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The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media

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  • The Unbearable Whiteness of Liberal Media

    On the staff of The American Prospect, I’m the only member of an ethnic minority. That's not because I bring all the variety the magazine needs, or because the editors don't think diversity is valuable. Everyone on the masthead of this liberal publication is committed to being inclusive—not just of racial and ethnic minorities but of women; gays, lesbians, and transgender people; and the poor.

    It's not just the Prospect. Journalism upstarts like Vox Media and FiveThirtyEight have come under fire recently for lack of diversity in their hires, but that's largely because they are drawing from the milky-white pool of “existing talent.” In the corner of the publishing industry that caters to college-educated wonks—a slightly fuzzy designation, but I've included most of the publications my colleagues and I read on a daily basis—racial and ethnic diversity is abysmal.

    Nearly 40 percent of the country is non-white and/or Hispanic, but the number of minorities at the outlets included in this article's tally—most of them self-identified as liberal or progressive—hovers around 10 percent. The Washington Monthly can boast 20 percent, but that's because it only has nine staffers in total, two of whom belong to minority groups. Dissent, like the Prospect, has one. Given the broad commitment to diversity in our corner of the publishing world, why is the track record so poor?

    Corporate America long ago signed on to the idea that diversity—besides being a noble goal in itself—is good for business. Companies with diverse workforces consistently outperform their competitors; diversity drives innovation, and workers tend to be happier at companies that value inclusiveness. But it's even more important in journalism than, say, at an accounting firm. When you're in the business of telling stories, lacking diversity means you're limited in the sorts of stories you can tell—or even think of telling. A newsroom filled with white guys simply lacks the same imagination as one with people from an array of backgrounds. One editor I spoke with stressed that they "choose staff for what they can bring to the magazine, first and foremost," but lacking diversity is actually a prime indicator that you're failing to attract the top talent.

    A large part of the problem is simply that no one is keeping track. Unlike the National Association of News Editors, the American Society of Magazine Editors does not track the number of minorities among magazine staff.

    Most of the editors I spoke with conceded up front that their record of hiring and retaining people of color was poor, but few knew the number off-hand. Most, however, knew their VIDA score—and remember answering for it. Since it launched in 2009, the organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts has tallied the number of women on staff and in the pages of literary publications each year, releasing its counts in January. The organization's name-and-shame strategy has been highly successful.

    "When VIDA publishes those numbers, it rattles around your head," says Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic. "It’s a form of shaming I think is actually fairly effective." Foer, who returned to helm the magazine in 2012 after leaving the post in 2010, says after the most recent VIDA count, he and his staff began keeping tabs on the number of male and female bylines in each issue and established a goal they want to reach before next year's numbers come out. Other publications—including the Prospect—have made inroads on the problem after the VIDA counts. "Having analytics and goals and knowing that it’ll just be embarrassing if you don’t do better next year is a pretty strong guarantee that things will be better," Foer says. In my survey, the center-left New Republic scored higher on the racial and ethnic-diversity scale than the rest of its more progressive counterparts save Mother Jones, with 12.5 percent of staff members hailing from minority groups.

    The recession, too, took a toll on diversity. At newspapers, the percentage of minorities on staff decreased from 13.73 to 12.37 percent between 2008 and 2012. Anecdotally, the downturn has had a similar effect on the magazine world. Magazine editors offered several explanations for the whitewashing: Publications shrank to their core leadership, cutting off positions in the lower echelons, where members of minority groups are more likely to find themselves; people of color and members of other minority groups disproportionately took buyouts.

    In the struggle to stay afloat, worrying about diversity came to be seen as quaint. "Up until 2008, newsrooms—especially large ones—were really really conscious about diversity," says Slate editor David Plotz, whose publication’s staff composition of 75 is about 6.7 percent minority. "The recession made newsrooms very miserly thinking about issues like that. The thinking was, 'We are in survival mode, we are about saving our jobs. This is not an issue we care about.'"

    The stagnation of the industry also means there are few opportunities to increase diversity. "The staff here is unionized, which means there is little job turnover,” says Richard Kim, executive editor at The Nation, who is Asian American and gay. “We only get to make a hire every four or five years.” Among the progressive publications I examined, The Nation scored the lowest, with slightly over 4 percent of its staff hailing from racial and ethnic minority groups.

    But the primary reason magazine staffs are so white is structural. "We practice fairly specialized form of journalism and the pool of people who do it isn’t terribly large to begin with, and then you look at the group of people who are practicing at a higher level and it’s just not a diverse pool," Foer says.

    The road that ends with a spot on staff at places like The New Republic, The Atlantic, or the Prospect is paved with privilege. It starts with unpaid internships, which serve both as training grounds and feeders to staff positions.

    "Most of our staff comes through our intern program," says Harper's editor Ellen Rosenbush. "Do we get as many applicants of color as we’d like? Probably not, but we do get them and we have hired them." There's a straightforward reason for the dearth of intern applications: Those who can afford to rely on mom and dad for a summer or a semester tend to be well-off and white.

    While publications like The Atlantic and The Nation have begun to pay their interns minimum wage—in the case of the latter, after an intern revolt last year—most publications offer a meager stipend or do not pay at all. Slate pays its interns $10 an hour. Internships at The New Republic, Salon, Harper's, and the Washington Monthly all unpaid. The Prospect pays its interns a stipend of $100 per week. On the bright side, a number of publications offer paid entry-level fellowships: The Prospect's pays $33,000 and includes benefits, The New Republic offers its reporter-researchers $25,000, and Mother Jones gives its fellows $1,500 per month. But money's not the only issue when it comes to interns. Most publications put little effort into recruiting for their internship programs, and the fact of the matter is that a black or Latino kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago is far less likely to have even heard of The New Republic or the Prospect than a white woman growing up on the Upper West Side.

    The American Prospect
    May we raise children who love the unloved things - the dandelion, the worm, the spiderlings.
    Children who sense the rose needs the thorn and run into rainswept days the same way they turn towards the sun...
    And when they're grown and someone has to speak for those who have no voice,
    may they draw upon that wilder bond, those days of tending tender things and be the one.

  • #2
    The problem isn't really skin tones, genitals, or sexual objects.

    The problem is intellectual diversity. Ideas, religions, concepts, backgrounds, ambitions, morals and all that.

    I don't care about your skin or sexual ambitions - I care about your ideas.
    "Alexa, slaughter the fatted calf."


    • #3
      Originally posted by Gingersnap View Post
      The problem isn't really skin tones, genitals, or sexual objects.

      The problem is intellectual diversity. Ideas, religions, concepts, backgrounds, ambitions, morals and all that.

      I don't care about your skin or sexual ambitions - I care about your ideas.
      That lack of diverse ideas is reflected in the minority count though. Progressives don't want to hear a diverse set of views, they want people of different colors and sexual orientations that all say the same thing.
      "Faith is nothing but a firm assent of the mind : which, if it be regulated, as is our duty, cannot be afforded to anything but upon good reason, and so cannot be opposite to it."
      -John Locke

      "It's all been melded together into one giant, authoritarian, leftist scream."