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Black Journalists Weigh In On A Newsroom Reckoning

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Race is at the center of the news in America today. It seems that, every week, there is another story of police violence against Black people. COVID-19 has killed a disproportionate number of African Americans. And then there is the steady stream of inflammatory rhetoric from President Trump. Just yesterday, he called a Black Lives Matter street painting a symbol of hate. These are stories that Black journalists are covering every day, often in newsrooms run by white leaders who don't share the same experiences or perspectives.

Many American newsrooms are now facing an internal reckoning, precipitated by Black journalists. And so to discuss this, we have invited three guests. Dorothy Tucker is president of the National Association of Black Journalists and an investigative reporter with CBS Chicago. Welcome.

DOROTHY TUCKER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Astead Herndon is national political reporter for The New York Times. Good to have you here as well.

ASTEAD HERNDON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And our own Keith Woods is NPR's chief diversity officer, and he had a substantial career as a print journalist before that. Keith, nice to have you on this side of the microphone.

KEITH WOODS, BYLINE: Nice to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: I want to start by talking about this internal reckoning I mentioned. It's happening in newsrooms all over the country. Will you describe what it looks like from where each of you sits?

TUCKER: From my perspective as the president of the National Association of Black Journalists, there are firestorms literally across this country and going on in the newsrooms. I have heard from so many of our members in small towns, in big cities, in print and television. They are all rising up and, basically, saying we want our voices heard; enough is enough. They are all getting together and going to their white - predominately white managers and saying this is what we have been going through; this is what we need to be addressed.

HERNDON: Yeah, I think that what's happening at The Times is the same that's happening in newsrooms across the country. We are calling for our newsrooms to live up to not only their responsibility to their employees and Black employees and supporting and nurturing and hiring and the like, but to live up to their journalistic missions. You know, I think about - I read The New York Times obituary for Ida B. Wells. The Times called her...

SHAPIRO: The groundbreaking African American journalist who wrote more than a hundred years ago.

HERNDON: Yes. Yes. And it was a reminder about how newspapers have often been a place that can shine light, but have often been places that have reflected the prejudices of the country. The obituary called her mulatress (ph) and said that she was a race provocateur. In the way that we now see, she was kind of clearly describing, particularly, lynchings in the way the white media wasn't seeing. I think that that has been, historically, the role of Black journalists, and that's the kind of tradition that a lot of Black journalists see themselves in.

SHAPIRO: Keith, you've been pushing for inclusion in the NPR newsroom for years. What feels different to you about this moment?

WOODS: It does feel different, Ari, and I think it feels different in the way that the country feels different right now, beyond the newsrooms. The range of things that have gone wrong in our country just in the last few months may be the thing that pushed all of us into the space that we're in now. I think that this drive that we see in newsrooms is coming, in large measure, from younger journalists who don't have the patience to wait for the country or for the news organizations to figure this out.

The things that people are complaining about now, everything from not being heard to watching stories being told through a lens that does not reflect their reality, those are not new problems in journalism, but they are being met by people who see them anew.

SHAPIRO: You know, part of the reckoning happening in newsrooms right now is about the idea of objectivity and whether the word objectivity is just a mask for a perspective that is traditionally white, straight, cisgender, male. And so I want to ask what you make of this idea of objectivity.

Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who left The Washington Post for CBS News, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that the views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral. He said when Black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it's not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded or robbed of new opportunities. Does that square with the experience that you all have had?

WOODS: Absolutely. But I will expand it and say that objectivity has been used as a mask for all of the dominant views present and operating in our organizations, across race and gender and sexuality. It has been a lie from the day it was first uttered just because we are human beings and couldn't possibly achieve it, and then it was used as a shield for journalism to hide behind whenever we were called for it by people, either internally or externally, who questioned our news judgment, who questioned our news values. It's always been a lie.

TUCKER: I mean, Keith is absolutely right. I mean, it's humanly impossible, you know, to be objective. You bring to the table who you are. But as a journalist, you are fair, and you are accurate, and you are balanced. And that is the job that we have, and that is the job that we do. You want journalists who are - who come to the table with who they are. You know, you want journalists who have varied experiences. Otherwise, you might as well, you know, have a robot cover a story.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So often, I hear these discussions boil down to, I am qualified to cover these stories in spite of the lived experience I have that connects me to these stories. And I wonder if, instead, we should be saying or creating space in newsrooms for, I am more suited and qualified to cover these stories because my life experience connects me to them. I think about when I went to cover the Pulse nightclub shooting, I think that I, as a gay man, was able to cover that story in a different way, not in spite of having been to gay bars and clubs, including Pulse, but because of it.

WOODS: Well, Ari, that has been the argument, particularly, that Black journalists have been making since Day 1 in the argument for inclusion, that the idea that you have to rise above something about yourself is unto itself ridiculous. What you do have to do is bring the rigor, the proof, the factual reporting to, A, both recognize that who you are is a valuable piece of this equation and that it's a limited piece of the equation.

TUCKER: I have to take issue with something that you said.

SHAPIRO: Please.

TUCKER: You know, you said that, you know, as a gay man, that you would do a better job - if you used those words. But here's where the racism comes in, Ari, for Black journalists. Because we are Black, it is assumed that we are going to do a better job covering the Black community. So what happens? We end up getting pigeonholed. We end up covering most of the Black stories, much of the Black crime, much of the Black community then.

And we end up being marginalized. And then it's difficult for Black journalists to then get the promotions that they desire, to get the experience in other beats and to grow other skills. So you have to be really careful. You know, you have - you're constantly fighting back saying, yes, I may be the best, but do not pigeonhole me.

SHAPIRO: So this is a great point. How does a newsroom strike a balance between making sure diverse voices are in the conversation but not asking people of color to do the work of making sure that the newsroom's covering race in a thoughtful way?

HERNDON: I think there's a couple of things that are important here to me. One is this is about the insidiousness of underrepresentation, right? Because there are so few, particularly, Black reporters in the room, that pigeonholing becomes more likely. The other thing I would say to the kind of point in the conversation we've had is I think that we shouldn't just think of identity as only the marginalized identities.

And so, you know, I was just in Tulsa for the president's rally, and those things are so baked into race and whiteness and identity. And I think that being a Black reporter does not just mean your experience has allowed you to cover Black people well, but also understand the way that race and politics is on the forefront of people's minds and not a kind of side issue.

SHAPIRO: To conclude, can we just talk about the toll that the news right now is taking on Black journalists in particular? I mean, the stories that have dominated the news all tie into race - COVID-19, protests against systemic racial injustice and police brutality, a president who just this week shared and praised a video of Trump supporters in which a man yells white power. As journalists covering these stories every day, how does that affect your work and your mental health and your ability to keep coming back and doing it again?

TUCKER: For...

WOODS: Well, I was just going to quit today, Ari.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I'm glad you didn't. I'm glad you didn't, Keith.

WOODS: Sorry. Go ahead.

TUCKER: You know, I can speak for many of our members. They are suffering. They are going through a lot of trauma. It's difficult to keep getting up every morning and doing this when you are, oftentimes, personally impacted by it. You know, I know a number of our members who have either been sick with COVID-19 or they have had a loved one who died, many of them who have been victims of racism, who have experienced a negative encounter with a police officer or they know that their loved ones have. Nobody's going to give up because we also recognize that this is a time where our voices are important. You know, we will survive this. But it's difficult.

SHAPIRO: Astead, you're on the front lines. What does it feel like?

HERNDON: Yeah, I think that those two emotions that Dorothy describes are very true. There is a sense of exhaustion. There is a sense of inspiration and kind of it driving you. And I'm thankful for organizations like NABJ that are there to support Black journalists in this moment.

I would also add another feeling. I mean, I feel kind of vindicated. I'm young, and I've already been in so many meetings where you were trying to convince political editors, white editors, that this was the story, that this was the moment and that this was not some kind of side project of advocacy but was, really, the kind of political throughline between the last five years of national politics. And I really hope that white institutions, white newsroom leaders understand that folks, if they have been sidelined, were really trying to get those organizations to live up to those journalistic values the whole time.

SHAPIRO: Keith, you want to have the final word here?

WOODS: Yeah, I think this question answers your first question. If you're trying to figure out why now, what is the thing driving this reckoning moment in news organizations from Black journalists, it is that tiredness. It is that pain. It's all of these things that people have been saying for decades were wrong now showing up in our lives and in our deaths across this country, pushing people. So yes, we're wrecked, I think. But you see the expression of that now on the streets in the country, and you see it now rising up in our newsrooms.

SHAPIRO: Keith Woods is NPR's chief diversity officer. Dorothy Tucker is president of the National Association of Black Journalists and an investigative reporter with CBS Chicago. And Astead Herndon is national political reporter for The New York Times. Thanks to all three of you for sharing your experiences with us today. I appreciate it.

WOODS: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

HERNDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW JACKSON'S "PUT THE LOVE IN IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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