Deadlines and Domination:

The Intersection of Race and Gender at America's Newspapers


"The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world," President Lyndon Johnson's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders concluded in 1968, a year after race riots rocked the nation. Today, that is still largely true, even though white men compose only about 25% of the United States' population.

The media's myopic focus on the world of white males is unfortunate for two reasons, according to ethicist Ted Pease:

"[D]emographic changes mean that more different kinds of citizens need to participate in the marketplace of ideas on which this country's democratic system is based. In a democracy, everyone must be allowed to participate in both the information marketplace and the political arena if the system is to survive. That's the first reason. The second one is economic: It is in the self-interest of any business to tailor products to reach new consumers and consumer needs" (1993, p. 7).

Thomas Jefferson expressed similar sentiments two centuries ago. If forced to decide "whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government," Jefferson said, "I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter" (Kin, 1955).

But like most wealthy, white southern males of his time, Jefferson owned slaves and supported limiting voting rights to male property owners. Although a few women quietly emerged among the first printers in early American history (Beasley & Gibbons, 1993, pp. 51-70), white males like Jefferson precluded most women and blacks from gaining agency in any form of politics or commerce, including journalism. White males shunted women and blacks to the private sphere of domestic or agriculture labor (Boris & Bardaglio, 1987, p. 133), where they would get no taste of public affairs, the stock and trade of journalists even today. In the 19th century, whether women worked outside the home was conditioned by race, class and marital status (Mullings, 1986, p. 50). Single white women often worked unless they were wealthy. The only married white women who worked outside the home were the poor. Most black women worked, because their husbands and fathers could not earn a wage high enough to support a family. Consequently, the roles of black women and men were much less divided into private and public spheres than was the case for white couples (Boris & Bardaglio, 1987, p. 138).

In the 20th century, women of color increasingly traded domestic jobs in the private sphere for public reproductive labor in the service sector. The progression continued among black women who received an education and became professionals, with many of them going to work in the public sector for government agencies, which were less discriminatory than the private sector (Higginbotham, 1994, p. 127). By then, white women most often worked in the private sector, as did black male professionals, who were unable to match the class ascendancy of their white male counterparts because they were confined to serving a poor black clientele.

The point is, almost all women and minorities were steered away from the arenas of America's power, including the so-called "mainstream" press. Nearly all black professionals who chose journalism as a career went to work for the black press, which was much more "socially comfortable," (Segura, 1994, p. 106). Black newspapers have long been a valuable resource in many major American cities, but with advertising dollars following the flight to the suburbs, many of these newspapers have become casualties in a war of attrition fought against wider-circulating metropolitan dailies. Since the 1960s, black journalists have been urgently needed on the metropolitan dailies, to explain the frustration of the black community to unwitting white readers, according to the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, which became known as the Kerner Commission.

It took a decade for American newspapers to acknowledge that need. But in 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors began a major affirmative action push with the setting of its "Year 2000" goal. In it, ASNE called on every newspaper in America to match the proportion of minorities on its staff to the percentage of minorities in its community, by the year 2000. Since then, ASNE has devoted the lion's share of its budget to affirmative action hiring, training and retention programs. It also has required all member newspapers to report the percentage of minorities on their staffs every year.

There have been some notable pockets of success where newsrooms such as USA Today and the Miami Herald are approaching or surpassing the minority population nationwide, which is nearing 25%. But 45% of U.S. daily newspapers (mostly those with small, rural circulations) do not employ a single person of color, while many larger newsrooms are lagging far behind the minority percentage in their area (Foote, 1994). The New York Times, for example, has 14.8% minority representation in its newsroom, compared to a minority population of 48% in New York City and 30% in the metropolitan area. Nationwide this year, 15.1% of all newspaper staffers are people of color, ASNE said. But with just four years to go before 2000, the gap between that figure and the percentage of minorities in the U.S. population is growing, not closing.

In a 1994 survey answered by 537 members of the National Association of Black Journalists and 100 editors made it clear there is still a great racial divide in most U.S. newsrooms. Among the NABJ respondents, 73% said blacks are "less likely" to be considered for promotions, while only 2% of the newsroom managers saw it that way (NABJ, 1994, p. 20). Similarly, 91% of the managers said they have the same expectations for blacks' performance as they do for other journalists, but only 37% of the NABJ respondents felt that way. Of the NABJ respondents, 50% said their news organization does not make "a serious effort" to recruit black journalists, compared to 7% of the managers who acknowledged that. And 67% of the NABJ respondents said they did not see a commitment to retaining and promoting blacks, compared to 5% of the editors who said that.

"African-American journalists and the bosses of their newsrooms are operating in different worlds," the NABJ report concludes (1994, p. 4). "The gulf in communications between reporters and managers is so great that the journalists are afraid to speak up about race issues and are hitting a glass ceiling of opportunity that leads to frustration early in their careers."

Lately, newspapers' near-frantic efforts to recruit minorities have often been thwarted by an equally frenzied exodus of experienced minority journalists. Faced with a "blacklash" of white male journalists complaining about reverse discrimination, blacks have been leaving journalism at a faster rate than any other group (Gist, 1990; Lawrence, 1990; Tharp, 1995). Currently, about 50% of minorities leave journalism within the first five years, according to studies by the Institute for Journalism Education (de Uriarte, 1996). Most of those departing cite the lack of opportunity for advancement and frustrations over their paper's coverage of race.

As for the sexual integration of newsrooms, some newspaper staffs now have nearly as many female reporters as males, but the proportion of editors who are women is well below 50%. Among the leaders, with women composing nearly 35% of its editors, is The New York Times (personal communication with Times Assistant Managing Editor Carolyn Lee, March 20, 1995). The Times' surge in female journalists can be traced back to a class action lawsuit filed by its female employees in 1974. The Times settled out of court in 1978, agreeing to place women in one-fourth of its top news/editorial slots and one-eighth of its top corporate positions by 1982 (Beasley & Gibbons, 1993).

Among the seven named plaintiffs in that lawsuit was Andrea Skinner, whose career exemplified the treatment black women in journalism could expect at that time (Robertson, 1992, pp. 172-175). After graduating from college in her native Midwest, Skinner first found work in New York City at Mademoisellemagazine. The only other blacks there were the woman who made coffee and the man who cleaned the office. After being passed over for promotions into fashion reporting beats, Skinner asked her white female editors why they never let her out of the office.

"Think of our Southern advertisers, our Southern stores," an editor replied, adding, "Why don't you go to Ebony magazine?"

"If I'm no good for Mademoiselle, why am I good for Ebony?" Skinner asked. She never got an answer. "They could never bring themselves to come right out and say it, `Because you're black.' Never, never."

Later, when Skinner became a news clerk on The New York Times Sunday Magazine, gender entered the equation of inequality. When Max Frankel, then the Sunday editor, learned that Skinner was one of the named plaintiffs in the women's lawsuit, he refused to speak to her. Instead, he sent Skinner's immediate supervisor, a white woman, to ask how she had been discriminated against.

"Why didn't he ask me himself if I was discriminated against?" Skinner asked her. "I can talk. Not only have I been discriminated against, but all of us women have been discriminated against in our job positions and our salaries."

A 54-year-old black woman in a prestigious but dead-end job, Skinner had hardly hesitated when asked to be one of the named plaintiffs against the Times. "I wanted to be part of it," she recalled. "I had been a news clerk forever. I was the black face in there, but I didn't think of it that way. I thought of it from a woman's point of view. It was scary, but I figured I really had nothing to lose."

Nor little to gain, apparently. Fourteen years later, when members of the Times "Women's Caucus" gathered for a reunion, Skinner was still working as a news clerk for the Sunday Magazine, although she had been given a sub-editor's title and a few bylines on children's fashions (Robertson, 1992, p. 215). Most of the other named plaintiffs had prematurely left their jobs, taking with them a cash settlement that averaged $454 for each of the 550 women registered in the class-action lawsuit (Beasley & Gibbons, 1993). Nearly all of the benefits of the lawsuit accrued to subsequent generations of female journalists, at the Times and many other media corporations that faced similar class-action suits (all of which were settled out of court, eliminating the risk of a precedent-setting multi-million dollar judgment). The same patern of settlements and delayed benefits held true for a spate of class-action lawsuits filed against the Times and other media companies by their minority employees.

Even if newspapers do become equal opportunity employers, the Kerner Commission said they must do more to fulfill the promise of Jefferson and the First Amendment, which makes the media the only constitutionally protected industry in America. The commission said newspapers must reflect the diversity of America not only in their newsrooms but on all of their news pages. Newspapers must facilitate pluralism, the sharing of power among all groups in society (Kweit & Kweit, 1981), by fairly reflecting the views and lives of all facets of society.

Instead, many researchers have found that newspapers and other mass media continue to primarily reflect the world experienced by less than 25% of the population; i.e., white males (Pease, 1990; McQuail, 1994; Dorsher, 1995). In my study of The New York Times, for instance, a 28-year random sample of 6,300 stories indicated significant (p<.05) increases in the proportion of stories written by women, from 9.1% to 21.2%; in pictures of women, from 25.8% to 32.5%; and in references to women within stories, from 9.2% to 18.2%. But there were declines or no significant increases from 1966 to 1994 in the female-authored op-ed pieces or letters to the editor the Times chose to run. And the staff-written obituaries about women declined during that period.

The media's concessions to women over the past 30 years seem merely to prove the rule that hegemony always involves negotiation between the dominant group and the subjugated. The ultimate result of those negotiations, however, is that the dominant group becomes even more entrenched, because concessions increase the illusion that its power is based in common sense. At The New York Times, for instance, white male editors consider it a vindication of their news judgment when it is noted that less than 20% of the Times' news focuses on women and less than 5% focuses on people of color -- even though nearly 35% of its journalists are women and almost 15% are minorities now (Dorsher, 1995).

Along with their neglect of women and minorities, newspapers seldom reflect the views and lives of working class or poor people, except when they are accused of crimes or causing tax increases. But class is not an issue that intersects in newsrooms as much as race and gender do, because virtually all journalists are paid enough to qualify as members of the middle class, while a few elite editors and publishers fall into the upper class. Family class background -- along with race and gender -- may affect the chances of someone being educated, hired and even promoted as a journalist. But these days, nearly every journalist is college-educated, most are inculcated with the same norms in journalism schools, and once they are in the newsroom, they assume the class perspective of their middle class peers.

The purpose of this research paper, then, is to examine the intersection of race and gender within newsrooms. By illustrating and dissecting this world of deadlines and domination, I hope to help build theory on how people of nondominant race and gender are oppressed throughout society.

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