Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has raised a ruckus by announcing that she would only give one-on-one interviews on the two-year anniversary of her term to journalists of color, noting that the City Hall press corps is “overwhelmingly white” in a city that’s much more diverse.
As a journalist of color who has been writing for the Chicago Tribune for most of the past half-century, I say, thanks for the shoutout, Madam Mayor — but no thanks.
As much as I agree that media need to be more diverse in our employment and outreach, that’s hardly a new story and Chicago is hardly alone in facing that challenge.
In a letter to local media outlets Wednesday, the mayor wrote, “As a person of color, I have throughout my adult life done everything that I can to fight for diversity and inclusion in every institution that I have been a part of and being mayor makes me uniquely situated to shine a spotlight on this most important issue.”
I’m not unhappy to see the mayor acknowledge that Chicago media need more diversity. Alas, she comes late to the game and with curious timing.
By bringing up the subject now, at a time when the city continues to wrestle with more urgent issues, her sudden concerns with media diversity sound like a stunt, intended less to enlighten than to distract.
I wondered whether she had taken time to do her homework on the issue. She complained, for example, that there were no women of color assigned to the City Hall beat. “I find this unacceptable and I hope you do too,” she said. Yet, as WBEZ quickly pointed out, two of its three City Hall reporters are women, one Hispanic and the other South Asian. As one of my journalism professors used to say, Madam Mayor, “Error in fact, minus 10 points.”
I agree with Tribune City Hall reporter Gregory Pratt, son of a Mexican immigrant and head of the Tribune Guild chapter, who tweeted shortly after his interview request was granted that, “I asked the mayor’s office to lift its condition on others and when they said no, we respectfully canceled. Politicians don’t get to choose who covers them.”
Except, of course, major officeholders do routinely choose which requests to accept or reject for one-on-one interviews. The burning issue in essence here is whether they should be chosen based on the color of their skin.
For too long, the wrong skin color or gender meant you were more likely to be rejected. For media workers and the audiences we serve, that had dire consequences.
As President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission — named after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner — said in response to urban riots in February 1968, media was a major part of the problem moving our nation “toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal,” when media should be part of the solution.
Besides inadequate coverage, the commission declared, “the journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting Negroes,” using the socially operative term for Black folks at the time.
It was my good fortune to graduate the next year from journalism school into a job market that suddenly, largely in response to urban unrest, had become unusually welcoming to racial diversity. It was the tail end of an era when major print and broadcast newsrooms were as all-white as the cast of “His Girl Friday,” to name one of my Hollywood favorites from the typewriter era. I had to pick my role models where I could find them.
Things obviously have gotten much better, but we still have a ways to go to achieve parity, an industrywide effort that has been further complicated by the economic turbulence and other seismic changes in the internet era.
Newsroom diversity remains far below the goal the American Society of News Editors set in 1978 “of minority employment by the year 2000 equivalent to the percentage of minority persons within the national population.”
So, as much as I dislike the mayor’s ham-handed timing, I applaud her giving attention to the issue. Now, anytime you need advice on how to run the city, Madam Mayor, I’m here.