Newsflash: White House Reporters Mostly White Barack Obama may be the first African-American president, but the elite group of journalists assigned to cover the historic presidency is overwhelmingly white. Writer Jill Nelson discusses the lack of diversity within the White House press corps and tells which news organizations have already made changes to their reporter lineup.
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Newsflash: White House Reporters Mostly White

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Newsflash: White House Reporters Mostly White

Newsflash: White House Reporters Mostly White

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We've just been talking about what it means to be a conservative in the Obama era. Another important discussion, which has in fact been going on long before the election results came in, is about race.

Much has been made of the president's racial background and how voters responded to it during the campaign. But there was also a debate within and about the media, especially whether journalists of color could be fair or whether white journalists were either oblivious to racial dynamics or were treating Obama with kid gloves.

In a recent commentary published in Huffington Post, the online political blog, writer Jill Nelson argues that the lack of diversity in the media itself should be an issue. Jill Nelson joins us now. Welcome. Thanks for talking to us.

Ms. JILL NELSON (Writer, The Huffington Post): Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: I think I may have actually understated the point of your commentaries. I'm going to read a line. You wrote, "It's profoundly dishonest and morally wrong that media coverage of Barack Obama and his presidency is framed by an almost exclusively white press corps." Why morally wrong?

Ms. NELSON: Well, I think that we, as a nation, have to make a decision to become one nation. And that that's a moral decision that we make. I think it speaks to our cynicism, the economic crisis, our feeling of scarcity and compounded selfishness. And those are all moral decisions.

MARTIN: There has been a lot of discussion when people were first assigned to the White House to be in this administration about whether race should be a consideration in appointments. And there are columnists who wrote, well, isn't that so, you know, last century. You know, why should race be a factor in who's appointed to cover this president?

Ms. NELSON: I think it's important for any president, but I think it's especially important for this president in particular. Let me also say that those columns that sort of dismiss race and spin this post-racial utopia are never written, as far I can tell, by black people or other people of color. People of different backgrounds, and in this - terms of this discussion, black people, bring specific knowledge of history, nuance, politic, culture, voice tone, that are important in interpreting this presidency, in particular.

And as I said in the piece in Huffington, the total miss by the mainstream media of Joseph Lowery's opening reading of the first line, the last stanza of the Negro National Anthem in his benediction, was just appalling - as was the missing of his play on the dozens, where he, kind of, turns the dozens on its head and makes it positive.

If you're black, get back. If you're brown, stick around. If you're yellow, you're mellow. He kind of played with that in a way that spoke to what an Obama presidency might bring. And as far as I could tell, it was totally missed. Nobody got it. I assure you that African-American journalists in that place, in that moment would have recognized the Negro National Anthem and definitely would have caught if you're black, get back.

MARTIN: Your op ed comes down very hard on newsroom managers who have failed to put reporters of color on the White House beat. Now Mark Whitaker, the newly-named Washington bureau chief for NBC News, who is also African-American, told the Washington Post when he was asked about this that race is a factor we look at, but we want to make sure we have the strongest team at the White House, and if that is an issue, it should have been an issue before President Obama came along. How do you respond to that?

Ms. NELSON: That's, kind of, like the Lilly Ledbetter argument with the Supreme Court, you know, if she didn't know that she was being discriminated against and found out after a certain period of time, she can't sue. I mean, this is why we have a presidential order in terms of Ledbetter and the right of people to sue for discrimination. Just because I found out something late or during the Obama presidency, or someone said something about it then, doesn't negate the point.

I think what we have to deal with is that this lack of people of color, and black people in particular, in the White House press corps, and in - working for the White House press offices, apparently, from what I've read, speaks to this notion that Toni Morrison writes about where - which posits white as somehow universal and black as somehow other. ..TEXT: And certainly, if the Obama presidency and his incredible campaign and what he's touched in, one thing it speaks to is that we need to get over that notion that white is universal, and as the rhyme goes, that white is right.

MARTIN: What's the standard by which you would judge whether an appropriate level of representation has been achieved? Because I would point out that Michael Fletcher is reporting at the White House for The Washington Post, Helene Cooper for The New York Times, Dan Lothian for CNN, Suzanne Malveaux, April Ryan, of course, for Urban Networks, the radio networks. Is it a numbers issue?

Ms. NELSON: I think every major news organization should have black people and other people of color on their White House coverage staff. If a newspaper sends seven people, why would it be a problem that two, at least, would be of color?

MARTIN: Because they're sending one, or like one-and-a-half now. That's part of the issue.

Ms. NELSON: Then, I think...

MARTIN: Part of the issue - I mean, just to clarify for people who don't know what we're talking about is that a number of newspapers have contracted sharply over the course of the last year or so. I mean, every day - this is an issue that gets less attention because it's overshadowed by layoffs at places like Caterpillar and Macy's and the Home Depot and so forth. But there are a number of news outlets that have closed Washington bureaus, or are sharing the coverage and - you certainly know this.

Ms. NELSON: Yes. I mentioned the shrinking of the business and of African-Americans and print journalism specifically in my piece. But I think that we have to go for a higher commitment. We are after something greater than merely letting people keep jobs or the status quo.

I think sacrifices have to be made to implement real change. And one of the sacrifices is anteing up and hiring another person. It may be job sharing. It may be moving a white reporter to another beat so that an African-American reporter can have a chance at that beat. And with all due respect to the shrinking in the business, and I certainly am very aware of that, as you are, I think that this is a time when we call upon, as Obama and Lincoln said, our better angels.

MARTIN: To push you on this point, Jill, with great respect...

Ms. NELSON: Mm hmm(ph). Yes.

MARTIN: Because you know I have a lot of respect for your work. I was a White House correspondent. I covered George H. W. Bush, Bush 41, as it were. Should I not have been there because he's white?

Ms. NELSON: Oh, absolutely not. I think that we need an integrated news force, but my point is that it needs to be more integrated with people of color. And in these shrinking times, when jobs are shrinking, what I see is last hired, first fired. What I see is, kind of, the white guys circling the wagons around the jobs, and people of color and younger people, and younger people of color being shut out.

And as I wrote in my piece, when I see these groups of white guys, on television, sitting around the table sort of looking almost apoplectic when they try to explain Barack Obama. Where'd he come from? What's going on? I really think that having a journalist of color there would add great insight to that discussion. I mean, Barack Obama is not all that shocking to many, many people of color and many African-Americans. He's part of a continuum in some way.

MARTIN: You know, Eleanor Roosevelt refused to allow men in her press conferences, thereby forcing news organizations to hire women if they wanted to cover her. Now, obviously a step like that would probably not be tolerated in this era, if indeed it would be legal, but - it would certainly be litigated. But do you think that the president should be more proactive on this issue?

For example, in his first press conference as president-elect, he went out of his way to call on a journalist from Chicago. Do you think that he should do the same for journalists of color? Do you think he should jawbone on this issue in the same way he's been jawboning Wall Street about their compensation?

Ms. NELSON: I think he probably should jawbone his own staff about hiring people for the White House press offices, where I hear that there are not any, or very few, people of color. And I do think that he has the authority to bring up these issues.

MARTN: And finally, I wanted to ask you, as a person who's been - not to age you, but you've been doing this for a long time...

Ms. NELSON: I know.

MARTIN: You've been in the business for a long time, author of many books, and you've written a memoir about your time in a big newsroom at The Washington Post. On the one hand, for a lot of people of color, for a lot of people in general in the United States, they're thinking, gee, I never thought I'd see an African-American president.

So, I just wonder what are your thoughts now, as an African-American journalist, about the fact that you feel moved to cry out about the lack of diversity in the media. Are you surprised you're still having this conversation?

Ms. NELSON: I am surprised I'm still having this conversation, but on the flip side of that, I'm excited that I'm having this conversation because I am connecting to the presidency, to the White House, to the president and his family, to the possibility of real change that we already see in many ways in the first couple of weeks of the Obama administration.

My father is from D.C. As a child, I went to the White House Easter Egg Roll. Eh(ph), who cared? I probably will take my grandson on the White House tour, and if there's an Easter Egg Roll, take him in these next four and eight years because it resonates in a very, very different way.

MARTIN: Jill Nelson is a writer and journalist for NiaOnline. She joined us from our New York bureau. For a link to her commentary, "The Audacity of Whiteness: Framing Barack Obama," please visit us online at Jill Nelson, thank you so much for being with us.

Ms. NELSON: Thank you so much for having me.

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