The Root : Why So Few Black Political Reporters?

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Sam Fulwood III
Root Contributor
Wednesday, December 3, 2008; 12:00 PM

In an article for The Root, titled "The White, White House Press Corps," journalist Sam Fulwood III writes: "Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign boosted -- no, it actually created -- the careers of a whole cadre of black political reporters... Nearly a quarter century later, Barack Obama made the same primary run, and it was not the symbolic stab at the White House that Jackson's represented; instead, the junior senator from Illinois took the prize and will become the nation's first black president. But black journalists by and large weren't around to document the groundbreaking victory."

Fulwood, a former columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and frequent contributor to The Root, was online Wednesday, December 3 to discuss the many reasons the Washington press corps is far less diverse than the new administration it will cover.

A transcript follows.

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Sam Fulwood III: Hello all.

I'm Sam Fulwood, a regular contributor to TheRoot.com. I'm happy respond to your questions about the article I posted to the website earlier this week.

Just to get us started, I should disclose that I covered Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign in 1992 and covered him as he considered running in 1996. I didn't cover Barack Obama's campaign earlier this year.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Fulwood,

I don't understand why the color of a person's skin should be the arbiter for doing a job. Shouldn't the best people cover the president -- white, black, or otherwise? Your article on The Root seemed pretty black-centric.

Sam Fulwood III: I'm not sure that the color of a reporter's skin SHOULD be THE arbiter for covering the White House. What I was arguing is that in the past reporters were boosted by candidates and it didn't happen with the 2008 campaign. And, yes, The Root is aimed at a black/minority audience. I don't see a problem with that.

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Anonymous: Obama did a very deft balancing act for the duration of the campaign, running as America's candidate, not the candidate of African-Americans. Proved to be hugely successful. How, then, is he going to answer questions pertaining, specifically, to Black America in a press conference designed to answer questions pertaining, generally, to all Americans? If black journalists want to get anywhere with this administration, they'd be better served by phrasing questions in a way that focuses on the statistics, not the color, of the issue.

Sam Fulwood III: Yes, I agree. Not only did Obama minimize race and racial issues in his successful campaign, the media didn't go overboard in making an issue of it.

Still, I think some nuances of race, which remains a potent force in American life, were lost as the campaign progressed. If journalists are doing their jobs, these issues wouldn't be missed. Rather, they would be illuminated so the public better understands what motivates civic life.

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Online: Being a black reporter in the White House carries no more weight than being a black news reporter on a TV news desk. In both instances, what the public hears or sees will be filtered through news directors and top news execs, who are mostly white. These are the gatekeepers who determine what is newsworthy, regardless of who is reporting the "news". If you want unvarnished non-commercial news, look to the Internet. The MSM is becoming irrelevant with each passing day.

Sam Fulwood III: I totally disagree that the MSM is becoming less important. Rather, it's invaluable to people who inhabit the blogosphere. Where else do they get their primary source of information? Lots of opinion can't replace the informed reporting of the MSM, even if people claim they don't like or respect it. They still read and watch quality news reports.

And, that's why it's important that the reporting corps be as diverse as possible.

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Arlington, Va.: Isn't the greater concern that the WH press corps lacks ideological diversity? We're now going to have a Democratic administration covered by an almost-uniformly Democratic press corps. When last this happened under the Clinton administration, it skewed coverage onto personal scandals and away from much serious analysis of Clinton's policies. It seems to me that if the role of the press corps is to hold the Administration accountable, it would help to have a few members of the press who are not reflexively sympathetic to that Administration.

Sam Fulwood III: This is an excellent point.

I do think the WH press corps lacks all sorts of diversity, including racial and ideological diversity.

Still, inherent in this question seems to be the idea that black reporters wouldn't be critical of a black president. That sort of thinking is not only wrong, it's a slur on the professionalism of black journalists.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you expect the Obama White House to be any different from the Obama campaign, which was as tight with access and information as the Bush White House ever was?

Sam Fulwood III: I do expect the Obama White House to be stingy with information and access. That's the way White House inhabitants operate and I don't see why this one would be any different.

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USA: If more black people had chosen that profession, we would have more reporters. With all the 'affirmative action' and other programs in place over the last 30 years, I am tired of hearing about mythical, alleged conspiracies to 'keep them down' and out of certain jobs.

Sam Fulwood III: Who said anything about conspiracies? Not me.

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Today's media: I got to see my dad in action as a journalist when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s. The movement and other social struggles made it a much more challenging time to cover. Also more muckraking and investigative reporting.

I was stunned listening to the coverage (NPR News and Notes) of this year's National Association of Black Journalists -- more focus on socializing and networking, little attention given to investigative work, speaking truth to power. My mouth gaped when I found out on the NPR program On the Media that the CIA had a booth at the job center. Do you honestly think a reporter of the 60s and 70s era would have even allowed the CIA to be considered a worthy job option, let alone allow the Agency to have a booth?

Much has been lost in translation, not limited to black journalists, but the US media as a whole. Too much emphasis on style and appearance, very little on substance and investigation.

Sam Fulwood III: One of the points I made (poorly, I'll admit in hindsight) in the article was that the original black reporters were outstanding journalists. They came into mainstream newsrooms to cover the riots in the '60s and stuck through some bitter moments during the '70s.

It was many of those reporters like Jack White, whom I mentioned in my article, who covered Jesse Jackson's 1984 campaign.

Today, many of those guys and gals are out of the business. There are other black journalists, but not nearly the number doing hard-core political reporting. I think this is true of white reporters, too.

The economic situation has made it difficult for newspapers and television networks to afford the expense of sending reporters out to cover politics as it once was done.

I regret this, but it's the way of the current world.

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D.C.: Would a black reporter, theoretically, potentially have more access in this administration, and if so, should news organizations assign more of them to the White House on the theory that they will get more/better stuff?

Sam Fulwood III: I think there are some people who were thinking (and hoping) that this might be true. So far, I see no evidence of it being so.

In a way this is both good and bad. Good, in the sense that the Obama folks aren't cutting favors based on race. Bad, in the sense that black reporters aren't getting shots at covering the administration.

Yeah, it's a mixed bag.

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Media Ownership: Perhaps it is not more blacks in the press corps that is needed... rather, more black owners of the press. Tough times in journalism for all. With media concentration of several formats, there has been a shrinkage of outlets owned by people of color. I am not certain that the effects of deregulating the airwaves (a special present from the Bush era) can be reversed with our new government. I am optimistic that coverage will be improved when readers demand it. I think this explains in part the explosion of e-zines, citizen journalists and blogging.

Sam Fulwood III: I agree with your point about the public demanding better coverage. In fact, this is the only hope for improving journalism.

Unfortunately, I am not all that optimistic that the public is as engaged in changing our profession as it should be. Fact of the matter, journalists SHOULD be an extension of the reading and viewing public. Increasingly, however, the press is an animal unto itself -- separate and apart from the public.

As a result, readers seek alternatives. I do think that has fueled the so-call participatory journalistic trend. But bloggers and the like can't afford to do independent journalism. They don't have the resources and many don't have the desire to report. Far more often, they opine about stuff they see on the Internet.

What this creates is an echo-chamber effect of people listening or reading to stuff they already agree on. That's very dangerous to a democratic society because the public isn't being informed.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Who were the reporters of color who covered the Jackson campaign in 1988, and where are they today?

Sam Fulwood III: I'm reluctant to name names because I'm sure I'll miss some. I did mention a few in my article posted on The Root.

However, as I mentioned in the article, only a few of those who covered Jackson in 1984 and 1988 are still covering politics today.

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Va.: So only black reporters would be in the White House press corps in solidarity, unity and harmony with the new President. Will make white liberals guilty...

Sam Fulwood III: This is a joke question, right?

I don't think there was anything I wrote that suggests ONLY black reporters should be in the White House press corps. And I know my colleagues (black and white, alike) will never be in solidarity, unity and harmony with any president.

As for white liberal guilt, I have no idea what makes anyone feel guilty, nor do I care. I'm interested in seeing a diverse and competent press corps that serves the public's interest. I don't believe that an all-white or overwhelmingly white press corps is able to serve the diverse interests of a multicultural America.

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Re: USA: As an African-American, I get tired of hearing how "affirmative action" has helped us as a people gain equal status and footing in this country.

Moreover, that comment asserts that there aren't African-Americans capable of effective political reporting. Aside from that -- I think your article was very interesting, and I do find it peculiar how the press corps has turned into a virtual monolith of white folks covering the first black president. I think something is lost when diversity isn't present, because people can't bring their varied perspectives and interpretations to the people. Even when stating the facts, differing life experiences could produce many different ways of presenting those facts to the public.

Sam Fulwood III: Thanks for the compliment on the article.

You do seem to get the point that a diverse press corps brings something extra to the process of informing America.

I guess I should point out that it's not just Obama. Previous administrations should have had minorities in the White House press corps, as well. It's just seems more glaring that you have a black president being questioned by an all-white or nearly all-white press corps.

I can't understand how readers and viewers don't see something wrong with that. A good way to imagine how odd that is: What if President Bush or President Clinton stood daily in front of a press corp that only had brown faces? I think most Americans would notice this and think it odd, to say the least.

Why, then, is this so difficult for people to understand now with a black president?

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Florissant Valley, Mo.: Good day, Sam. My tongue is moving a bit toward my cheek, but one thing that can happen to successful "minority" reporters is a) they write a book, and b) get invited to be "the minority spokesperson" on Fox News. Matter of fact, they rub sholders with Brit and Fred and start talking Fox talk. Better to stay in the trenches, seems to me. Thanks

Sam Fulwood III: This is another hilarious post. I see your tongue peeking out.

Well, maybe black reporters should have the same opportunities to be as craven and misguided as their white peers have been down through the ages.

Don't you think that's only fair in this age of Obama?

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Hi Sam,

Just wanted to say hi and that I enjoy your work very much. We were actually suitemates for a year or two, 4th floor -- Hinton James.

Sam Fulwood III: Hello, Buffalo

I'm glad you like my work. Hinton James was a long, long time ago.

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Washington, D.C.: Good piece, my brother. But it needs some augmentation: the black journalists who covered Jesse's campaign in 1984 cut their teeth covering the civil rights movement, which was a lot more than NAACP conventions and Urban Leagues dinner. Most of us cut our teeth covering nasty racial disputes in backwater southern towns, the urban uprisings that took place during the long hot summers of the 1960s, police brutality cases, conflicts over the control of urban school systems, busing, the initial forays into local politics by ground breakers such as Carl Stokes, Richard Hatcher and Maynard Jackson. There were tough, challenging assignments that required supreme journalistic efforts from talented, committed black reporters who were then, as now, in relatively short supply. It was that extensive background and experience that made the black reporters who covered Jackson's campaigns such a strong group. The group that covered Jackson included some of the best reporters, of any race, assigned to that campaign. And they didn't get that good covering dinners and conventions, believe me.

Sam Fulwood III: This is true. You're right to point out, as I did above, that some of those who covered Jackson in 1984 and 1988 were among the best (if largely unrecognized by the mainstream editors and the public) reporters in the land.

And, you're also right, to correct me about how they came into the business. They did a hell of a lot more and better work than covering conventions, not that there's anything wrong with that.

Fact of the matter, those pioneer black journalists in the mainstream were a talented bunch who could cover stories that many of their white peers couldn't. It's a shame they weren't recognized in their day and a greater shame that they didn't progress to covering higher profile assignments like the the White House.

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Indianapolis, Ind.: Do you think that sometimes the media, especially local media, go out of there way to project a certain type of diversity? On election night while watching the local new coverage we (my white middle class suburban family) couldnt help but notice the news channel we were watching had sent all of their black (and for that matter female and Latino) reporters to the Republican headquaters and all of the older/male/white reporters to the Democratic headquarters. I cant help but think this was no accident by the network and the funny thing is I probably would not have even been able to remember which reporters were at which place afterwards if it hadn't been so obviously divided. (Maybe just for the purpose of looking unbiased? I don't know.)

Sam Fulwood III: I'm not sure if local media is going out of its way to project diversity of any kind. From what I see, most news outlets have a limited pool of minority reporters, editors and assignment persons. I think sometimes people are mislead because they see a black anchor in some large cities as to thinking the entire media is diverse. This just isn't the case. Fact of the matter, most newspapers and television stations in the country have relatively little to no representation of minorities in their news-gathering operations.

What you see in major markets is a function of the population bases that those stations are seeking to serve. I think it's a function of marketing, not much else.

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Re: The Media: The media didn't go overboard making an issue of it? What about the endless speculation about the Bradley effect and the Wilder effect and who knows what other effects proving that white people just won't vote for a black candidate?

Sam Fulwood III: Endless speculation? I don't think so. I think coverage of that issue was limited and restrained when compared to the coverage of non-issues such as Rev. Wright and Bill Ayers.

I think it's a matter of perspective. When people don't like a topic in the news, they seem to imagine the media is going overboard. But when an issue appeals to them, they think the media is ignoring it. Funny, to me?

As it turned out, a large number of white people voted for Obama during the primaries and in the general election. He couldn't have won otherwise. But the reporting on this issue seemed, to me, to be shallow and superficial during the entire campaign. Just one journalist's opinion.

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Sam Fulwood III: OK folks. We're out of time and I've got to run. This was fun and I hope we can do it again.

Good-bye for now.

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