It took a couple of days after the Covington Catholic High School video went viral for journalists to lose their backbones. Instead of taking seriously the blatant racism exhibited in the footage from the incident at the Lincoln Memorial last Friday, reporters are working overtime to grant absolution to Covington students.
They have pointed to the Black Hebrew Israelites, a group also clearly engaging in vile, racist behavior in footage, and they have questioned the intentions of Nathan Phillips, a citizen of the Omaha Tribe who stood face to face with one of the teenagers while singing the Raymond Yellow Thunder song.
The footage clearly shows white teenagers taunting Phillips with “tomahawk chops” while hooting, hollering and laughing, but reporters are asking viewers not to believe what they see. In their effort to absolve the boys of any responsibility for the anti-Indian racism they displayed, journalists have abdicated their responsibility to seek truth and report it, instead choosing to center white voices that attack people of color.
For the Atlantic, Julie Irwin Zimmerman, an officer at a consulting firm in Cincinnati, wrote, “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test.” Katie Herzog, a staff writer at the Stranger in Seattle, chimed in by writing, “These boys, like everyone, should be judged by what they actually did, not by a 6-second clip.” Additional news outlets were quick to report that additional context revealed new information or was needed to understand what happened.
It was left to Native journalists to remind the public why the kids’ behavior was racist. Julian Brave NoiseCat wrote hopefully that the initial outrage suggested the media might finally be able to handle anti-Indian racism, while Rebecca Nagle reiterated what thousands of Native people had already said and called the incident what it was.
With people of color underrepresented in major newsrooms, the starkly different views of the incident are unsurprising.
Here are the facts: People of color make up 24 percent of the House of Representatives. Nationally, racial or ethnic minorities make up more than a quarter of local police departments; in Hollywood, characters of color account for almost 30 percent of all roles on film.
Journalists of color make up nearly 23 percent of newsrooms, and Native American journalists represented 0.36 of newsroom employees in 2015, the most recent figures available. The population of the United States is nearly 40 percent nonwhite, a percentage that is growing.
That means institutions notoriously, or at least stereotypically, bereft of diversity are more inclusive of the nation’s racial and ethnic populations than the industry that prides itself on being (eye roll) a voice for the voiceless.
In the case of Hollywood, the response to embarrassing diversity numbers has been public pressure. From #OscarsSoWhite to #whitewashedOUT, the public has put the industry on notice that its practices are unacceptable, and in some cases, straight-up boycotts of ticket sales have helped sink box office hopes and push filmmakers and executives to more equitable territory. The same tactics should be used in the journalism industry.
In 2018, for instance, the New York Times pulled in $24 million in profit as subscriptions rose, while in 2017 NPR brought in nearly $29 million from grants and contributions and an additional $84 million from member station dues and fees. Of those member stations, individuals provide the lion’s share of revenue, followed by corporations and universities.
Until mainstream news outlets diversify their staffs, subscribers, supporters, philanthropists and private foundations who care about fair representation and accurate reporting should divert funds to operations that do.
In 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, criticized the lack of diversity in U.S. newsrooms as having a key impact on “race riots” that occurred the year before. However, 50 years later, a report on the Kerner Commission for the Shorenstein Center at Harvard concluded that not much had changed and that goals to increase diversity numbers in newsrooms had largely failed. In her conclusion, author Farai Chideya writes, “Today, the lack of urgency, resolve or both to address issues of journalistic diversity and equity means newsrooms must be prodded into action.” She goes on to “reframe [the commission’s] sentiments for our industry and our times”:
“Our newsrooms are moving towards two different ethical and functional frameworks: one which views the lack of racial and gender equity as inconsequential, and one which realizes the American news industry is not a functional meritocracy. Work remains to be done. This deepening division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task as journalists is to define that choice and press for accountability, remedy and resolution in our newsrooms and industry.”
If history tells us anything, it is that the journalism industry has no desire to be equitable or be accountable. But refusing to acknowledge a tomahawk chop as racist isn’t the first time journalists have failed to address racism as seen by people of color. The morally bereft coverage of black teenagers killed by police; the grim calculus to give space, and compassion, to white nationalists and hatemongers; waffling on whether to call the president’s words racist or even lies; the cruel objectivity that gives reporters the green light to use a dictionary-defined racial slur when describing the Washington National Football League team. These are the choices made by an industry invested in whiteness, not equality or justice.
I have spent a decade in a journalism fighting to be treated equally by editors and colleagues. From having ideas or pitches taken seriously to battles over fair representation, the industry has been loath to incorporate Native voices, and advocating representation is tiring. The places I haven’t had to fight have been in newsrooms that worked to buck the mainstream. Al Jazeera America, for instance, one of the first major outlets to actively fight to make indigenous voices heard, was one place. Wyoming Public Media, which put its full support behind covering the state’s indigenous communities, is another. Most recently, High Country News became the first non-Native news outlet I know of to create a desk dedicated to covering Indian Country, for which I serve as editor. Then there are the indigenous outlets, such as National Native News, Indian Country Today, Navajo Times and Indianz.com; newsrooms that provide invaluable reporting to Native and non-Native audiences and cover stories and communities on which no other outlets will report but receive little to no support in the form of training, philanthropy or public support.
In the case of Covington, the inability to see racist gestures or hear blatant mockery, so stunningly clear in the footage, speaks to the racist structures that support U.S. media: scaffolding that allows for reporters to sow doubt when the evidence is clear. Of course, when called out, legacy outlets promise that they will get it right, one day. That, someday, their newsrooms will be diverse. That in the very near future, they will be competent when reporting on matters of race and racism.
It’s time for philanthropists, corporations and foundations to turn off the money until they do.