Media Notes: Obama Will Face Few Black White House Reporters

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 12, 2009

In private conversations, says White House correspondent April Ryan, President Bush has told her that "there need to be more minorities in the press corps."

"The numbers dropped not because of a lack of minority correspondents but because of the ownership of many papers and networks, at a time when diversity is very important," says Ryan, who reports for American Urban Radio Networks. "Imagine you're president, at the lectern, looking out at those faces -- is this a representation of America?"

Eight days before Barack Obama is sworn in, the relative paucity of black journalists at the White House is striking. A mostly white press corps at 1600 Pennsylvania would be cause for concern no matter what the color of the Oval Office occupant. But the advent of the Obama administration seems to underscore that racial progress has been uneven in a business that chronicles that very subject.

While there are some exceptions, most major news outlets that regularly chronicle the White House do not have a minority reporter on this, Washington's most visible beat.

The cable news channels have fared better on this score, with Wendell Goler of Fox News, CNN's Suzanne Malveaux and, until he recently left the network, MSNBC's Kevin Corke reporting from the White House. But the broadcast networks, which are often grooming future anchors, are another story.

"The White House is often used as a place for the networks to try out folks they think might have a high-visibility future," Goler says. "It is more difficult to place African Americans in this position if they're competing with someone else you're thinking of for a high-visibility position further down the road." The beat has been a launching pad since Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw covered the White House, and more recently boosted the careers of Brian Williams, David Gregory, Terry Moran, John Roberts and Claire Shipman.

Mark Whitaker, NBC's Washington bureau chief, says that race is "a factor we look at, but we want to make sure we have the strongest team at the White House. If it's an issue, it should have been an issue before Obama."

Whitaker, who had been Newsweek's first African American editor, says he has tried to lure NBC anchor Lester Holt to Washington, without success. Diversity, he says, "is definitely something on my agenda long term."

On the newspaper side, the percentage of minority journalists is near its historic high, at 13.5 percent, but a huge wave of layoffs and buyouts has shrunk the overall pool.

"The problem is there are so few of us in the pipeline," says William Douglas, congressional reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, who last year found himself the only black print reporter regularly covering the White House. "Even before the economic downturn, there were only a handful of black reporters covering Capitol Hill or state legislatures."

He and other black journalists say they bring a much-needed perspective to politics. When there was a debate during the campaign over whether Obama, who is biracial, was "black enough" for the African American community, "that was a new conversation for a lot of white people," Douglas says.

He also says Michelle Obama may be viewed through different lenses. "In talking to a bunch of black ladies at a dinner party," Douglas says, there was much buzz about "her impact on obesity in the black community because she's so fit. I'm not sure a nonblack reporter would pursue that avenue."

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