July 21, 2008
The AP's New Man on the 'Race and Ethnicity' BeatBy David Paulin
The Associated Press just announced an important change in a high-profile news beat that's overseen by its national desk -- a beat called "race and ethnicity."
AP's editors, perhaps sensing a racially charged presidential election at hand, picked a writer from 449 candidates they'd been considering for their new "race and ethnicity" writer. And last week, they named the lucky writer, a long-time AP staffer named Jesse Washington. Previously, the 39-year-old journalist was the "entertainment editor" at America's most influential news outlet, the source from which most Americans get their news from outside the areas covered by their local newspapers and TV and radio stations.
Earlier in his career, Washington was an editor at two prominent hip-hop magazines. And recently, he published his first novel: "Black Will Shoot," which is about America's hip-hop culture. Its cover jacket calls it a "compelling look at the most impactful (sic) and influential cultural movements of the past thirty years."
For AP's editors, the race and ethnicity beat is obviously important. An opening on the beat occurred due to the resignation of AP writer Erin Texeira. Interestingly, the AP gave no reason for her resignation. Among the headlines of some of her memorable stories: "Duke Rape Scandal Reopens Old Wounds For Black Women"; "Slavery Reparations Gaining Momentum" and "Black Men Fight Negative Stereotypes Daily."
So what does the AP's "race and ethnicity" beat mean for the type of news coverage Americans can expect?
In the good old days of American journalism, reporting beats had pretty mundane names: police, city government, national politics, etc. But in the post-modern journalism world, beats like "race and ethnicity" have become popular. And in a sense, they often feed the perception -- the false perception -- that America's race relations are in the dire state that's usually portrayed in the mainstream media's stories.
How come? First, consider the very first bias that invariably creeps into a news story: It's that reporters and editors even choose to write a story about something; and in the case of a news beat, they have to produce stories on a particular issue on a regular basis. By itself, the decision to create a news beat says a lot; for it defines a particular subject as being an issue -- one worthy of news space and air time. And a news beat also places a certain onus on reporters and editors.
Those covering "race and ethnicity" beats, for instance, are expected to flesh out the basic elements of a story. And the very best stories, of course, invariably revolve around conflict and controversy. But what if no obvious conflict or controversy exist? Well, for clever reporters entertaining a certain worldview, it's usually easy to come up with something.
A beautiful sunset over an orderly middle-class suburb in Chicago or Los Angeles is not necessarily what it seems: It's merely the calm before a Perfect Storm of racial grievances. Basically, that's what's often going on at places like the AP and New York Times in respect to its ongoing and obsessive coverage of "race and ethnicity" in America.
And so then, the "news beats" created by editors say much about what those editors think is important, reflects the potential conflicts they believe are festering all around them. According to his memo on Washington's promotion, published at trade magazine Editor & Publisher, AP's manging editor of U.S. news, Mike Oreskes wrote:
(Washington's tenure as AP's Entertainment Editor was not without controversy.)
Does race in fact "permeate every corner of American life" as Oreskes claims? There is good reason to believe that it does not, at least not in the way Oreskes and his AP colleagues think it does. And certainly not in the way Barack and Michelle Obama may say or imply. And definitely not the way that's described by Obama's former hate-filled minister and spiritual mentor, Jeremiah Wright, who recently resigned as pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.
Put aside these issues for a moment, however, to consider some things about the AP's new "race and ethnicity" writer. No doubt, Jesse Washington was thanking his lucky stars upon hearing of his promotion. In recent months, after all, thousands of editors and reporters have lost their jobs as the newspaper industry has suffered its worst-ever downsizing bloodbath. Even top people at the New York Times and Washington Post are being shown the door.
Yet Washington, rather than considering himself a lucky insider, considers himself an outsider, at least if Oreskes' memo is anything to go by. The memo not only calls attention to Washington's considerable achievements, it portrays him as something of a scrappy contender - and even a victim. According to Oreskes' memo:
Given the AP's evident preoccupation with race and ethnicity, it's interesting that Oreskes' memo makes no mention of Washington's own racial or ethnic background; but a photo of him posted with the AP's online news release reveals what is all but obvious: he appears black.
But perhaps the failure of Oreskes' memo to mention Washington's race is consistent with some of the AP's news coverage. Recent AP articles about gang violence in the nation's inner cities, Chicago in particular, made absolutely no mention of the racial or ethnic background of the young thugs rampaging through city streets with high-powered weapons. It took a little Googling to learn that Chicago's gangbangers are part of the city's dysfunctional black culture.
Washington himself has been guilty of such oversights during the early part of his AP career in the mid-1990s. Writing in October, 1993, about Detroit's annual "Devil's Night" -- an arson spree occurring on Halloween -- Washington made no mention of the ethnic or racial backgrounds of the young thugs torching vacant buildings during a night of mayhem that "added insult to the city's already injured reputation." ("Detroit Hopes to Stifle Devil's Night Fires Again," AP, Oct. 1992.) Then again, maybe the story Washington submitted did mention such things, only to have them deleted by a politically correct AP editor.
According to a check of Factiva, the news archive, Washington wrote a variety of stories while assigned to the AP's national desk in the 1990s, the kinds of stories one might expect on the national beat -- crime, political scandals, etc. But he returned repeatedly to stories about race. And invariably, the stories on race that really "moved" on the wires (get picked up by lots of newspapers across the country), involved those that highlighted an earlier period of racism in America's history.
Washington wrote one such story in mid-July of 1991: "White schoolmarm challenged New England's anti-black stance." Reporting from Canterbury, Conn., he began:
Americans, of course, ought to reconsider their history and look back on their past. But in the post-modern journalism world, the approach to news coverage that does that inevitably has a cynical tone -- the equivalent of repeatedly tearing a scab off an old wound. And invariably, progress in the nation's race relations is never noted; it never stresses what America has accomplished, thanks to Americans of all colors working together. Instead, news stories are invariably about white Americans have done to black Americans; no matter if most white Americans today display little if any racial animus, an issue that Linda Chavez recently highlighted in a perceptive and lengthy piece in the magazine Commentary. She wrote:
Chavez is chairwoman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, the only conservative think tank devoted race and ethnicity in America. Her conclusions about race in America are far different from what was found in the racist sermons of Jeremiah Wright, the Obama's former minister. In her Commentary article, "Let Us By All Means Have an Honest Conversation about Race," Chavez wrote:
But don't expect the AP to concede that. Indeed, when announcing Washington's promotion to its "race and ethnicity" beat, the AP's official news story reiterated Oreskes' memo, and it called attention to Washington's first assignment:
So there you have it: AP's game plan for covering the presidential election. It's all about race. It will be interesting to see how Washington covers such issues, because perhaps he does not in fact agree with his editors. Indeed, one can only hope his reporting is infused with the perception and intelligence that was evident in an AP story he wrote in December, 1993, "An Explosive Word Still Divides the Black Community."
That word, of course, was the n-word.
In his 1,223-word story (long by news wire service standards), Washington offered some fascinating insights. He noted how many blacks use the word in a variety of contexts. And he noted that use of the ugly slur "is hardly universal among blacks." Indeed, he explained that "these days, blacks who casually drop the word in conversation are more likely than ever to get a dirty look or a rebuke." And, interestingly, he quoted author Nelson George as saying:
The ugly racial slur, of course, recently made headlines when the Rev. Jesse Jackson accused Barack Obama of "telling n*****s how to behave." Coincidentally, Washington interviewed the self-appointed heir to Dr. Martin Luther King for his article. He quoted Rev. Jackson as saying:
Perhaps for his first story on his new beat, Washington could interview Rev. Jackson again. It might point him and his editors in the direction of where America's real problems on race relations may be found.
David Paulin, a journalist, reported from abroad for nearly ten years, while based in Venezuela and the Caribbean. He blogs at The Big Carnival.