The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kristen Welker asked the candidates about The Talk. That moment proved the value of newsroom diversity.

Kristen Welker of NBC News moderated the final 2020 presidential debate on Thursday. As a woman of color, the White House correspondent was able to broach the issue of race with the seriousness and authenticity it demands. (Morry Gash/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Any debate moderator could have asked the candidates the question about The Talk — the terrible conversation that parents must have with their children of color to warn them about the hazards their skin color may present for them as they go out in the world.

It’s a talk that advises them how to stay safe, for example, when pulled over by police: Keep your hands visible, be extremely polite and don’t make any sudden movements.

It’s a talk that most White parents don’t feel the need to have with their children.

In Black families like mine, the race talk comes early and it’s painful. And it’s not optional.

Anyone could have asked it, but Kristen Welker was the one who did. And because the NBC News correspondent is Black, the question carried an extra measure of seriousness and authenticity.

Debate moderator Kristen Welker on Oct. 22 asked the candidates a pointed question about “The Talk” Black parents must have with their children to protect them. (Video: The Washington Post)

It not only prompted some of the most enlightening answers of Thursday night’s final presidential debate. It also perfectly illustrated why American journalists in newsrooms across the country have been so righteously indignant in recent months about matters of race in their own organizations.

Diversity actually does make a difference. It actually does make for better journalism.

Would the New York Times’s 1619 Project have been born if Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black staff writer, had not been thinking about her own heritage and the importance of a little-known 400th anniversary that was soon approaching?

How the 1619 Project took over 2020

It’s possible. But I doubt that it would have had the huge impact that it has, educating Americans about the staggering, far-reaching impact of slavery in American culture since enslaved people first arrived on these shores in 1619; it’s now slated to become a part of the curriculum in schools across the country.

Too often, newsroom diversity — and corporate diversity of all sorts — is seen as a numbers game, a matter of meeting quotas. But at its core, that’s not what it’s about. It’s about journalism that accurately, and meaningfully, reflects what’s going on in an increasingly diversified country.

Consider what happened a few months ago at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where top editor Stan Wischnowski resigned after an uproar over an article on vandalism that carried the headline “Buildings Matter, Too” — an insensitive play on Black Lives Matter that seemed to mock the movement for racial justice.

The internal reaction was swift and harsh, as some staffers called off work “sick and tired.” Their written protest explained: “We’re tired of shouldering the burden of dragging this 200-year-old institution kicking and screaming into a more equitable age. . . . we’re tired of being told of the progress the company has made, and being served platitudes about ‘diversity and inclusion’ when we raise our concerns.”

My bad news judgment hurt Buffalo’s Black community. Ten years later, the lessons linger.

The New York Times’s top opinion editor, James Bennet, resigned under fire after an editorial by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), “Send In the Troops,” which suggested using the U.S. military to quell violent protests in American streets after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Times staffers, including many Black journalists, found the piece inflammatory and even endangering to their safety.

In its aftermath, a telling anecdote surfaced, according to reporting by my colleagues Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison: “A Black photo editor had raised issues about the piece before publication with the junior colleague who was overseeing it, but his concerns weren’t heeded.”

Imagine if they had been.

At other news organizations, including The Post’s, journalists have told their emotional stories of feeling discriminated against, ignored or insulted; and in many cases, they have successfully pressed for changes in hiring, promotion and in the journalism itself.

The Los Angeles Times, where particularly strong protests came from staff, recently published an extensive self-critical look at the paper’s deeply flawed history of covering communities of color: “Our reckoning with racism.” It included an apology — a rarity in journalism.

What Kristen Welker can learn from Savannah Guthrie about dealing with Trump

At Thursday’s debate, Welker’s question sparked vastly different reactions from the two candidates. Former vice president Joe Biden addressed it directly, describing the details of The Talk as he understands it, and noting that it’s not a conversation he ever felt compelled to have with his children.

“The fact of the matter is, there is institutional racism in America,” he said.

NBC’s Kristen Welker moderated the final presidential debate between President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Oct. 22. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump glossed over the question, noting quickly that racism exists but moving to attack Biden on his support of the 1994 crime bill, and then pivoting to self-praise: “Nobody has done more for the Black community than Donald Trump,” he claimed, making an allowance for the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln. He added: “I’m the least racist person in this room,” which rang a particularly odd note. Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker reacted by describing Trump as the “president who has repeatedly made racist comments, spread a racist lie about Obama to build a national political profile and has refused at times (such as the last debate) to condemn white supremacists.”

Welker didn’t argue with Trump. It wasn’t her role, and besides, she didn’t need to. Her question — and her presence — made the point.

We could use a lot more of that.

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