ROLAND S. MARTIN: Media Needs To Have Its Own Discussion Of Race

by Roland S. Martin

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’re looking for a subset of the media industry that has had one of the worst records ever in terms of minorities, try the magazine business.

In 1992, Spike Lee caused some consternation among magazine editors when it was reported that he only wanted black journalists to interview him.

The New York Times reported him as saying, “Spike Lee has never said he only wants black journalists to interview him. What I’m doing is using whatever clout I have to get qualified African-Americans assignments. The real crime is white publications don’t have black writers, that’s the crime.”

When several magazines were shocked by his comments, they looked at their staffs and realized they were lily-white and that they had given few assignments to black freelancers.

In that same New York Times story, Susan Lyne, the editor of Premiere, said they agreed to Lee’s preference for a black writer.

“We had a lot of discussion. There were a lot of people in the office who were horrified that he would insist on a black writer for the story. I felt differently. Had we had a history of putting a lot of black writers on stories about the movie industry we’d be in a stronger position. But we didn’t. It was an interesting challenge he laid down. It caused some personnel changes. We’ve hired a black writer and a black editor.”

Think about it. Had Lee not made his demand, job opportunities for blacks wouldn’t have opened up at the magazine.

There has been some progress since 1992, but the mastheads are still largely devoid of black and brown faces, shutting people of color out of these lucrative positions.

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.

Why is this important? When minorities are shut out of these prime jobs, it affects their ability to land top jobs elsewhere.

The media industry is good at hiring and rehiring. If you never get a shot to be a senior producer, you’ll never get a shot to be an executive producer.

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.

NABJ has fought newspapers on diversity for years, and we are seeing the same exclusion among online outlets. Many of these websites are devoid of minority staffers, editors and execs. The 21st century may be all about digital properties, but they are having the same 20th-century problems when it comes to diversity.

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.

For all of the cranks who will try to throw out the “qualified” label, shut up. I never hear “qualified” used when discussing white news execs. That always seems to be assumed.

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.

Unfortunately, many minority journalists keep it inside for fear of not getting hired. Several colleagues have said to me, “Roland, don’t talk about this stuff, or these execs won’t hire you.” So when we see injustice, we’re supposed to keep quiet? How does that help anyone?

In 2007, longtime CNN anchor Bernard Shaw issued a warning to the industry when accepting the NABJ Lifetime Achievement Award:

“Beyond this ballroom tonight, white males, wake up,” Shaw said. “Globally, you are an island speck in an ocean of color.

“The reins of power will weaken and so will your grip — if you do not faithfully support our nation’s greatest strength, diversity.

“To you, caught in the middle, stay vigilant. You must stay strong.”

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.

Maybe one of the reasons why America can’t have a real and substantive discussion about race is that the industry leading the existing discussion — mass media — is living in its own denial.

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

I’ll wait.

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.” Please visit his website at To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at