Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Years Before The 'Epic Fail' Of 2016's Election Coverage, 'Coloring The News' Saw The Corruption Of The Media's 'Diversity' Obsession
From the conclusion of Coloring The News: How Crusading For Diversity Has Corrupted American Journalism (Encounter Books, 2002)
pp. 240-249: We joke about newspapers being good for wrapping fish or lining hamster cages. But news organizations have always played a crucial role in our democratic political culture, raising important questions and sup- plying factual information in order that policymakers and the public at large can make sound choices about the kind of society we want to live in. This function is doubly important today as we proceed through a crossroads moment of profound ethnic, racial and cultural change. The country has never been more in need of clear, candid discussion and debate---a service that only a frank, free and forthright press can pro- vide.
Ironically, the ideologically driven pro-diversity coverage has had unintended consequences that undercut the very aims it is meant to bolster. By enhancing sensitivity to the plight of minority groups chaffing at norms defined by the dominant culture, media diversity was sup- posed to help immigrants, blacks, gays and women. Diversity was also supposed to help the media itself, boosting its credibility-and salability- among groups it had long ignored or long alienated. But the one-sided reporting that has attended this effort has actually been bad for these minority groups, and in many ways has helped to feed a reactionary dynamic. As for helping to make the news industry stronger as a business and as a profession, diversity has often had the opposite effect, turning off many of its consumers and undermining the credibility and authority of the media as a public institution.
But the larger damage has been to the nation's civic culture as a whole and its ability to respond to the changes that unprecedented demographic change has brought and will further bring. As one thoughtful reporter at the San Francisco Chronicle reflected, "The ultimate goal is a society with as much racial and ethnic fairness and harmony as possible, and we can't get there unless we in the press are ready to talk about it in full."
In addition to having a questionable effect on public attitudes toward the group whose agenda it means to favor. The increasingly diversity-obsessed and overly sensitive media have also had undesirable effects on American liberalism and its institutional embodiment, the Democratic Party. While conservatives often rail about the unfair disadvantage they labor under because of the press's automatic identification with liberal ideas, values and politics, the truth is that such sympathy has not been an unmixed blessing.
In fact, there are plenty of liberals who eschew the left's celebration of racial and ethnic group differences and its insistence that narrow group identity should be the organizing principle of our society. According to these thinkers, a society that parcels out opportunities on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender will always be a society full of resentments. As Jim Sleeper, author of Liberal Racism, maintains, it is precisely because we are becoming more diverse as a nation that we should reject self-conscious diversity efforts that "work overtime" to heighten the importance of race in American public life. Rather than affirming the centrality of race and subculture, we need to revive popular faith in the ideals of assimilation and integration which have always been at the core of the progressive civic faith.
The transformation of liberalism from a race-neutral to a race-central philosophy was a complicated historical process. But because it put up so little institutional resistance to the growth and spread of this racial essentialism, the press bears considerable responsibility for the traction it has gained in our culture. The press has been much too ready to side with those of the left who, in a McCarthy-esque way, dismiss race-neutral liberals as closet conservatives or cranks. This has made it hard for liberals who disdain identity politics to get a fair hearing and, more importantly, for their ideas to get the consideration they deserve.
If the press's reflexive, pro-diversity bias has proved damaging for liberalism in general, it has been exceptionally damaging in the fight to save American liberalism's most cherished cause: racial preferences. Had the media establishment been more aggressive in challenging racial preferences, it would have been difficult for liberal supporters of such policies to ignore their unfairness and the resentment they were generating.
The media preoccupation with race, ethnicity and gender has also obscured the importance of class in American life and the threat posed by the widening inequities of a competitive international economy. At the beginning of the new millennium it often seems as if the press now has only one way of talking about disadvantage, which is in terms of racial and ethnic discrimination. In the process, the wider "moral, social and economic ascendancy of the affluent," as political writer Thomas Edsall has described it, has been given short shrift.
By siding so openly with the cultural left on controversial diversity issues, the press has compounded the estrangement and anger of much of the electorate, unintentionally feeding the cultural and political back- lash against that agenda. Atlantic editor Michael Kelly summed up this dynamic most perceptively during the 1996 presidential campaign. Voters, said Kelly, then writing for the New Yorker, "are attracted to ideas that the fourth estate regards as beyond the fringe.
They want illegal immigration stopped.... They regard affirmative action as reverse discrimination and the welfare system as immoral.... They are distressed by gay marriage, strongly oppose out of wedlock births and would like to see at least some limits on abortion. They believe that these positions are legitimate regardless of whether they violate party orthodoxies or the mainstream media's sense of propriety. They are angry that their views have been ignored and derided.
The press's uncritical acceptance of multiculturalist assumptions may have propelled anti-diversity backlash in more subtle psycho- logical ways as well. A press that defends affirmative action by insisting that blacks should not have to meet the same meritocratic standards as whites may have encouraged many whites to think that blacks are sim- ply not capable of doing so. A press that refuses to identify crime suspects by race in order to protect the sensitivities of the black middle class might just be supporting the impression that all criminal suspects are minorities.
In telling the public that new immigrants should not have to adapt to the values, practices and language of their new society, the press might in fact, be saying that they can't, which only reinforces prejudice against them. Feeding the public a steady diet of stories in which immigrants are made to appear as luckless victims of an inhospitable Anglo main- stream could persuade that mainstream to decide that immigrants are too problematic, and that maintaining high volumes of newcomers may not be worth the trouble, especially if we enter a cyclic recession. Immigration sociologist David Hayes Bautista has noted that the more the advocates of Latino victimization press their case, the more fodder they provide for arguments to curtail Latino immigration. What comes across more than anything else, Bautista maintains, is the portrait of an essentially passive and fatalistic people largely incapable of making it in a modern society."
So too the boomerang effect of images of unrelenting black victimization. As Michael Lind noted in the New Republic, the liberal strategy of de-emphasizing genuine progress made by blacks for fear of promoting [political] complacency has backfired, creating a distorted image of generic black degeneration, like something out the racist tracts of the 1900's in the minds of frightened whites."
The diversity crusade has had another set of unintended, anti-progressive consequences as well that affect the media itself. The obsession with diversity has contributed to a significant decline in morale in the media and induced an attrition of journalistic talent. Although it was not the sole factor that convinced many longtime staffers at the Los Angeles Times to take a 1995-buyout offer, disenchantment with the paper's diversity-related excesses were certainly a part of why so many talented veterans left when management made its offer. As one of them told the Washington Post, there is a factionalism at work at this paper which I think is extremely counterproductive. Shelby [Shelby Coffey, then editor in chief] has alienated many of us who are not regarded as minorities."
Others find the intellectual pieties that surround the discussions of race, ethnicity and gender to be confining, amounting to what some have called 11ideological work rules. "There is a socialization process at the LA Times," says Jill Stewart, a former reporter for the paper who describes a kind of Gresham's Law whereby the bad drives out the good: People who care about complexity leave the paper and people who want simplistic answers stay." Adds a reporter who covers race and immigration for the San Francisco Chronicle, I'm really thinking about getting out of journalism. There's too much oversimplification. Everything has to be black and white and people have to demonized for what they think. There's a real lack of subtleties and nuances and political correctness is a big part of that." Still others leave because even liberal hell-raising just isn't fun anymore. "There are so many people out there who are terminally earnest-they've taken the life out of it," the Philadelphia Inquirer's Art Carey complains.
The diversity drive has also had unintended consequences on the news business's bottom line. Publishers and editors concerned about declining readership and broadcasters worried about a decline in viewers initially imagined that diversity would help news organizations find new minority markets. Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was wrong when he told that 1992 summit conference, "Diversity not only makes good moral sense, it makes good business sense too." In fact, the effort has not become the "cornerstone of growth" that people like Dorothy Gilliam, former Washington Post columnist and former NABJ president, predicted. Indeed, according to some analysts, news organizations have staked far too much on what is essentially a myth of the minority news consumer. Research has shown that the minority readership gap was not in fact as big as was originally described, and that most minority consumers want just what everyone else wants: timely information and analysis produced with professional detachment and objectivity, to help them sort through complicated issues. Candor, yes; pandering, no.
Perhaps more important than the failure to attract new minority consumers is the impact of the diversity agenda on mainstream white news consumers who represent the bulk of the news market. According to surveys, increasing numbers in this group are alienated by diversity-skewed reporting. Much of the American public has the sense that news organizations have a view of reality at odds with their own and that their reporting and commentary come from some kind of parallel universe. Research has also shown that readers find the sanctimonious tone of the press off-putting too. Notes the Philadelphia Inquirer's Art Carey, "The arrogance and the smugness-the sense that we know how people should live and exist-the hectoring and lecturing tone of the paper. These are some of the reasons we're on the slide, why we are losing readers all the time. People are offended. People are alienated."
One of the things this alienation has done is to boost the stock of Rush Limbaugh, Matt Drudge and others in the conservative talk radio and Internet circuit. Talk radio's surge in popularity is one of diversity's most unintended consequences. While it may not always have its facts nailed down, this populist, largely conservative medium does get out the news that mainstream journalists have long ignored or suppressed. It also gives voice to ideas and perspectives that have been shunned or derided by traditional news outlets where diversity-driven orthodoxy has crimped the parameters of acceptable discourse. As Robert Bartley, editor of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, observed, "If it finds the mainstream press lacking, the public will simply find its own sources of information-as declining readership and network news ratings suggest is already happening." The surging popularity of Fox News Network is a clear manifestation of Bartley's prediction, as viewers abandon what they see as biased traditional networks in favor of an · upstart with a broader sense of "fair and balanced."
The most serious consequence of diversity-obsessed journalism is the deepening credibility crisis of the entire news profession. Letting its own preconceived view of the world interfere with its reporting, the press has simply gotten the story wrong too many times-gays in the military, the Kelly Flinn affair, the burning of black churches, and the so-called "re-segregation" of higher education-to retain its claim on public respect and authority, and to play the special role it always has in our civic life. "Every story we get wrong causes us to lose more of our credibility and integrity," explains San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders.
Once the most vital force in America's political life, news organizations have forfeited their leadership role. Today, many of them--even as they crow about "getting right with the future," as Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence puts it-seem stuck behind the ideological curve, wedded to a rigid view of diversity that the general citizenry finds both irrelevant and suspect. Far from being a progressive source of new ideas, in many instances the press represents a tired bulwark of liberal dogma and reaction, enforcing a PC conventional wisdom. What progressive reform there is occurs without or despite it, such as reforms in California's bilingual education programs and New York City's qual- ity-of-life initiatives. As Los Angeles Times journalist Ronald Brownstein says, "The public is moving beyond the choices we have set up for it and we in the press are often the last to acknowledge that."
In the end, though, the press's diversity crusade has performed its greatest disservice in the damage it has inflicted on the country's broader civic culture. At this complicated historical juncture, with the nation facing the crucial task of absorbing people from different cultures and reapportioning power and rights among various competing groups, the press should be trying to sharpen what the progressive social philosopher John Dewey called the "vital habits of democracy." According to Dewey, these vital habits are: the ability to follow an argument; to grasp another's point of view; to expand the boundaries of understanding; and to debate the alternative purposes of what might be pursued. In addition, a press that was really trying to help society negotiate this tricky historical moment should also be trying to encourage a spirit of public cooperation and public trust that inspires people to rise beyond their own narrow group interest, to feel a sense of shared fate, and to take the steps necessary to build a common future.
In theory, newsroom diversity is supposed to encourage all this. Through the self-conscious inclusion of groups previously marginalized by the dominant white media culture, diversity was supposed to widen and deepen the radar screen on which society sees itself. This would, its champions assured, enrich the mix of images, information and perspectives we consume, putting our collective sense of ourselves in sync with the complexities of our fast-changing society. But in practice, as shown by the coverage I have examined in the course of this book, the media’s diversity crusade has proven a failure.
Instead of raising the tone of public discourse and making it more intellectually sophisticated, the diversity ethos has dumbed it down, blunting the public's faculties for reasoned argument just when the edge has never had to be sharper. Instead of expanding the "boundaries of understanding," it has narrowed them; instead of presenting "alter- native pursuits," it has conveyed a restricted sense of the available policy options. A sound public debate about such complex issues as affirmative action; immigration, gay rights and race requires intellectual rigor and an appreciation for nuance, not the mind-washing pro-diversity incantations and cliches that the press has tended to favor. A sound public discourse requires candor and frankness, not a scrim of false piety and euphemism that conceals unpalatable truths. A sound public discourse requires the press to be an enemy of political demagoguery, not a vehicle for it.
In the end, the realization of a workable multiethnic and multiracial civic future requires ample reserves of public trust. But an ideological press whose reporting and analysis is distorted by double standards, intellectual dishonesty and fashionable cant favoring certain groups over others only poisons the national well. If the United States is ever to find a framework for handling its ever-increasing multiplicity, it will need: 1) sound policy guidance from journalists capable of producing reporting and analysis uncolored by political dogma; 2) a public confident that it is not being sold an ideological bill of goods that runs counter to the realities it sees in its eyes and feels in its bones; 3) a revival of a civic ideal that transcends narrow subcultural identities. To the extent that the diversity agenda encourages none of these, the task of building a progressive, multiethnic and multiracial society has been made more daunting than it inherently is.
In 1832, Alexis de Tocqueville said that newspapers in young America were necessary in order to unite the many "wandering minds" and individual points of view he encountered in his travels. "The news- paper brought them together," he wrote, "and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united." Tocqueville' s observation seems even more important today, when we face unprecedented ethnic, racial and cultural change, and the expanding diversity of our population makes public consensus more elusive than ever before. Although its legitimacy is under a cloud of its own creating, the news media still plays a critical role in the civic life of the country. As the primary shaper of our civic culture, it sets the terms through which we relate to each other both as individuals and as groups, and provides the mirror by which we under- stand ourselves as a collective entity. It is important that it tell the full story, and not just the part that fits a preconceived script or affirms a narrow orthodoxy. The mirror the press holds up to our nature, in other words, must show the whole picture.
Mandatory reading. --- Nat Hentoff, Village Voice, A Book Unfit For The New York Times,
I think McGowan has hit a nerve. --- Bill Maher, Politically Incorrect
"Rainbow's End," Washington Post Book World
Winner, National Press Club Award, 2002
A scathing report on media political correctness and its accompanying distortions of reality. --- Wall Street Journal
"Rainbow's End," Washington Post Book World
Winner, National Press Club Award, 2002