GJR book review: Book traces ASNE’s efforts to advance newsroom diversity

Chasing Newsroom Diversity: From Jim Crow to Affirmative Action
Author: Gwyneth Mellinger
Publisher: Urbana: University of Illinois
Press, 2013
Hardcover: $25, 238 pages

Professor Gwyneth Mellinger has written a thoughtful, thorough account of the efforts of U.S. newspapers to achieve newsroom diversity through the work of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). The book is published as part of the University of Illinois History of Communication series, edited by Robert McChesney and John Nerone. To demonstrate the extent to which prejudicial hiring practices were embedded in certain places, Mellinger begins her introduction to the book with a discussion of one response to President Harry Truman’s proposals to reform America with a mandate for fair employment practices, outlaw of the poll tax, integrating the military and making lynching a federal crime. The response by an outspoken segregationist, U.S. Sen. James O. Eastland of Mississippi, came in a speech to ASNE in the nation’s capital and emphasized a defense of Southern traditions, including a historical emphasis on an established racial hierarchy.

Perhaps more telling was the emphasis Eastland placed on the kinship that privileged whites enjoyed in newsrooms across the nation by way of identity-based norms, including conscious hiring decisions by news managers, with a concluding statement: “It is your civil right to associate with, employ and work with whomever you please. Liberty is dead in this country when you are deprived of that right.” (p. 1) He extended his argument further by pointing out that, if a racial percentage of representation were present in journalism hiring practices, 10 percent of the nation’s news positions would be manned by minorities. To a large extent, this speech and that percentage of representation served as a point of departure for ASNE’s efforts to achieve a professional norm by which it would come closer to democratizing newsroom hiring.

Mellinger, chair of the Department of Mass Media at Baker University, is an established journalism historian. She points out how the evolution in understanding about racial issues took place within a professional news context and how it paralleled society at large, in terms of congressional action and Supreme Court rulings about employer hiring practices concerning race, and later on gender and sexual orientation. The book addresses the intransigence of racism and discrimination in an organizational setting while the author presents many parallels in terms of American society at large. She shows how, in spite of improvements in voting rights, public accommodations and access to education, institutional progress would still be hampered – even with Civil Rights gains – as self-interest continued to trump fair play in preserving the status quo.

To her credit, the author does a complete job of reviewing the status of the ASNE in terms of the background of those who addressed the group over time, including every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover, and various influential thought leaders both in and out of the news business, such as Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates. She relates the stories of many talented individuals who were limited by their identity-based differences and also carefully lays out the progression of ASNE organizational leadership with each of their philosophical underpinnings in movement toward achieving change. Using archival evidence, the book also explores the limitations of that organization in achieving diversity initiatives, begun as a corollary to civil rights in the 1960s even with a series of highly motivated and enlightened leaders, including Eugene Patterson at the St. Petersburg Times, who often championed demographic parity initiatives, and Loren Ghiglione, later a Northwestern professor and journalism school dean who was also uncompromising in continuing to target a broad range of multicultural diversity efforts. The first female president, Katherine Fanning of the Christian Science Monitor, and John Seigenthaler who followed, of USA TODAY, also are credited for continuing to fight for newsroom integration. Each attempt to make progress in the direction of inclusion is acknowledged, and the author details appointments of the organization’s first minority affairs director, Carl Morris, and the first African-American president, William Hilliard of the Portland Oregonian.

The level of detail and number of telling anecdotes about what was taking place during different periods gives greater insight into the thought processes of those looking to ASNE for leadership. On occasion, reacting to some event or stereotypes as at the 2001 ASNE meeting; leaders were left to respond to a convention performance by the comedy troupe Capital Steps. The troupe offered a derogatory Chinese skit and a blackface impersonation of Diana Ross. As a result, Gilbert Bailon, now editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who would lead both a coalition of media organizations with multicultural concerns and ASNE, is quoted as saying: “I was sitting next to Rick Rodriguez, ironically, and we both thought, ‘Wow, this is really over the top.’ Now, nobody stood up and said … ‘Stop this thing,’ nothing that dramatic, but there were some of us, particularly some of the minority editors who thought, ‘I really can’t believe they went that far.’ ” (p. 161)

Mellinger provides a very useful and most informative case study of how one professional organization addressed some deeply embedded, institutionalized norms with social, political and cultural implications over an extended period of time – 50 years, with insight into the degree of difficulty it had in trying to dismantle them. The failure of ASNE to achieve its goal of matching newsroom demographic diversity with that of the general population is not a happy story, but it is instructive. It shows that goodwill and good intentions do not always win out – and, in that respect especially, this book’s title is very well chosen as it reflects the ongoing effort to play catch-up in an attempt to alter what was so firmly established.

The great irony of examining an organization of national news leadership representing an influential social organ and operating on behalf of fairness and free speech makes this story even more compelling.