Media needs to have its own discussion of race

Ever since the George Zimmerman verdict came down, national media outlets have populated the airwaves with various voices discussing the volatile issue of race.

Numerous networks have hosted specials and roundtables tackling the issue of race. But not a single network has had the courage to turn their cameras onto themselves.

It’s really easy for members of the media to question race in America. But for some reason, they get shy when it comes to what is happening in their own buildings.

Years ago, when I was a city hall reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, my editors wanted me to do a story on minority contracting with the city of Fort Worth. When I visited the woman who was in charge of the program, she demanded, “How much business does your newspaper do with minority vendors? You let me know that, and then I’ll talk to you.”

Now, as a public official, she is obligated to reveal the numbers, but she was making a great point. Who were we to make such demands and not examine our own internal policies? I took her question back to my editors, who were none too pleased.

For 21 years, I’ve been a professional journalist. I made the decision in 1983 to attend Houston’s Jack Yates High School Magnet School of Communications. And in all of that time, diversity has been an issue — and a frustration — for many of us.

This week, the National Association of Black Journalists will convene in Orlando for our 38th annual convention, and diversity in media is one of our annual discussions. The dramatic downturn in media has had a dramatic effect on the number of minority journalists. According to the American Society of News Editors, overall newsroom employment fell by 2.4 percent. For minorities, it was more than double that: 5.7 percent. One out of three newsroom layoffs involved a minority.

If you turn on cable news, you’ll see mostly white anchors leading discussions on race. But don’t just look at the faces of these networks. Take a stroll through the newsrooms. Where are the minority executive producers, senior producers and line producers of these shows? On the morning front, Al Roker, Robin Roberts and Gayle King are co-hosts on NBC, ABC and CBS, but when it comes to those behind the scenes, minorities are few and far between.

Look at the Sunday morning news shows. They are considered some of the top jobs in the business. Have you ever seen a minority Sunday morning host on any of the networks? I’ll wait.

Cable news networks have been blasted for years for their insatiable desire to trumpet missing white women, and yet none of their executives is willing to answer when it comes to missing minority women. The coverage is virtually nonexistent. There has to be a reason. Why won’t they just admit it? Maybe it’s because the executive suites in which those news decisions are made are virtually devoid of minorities.

In the history of television, how many minorities have ascended to the top as a network president? I’ll wait. Go inside these networks and newspapers, and you won’t see many minorities in decision-making positions. Go ahead and look. I’ll wait.

There have been few network news execs who have possessed the courage of the late Al Neuharth, who as CEO of Gannett made it clear that diversity was a priority of his. He tied his executives’ bonuses to diversity. When some fiercely objected, he said they were free to leave the company. That’s one of the reasons why Gannett was the envy of the industry. As a result, numerous minorities got the chance to be executive editors, publishers, news directors and general managers.

We also hear discussion about income inequality, and that also exists in media. If minorities never get any of the plum jobs, they never get to earn the high six and seven figures that come with those jobs. That means they can’t build wealth for their families.

I guarantee you a lot of the frustration you hear from minorities about race in America is also being said in newsrooms nationwide. But the media industry wants you to think all is well. I’m telling you it isn’t. I’ve been there. I’ve participated in the discussions. I’ve listened to strong minority journalists decry not getting plum assignments as they watched lesser candidates being groomed and promoted. I’ve witnessed it myself.

If my media colleagues think I’m wrong about my assertions, prove it. Trust me, you can’t.

I will throw down the gauntlet right now and challenge every executive at a newspaper, a magazine, or a broadcast or cable network who is focusing their pens, pads and lenses on race in America to start with their own newsrooms. It should be honest and no holds barred. You might be stunned to see that the racial divide among your staffers is just as significant as that of cities nationwide. Let’s not relegate this discussion to NABJ or the other industry conventions. Let’s put it on the air, in print and online.

Let’s see whether someone has the courage to step up and do this. I’ll wait.

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Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN analyst and the author of the book “The First: President Barack Obama’s Road to the White House as originally reported by Roland S. Martin.”