A Pale Reflection of America
Obama, Like His Predecessors, Will Face a Press Corps Lacking in Minorities

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."

When Bill Clinton was president, he attended a soul food dinner at Douglas's home with nine black White House correspondents. Such a gathering would be smaller today, although the ranks will swell slightly Jan. 20.

Michael Fletcher covered the White House for The Washington Post before switching to an economics beat in 2007. His editors asked him during the fall campaign to cover the next president, and the African American correspondent says he is "sure they were betting" on an Obama victory.

"It feels like you would want to have black journalists there to bring a different racial sensibility," he says. "Race is such a subtext to the historic nature of his presidency. I find Obama a more compelling story than John McCain would have been." The New York Times has shifted Helene Cooper, author of a memoir about growing up in Liberia, to cover Obama.

Ryan says she was often the only reporter asking about problems in Sudan. "If there were more voices talking about the plight of urban America, the problems of New Orleans, New Orleans could be in better shape than it is now," she says. "There are segments of America that have been left off the radar screen, and minority journalists should have been asking these questions on a daily basis."

The black press has been energized. Ebony magazine, which named Obama its first Person of the Year, plans to devote more attention to the White House, perhaps with a full-time correspondent. Bryan Monroe, editorial director for Ebony and Jet, says the magazines have covered Washington for decades but that there is "huge interest" in Obama among readers. "It's a big deal," he says. "Without a doubt, the biggest story in black America in the last year or two, if not in our lifetimes."

Goler, a 22-year veteran on the beat, says such efforts aren't enough. "What I want to see is more black reporters without an agenda, more black reporters doing basic journalism," he says.

Tribune Retreats

When the Chicago Tribune launched a radical redesign last fall, the company's chief innovation officer, Lee Abrams, warned in an internal memo that critics might savage the big-headlines-and-photos approach that often left just one or two stories on the front page.

"With the press starting to cover the new look," he wrote, "I think we have to be on guard for, and defend against the 'shorter paper . . . smaller staff . . . more concise' thing that will certainly be the focus point of the 'trib is dumbing down and cheapening' crowd. . . . Now is a good time to really stress the positives. . . . I'm guessing that we'll see A LOT of 'Financial woes force Chicago Tribune into McTrib . . . ' "

Tribune Editor Gerould Kern thanked him for the "good advice."

Last week, in an unusual wraparound section titled "You Spoke, We Listened," Kern admitted that readers didn't like many of the changes. Headlines said that "You Told Us": "Too few stories," "Too many ads," "The paper is too loud," "Bring back my business section." The paper promised changes.

While it sure sounded like a mea culpa, Kern told Editor & Publisher: "We weren't apologizing. We were thanking readers for their input."

Persona Non Grata

Tom Ricks, The Post's former Pentagon reporter, was once blackballed at the Army War College.

"We all need to avoid Tom like the plague," Steven Metz, a department chairman at the school's Strategic Studies Institute, wrote colleagues in 2005. But Metz, who was wary of Ricks's critical reporting on the Iraq war, didn't hold a grudge. Last year he asked Ricks to blurb his book, and the reporter obliged.

Metz declined to comment, but he apologized to Ricks by e-mail, saying he feared retaliation from Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon: "Several members of SSI had been verbally flogged after interviews with you when the stories portrayed [us] as more critical of the administration than we intended. We were worried about what might happen to SSI."

Ricks tells the tale on the Web site of Foreign Policy, which was recently bought by The Post Co. and is being expanded online by the paper's former assistant managing editor for national news, Susan Glasser.

Obama Adulation Watch

"As Barack Obama stacks his staff with studs whose looks are as outstanding as their credentials, it's clear that the nation's 44th president won't be the only man on the hill who can rock a suit -- bespoke or bathing." -- Thursday's New York Daily News with a photo spread on "Hotties of the Obama Cabinet."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company