Jul 1 1992

For Media Decision-Makers, Urban Problems are Old News

At every home team baseball game, there are the same players, same ballpark, same uniforms, same rules. But the media would never conclude that coverage should shut down because there’s nothing new.

Somehow, though, the standard that would never be applied to sports is the rule of thumb for covering cities: Ho-hum, they’re still poor — old story, no news.

The L.A. riot changed the rule, at least for a moment. The cities are newsworthy again, as the media rediscover the other America. But you might as well keep your fraying copies of the 1968 Kerner Report, because the White House and the media will toss the cities and their problems back on the trash heap as soon as the L.A. fires cool.

In the aftermath of the L.A. riots, it is clear that the national media, with some exceptions, swing from oblivion to ignorance on the issues that people of color face every day — not only police brutality, but employment discrimination, unchecked drug epidemics and a lack of access to decent health care and housing.

Coverage of urban problems after the riots was sensationalistic. But without the riots, the cities would have been non-stories. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll (4/30/92), more than 70 percent of blacks surveyed said that riots were the only way that attention could be drawn to urban conditions. Pedro Aviles, chair of the Latino Civil Rights Task Force, said, “Without the disturbances not only in Los Angeles, [but also] the outbreak last year in the Mt. Pleasant community in Washington, D.C., not much about us is covered, especially the root causes of violence: economic deprivation and despair.”

Why can’t the media get it right? Scholarly reports and seminars have debated this question for years, but one answer is so obvious that it is often overlooked: Who is in charge?

The Kerner Commission on civil disorders decided that the nearly all-white media was part of the problem, and recommended that the professional staff of news operations be integrated. But at the top of most news organizations today, at least 95 percent of decisions are made by white males. And the vast majority of editorial writers and news managers live in the suburbs and have long ago stopped caring about the cities. To them, the homeless, poor health care and street crime have lost their urgency. As the city’s problems become less real, the mindset of news executives is increasingly similar to that of the suburbanites in the Bush administration, whose hostility toward urban needs contributed to the root causes of the riots.

While it is understandable that the Bush agenda tilts heavily towards foreign policy rather than domestic concerns, it is perplexing why the press meekly follows that agenda. A report on press conferences from January through September 1991 (not including Gulf War press conferences)found that of 1,865 questions asked, 1,225 were on foreign policy, (Newsweek, 11/11/91). The “education president” was asked a grand total offour questions about public schools, six questions about health care, two questions on the state of the banking system and no questions about the homeless.

It is tragic that 51 percent of newspapers — mostly the smaller ones –don’t have a single non-white journalist on staff. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has a laudable goal of achieving parity between the newsroom and the African-American population by the year 2000, which would mean about 13 percent. But right now, a headcount shows about 2,600 African-American journalists at U.S. newspapers — less than 5 percent ofall newspaper reporters. (It’s advanced from 4.1 percent in 1990 to 4.8 percent in 1992 — at that rate, they’ll be at 8 percent by the year 2000.)

It’s harder to get figures on newsmagazine employment, though they certainly like to report statistics on everything else. But as Jack White, a senior editor at Time who is African-American, says: Despite the difficulty of covering the United States without people of color, some of the magazines are giving it their best shot.

While many groups can point to the First Amendment as the principle that guaranteed their free speech, as an African-American woman who was shut out of journalism until the 1968 riots, rebellion has meant as much to my history as declarations. Somehow, I had hoped it wouldn’t always be that way.