I attended the National Association of Black Journalists Convention in Baltimore this weekend thinking I was going to celebrate the organization's 10th anniversary. Instead, I found myself smack dab in the middle of a dilemma: Was it success being feted during this three-day extravaganza, or was it failure?
Looking back, it is clear that progress has been made in integrating the nation's newsrooms during the past decade. While only 50 black journalists had shown up for the first convention, held in Washington in 1975, more than 1,200 gathered this year.
Yet, this progress has occurred mainly inside the largest and most prestigious news organizations. For many blacks at those organizations, however, there is a growing frustration that they are trapped in entry-level positions or exclusively "black beats."
Sure, each Big Medium could point to one or, at best, two black superstars on its roster. But more common was the "revolving door," through which black reporters had been hired to ward off racial discrimination lawsuits, then forced out when the heat was off.
I had been among the first large wave of college-educated blacks to attempt to break into the media establishment. In the absence of overt racial discrimination, my group thought the sky was the limit. We were wrong.
"What the black applicant runs into is not outright hostility, but old customs, habits of mind," said Frank Trippett of Time magazine, one of the many white talent scouts working the convention.
Said Les Payne, an editor at Newsday and former NABJ president: "The problem is that many of the recruiters are looking for cookie-cutter copies of whites."
Still, the increase in black representation in the media -- including a handful of black television anchors, managing editors and a couple of publishers -- seemed a good reason to celebrate. But therein was another dilemma.
As educated professionals, black journalists wanted to party with style, much like white people do at the Gridiron Club or the White House Press Correspondents dinner. But without money of their own, they let Coors beer, with its controversial record on minority hiring, cosponsor the black journalists awards program, while the very news organizations that black journalists are trying to pressure were invited to underwrite receptions, luncheons and parties.
It was odd listening to black reporters complain about the "white man" while drinking his liquor and eating his food.
The height of irony was reached during a luncheon speech by Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), who urged black reporters to agree to a "covenant with the black community." The lunch cost $12,000 and was paid for by The Washington Post. A Post editor at the convention questioned Mitchell's call for "advocacy journalism" and said it ran counter to the newspaper's concept of objectivity.
Yet, the audience applauded Mitchell while eating The Post's lunch.
Some say this was cool -- a sort of "take the money and run" mentality. But what's really happening is more complex.
The majority of black reporters have made a choice, whether they realize it or not. They have opted for the money and prestige of the white media and are now a part of those teams.
The practical avenue for espousing a "black perspective" was the black press, but it has been shunned and left to flounder. Of the 400 black newspaper publishers in America, none participated in the black journalists convention.
"On one hand, blacks want to integrate and have a say in the major media," said Harold Logan, assistant director of business development for Dow Jones Information Services. "On the other hand, they want their own voice in an effort to create a black point of view."
Working themselves out of this dilemma will not be easy for black journalists, but one thing is sure: Trying to have it both ways will only subject them to disrespect in the black community and failure as journalists.