens even when it falls short.
A professor of journalism at New York University, Newkirk still works in the field. Starting out with a small afternoon paper in Albany, N.Y., she has gone on to write for The New York Times, The Nation, New York Newsday, Essence, and The Washington Post. As a journalist, she tells a good tale with detailed facts and prescient quotes; as an academic, she constructs architecture of context. She succeeds more readily when functioning as a journalist. Virtually free of academic dryness, the book is alive with her passion and commitment.
Using the Kerner Commission's indictment as a starting point, Newkirk argues that the media haven't come very far in the intervening decades. African-Americans' radicalism and persistence, combined with the growing pragmatism of media owners and editors, have opened the doors slightly to black journalists, but she believes "a wide and deep racial and cultural chasm still divides blacks and whites in the newsroom. . . . [W]hile the complexion of its newsrooms [has] changed to better reflect society the target audience of the media has changed little. News continues to be constructed for a primarily white audience."
These are the questions that resonate throughout Within the Veil: What is the media for? Whose self-representations matter? These might seem like obvious questions, but they are more subtle and more demanding of our attention than we regularly allow. In a society divided by "deep chasms," how can journalism adequately represent the range and nuance of life on either side of that gap? This is different from asking who controls the media and whose interests are served by that control. Such questions usually end discussion of race rather than promote it, because the answers rely on ideological abstractions. Newkirk wants to question how we get beyond abstractions to the viscera of the news, how to get within the veil: How does race reflect our very consciousness, and how do journalists then report that reflection to us?
One way to reveal what is within the veil is to control your own media. In 1827, the editorial in the first issue of Freedom's Journal, the first African-American-owned and -operated newspaper, could stand as the black press' credo even today: "From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented. Our vices and our degradation are ever arrayed against us, but our virtues are passed unnoticed." Newkirk's book boasts several chapters that survey the history of the African-American press, complete with a multipage time line. Frederick Douglass' North Star, the Chicago Defender, the NAACP's The Crisis, The Baltimore Afro-American, Ebony, Jet, and Essence--all are pieces of American journalism's history, but also evidence of its exclusions.
Newkirk also gives an insightful history of African-American attempts at integrating the nation's white newsrooms. Newkirk documents both complex individual struggles and institutional resistance to change at newspapers and radio and TV stations. She writes about classic American tales of boot-strap success and all-too-frequent stories of racial exclusion: the New York Post's hiring of Ted Poston in 1935 to cover the nascent civil-rights movement; Max Robinson becoming the first African-American network TV anchor; Bryant Gumbel turning into a celebrity spectacle.
Newkirk also plumbs the "double-special burden," as she calls it, of being black and reporting to a mostly white world. Regularly required to do stories that "report on the race," African-American journalists are often then challenged to be critical of other blacks to prove their objectivity to white editors. Then there's criticism from fellow African-Americans, who consider such "objectivity" to be evidence of race treason. Newkirk offers detailed front-line reports of how this burden has played itself out. For instance, there's the story of Dorothy Gaiter, a columnist and editorial-board member of The Miami Herald who won the "nigger of the year award" from the Urban League of Greater Miami after writing a column critical of the lone black Miami city commissioner. Then there's Janet Cooke's sordid tale of winning (and then returning) the Pulitzer Prize for the fabricated story of a heroin-addicted black child. The real lesson of Cooke's experience, Newkirk argues, is the revelation of the great desire The Washington Post's white editors and readers have for stories of black pathology.
Newkirk refrains from sharing her own experiences with the "double-special burden" and lets her subjects tell their tales. As a successful practicing journalist, she is perfectly positioned to deliver special insight, yet she never relates the details of her own struggles. We may have an excess of self-revelation in our times, but Newkirk's book would have benefited from a personal narrative.
The book's chapters have the heft of pieces forged to stand on their own, leaving a lack of a certain editorial connective tissue and consequently leaving themes implied rather than stated. Again, as in a good news story, description takes precedence, and Newkirk renders the world within the veil with damning detail. But she offers fewer ideas as to where to go from here.
Within the Veil does many things, not the least of which is provoke readers to look closely at the progress in the 30-plus years since the Kerner Commission. Newkirk's detailed stories insist that we not be sanguine. For Newkirk, today's African-American journalists have become important activists in the struggle to achieve the promise of American life. For those journalist-activists--as well as news consumers--she writes that the pernicious "dominant view of black inferiority transmitted and adopted by much of the mainstream news media" is "too great a price for the nation to pay."