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The Trouble With Diversity At American Newspapers

Diversity, the desire for it, the necessity of it, is the mantra of our age. It’s also something that is horribly misunderstood. It’s entirely possible – note, possible, not necessarily proven – that diversity of outlook, of viewpoint, brings something to a grouping or organisation. There really is such a thing as groupthink and it does have its perils – so, differing views in order to avoid that, why not?

But this isn’t to also say that diversity of melanin content, or gonadal arrangement or preference, is diversity in this useful and important sense. If some black kid thinks exactly the same way as some gammon like myself then we’ve not really got anywhere in intellectual diversity, have we? My being so hetero I can’t even understand why women sometimes fancy men and the bird who lusts after Julie Bindel – sure that’s a diverse enough set of sexual tastes but if we both imbibe and the Altar of Rand we’ve not got much diversity of thinking going on.

There’s even a whole book about this, The Trouble With Diversity. The above problem something that is all too little appreciated:

When newsrooms are dominated by white people, they miss crucial facts
Jelani Cobb
In a time where race has emerged as a central theme in politics, the media has a problem with representation

Interesting thesis:

Here’s what I knew: people who live in a rough neighborhood and are confronted with a demand for money are forced to make calculations that people in safer, more affluent areas rarely think about. The few dollars in their pockets may represent their only way to get to work; surrendering cash is not only an immediate loss but also one that jeopardizes a future paycheck. More crucially, people who are known to be easily victimized likely will become frequent targets, a reality that may make their neighborhood virtually unlivable. What, to the journalist, seemed inscrutable was, to many residents, reasonable.

It was not lost on me that the journalist who wrote the story was white and that the neighborhood was largely black and Latinx. The article represented not simply a case of a journalist missing a story. The story, to me, spoke to the problem of what happens when the demographics of the Times – and American newspapers in general – look nothing like the demographics of the communities they cover. The people who are most likely to appear in these kinds of stories are the least likely to have a say in how those stories are told.

Ah, no, that’s not interesting for there’s a gaping hole in the logic there. Even if we accept the facts as presented, there’s still that logical hole. The first point is about socio-economic diversity. Poor people in a cheap area are preyed upon by the local criminals. In a manner that we richer people might think of as trivial but which are still important, for the reasons given above. The second part is about melanin content. And there’s absolutely nothing at all to say that all more richly endowed with such are poor and being so preyed upon, nor that those lacking are not. They’re considerations along different axes of existence. Diverse sorts of diversity.

Yet 50 years after Kerner, we still see chronic underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minorities in print and broadcast media. In 2017, only 16.6% of journalists at daily newspapers were people of color; in the US population, more than 37% of people are non-white.

Compared to the original point, the socio-economic one, that’s an irrelevance. The underlying justification for diversity as a desirable is different viewpoints, different life experiences. Skin colour simply isn’t such a definition any more. The US has progressed to the point that among people of color Harvard discriminates in favour of blacks at entry and against Asian Americans – so the current lawsuits allege at least. Why? Because the socio-economic backgrounds aren’t equal across those people of color, obviously enough.

So, given that this isn’t in fact about the only important form of diversity at all, what is it about?

Carr, with characteristic insouciance, set out to diversify the staff. He started a paid internship program and put out feelers for writers who might be interested in working at the paper. His first class of interns included me; Holly Bass, now a writer and playwright; Neil Drumming, currently a producer with This American Life; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who would go on to win a National Book Award

Ah, maybe that’s it. My fellow diversity hires have gone on to great things an here I am scribbling in The Guardian about diversity. Gissa Job perhaps? Yes, of course, that’s unkind. But then the flaw in the underlying logic about diversity is rather glaring, isn’t it? As with The Guardian itself, which appears to have all sorts of diversity, just none of intellect or thought.

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Rhoda Klapp
Rhoda Klapp
5 years ago

Why can’t we stipulate that all humans are equally worthy of consideration by birth ( if not by behaviour). Then diversity doesn’t matter. The whole diversity myth breaks freedom of association, hitherto a progressive right, now cast aside.

Hallowed Be
Hallowed Be
5 years ago

Found the article jelani commented on. The journalist reports on a spate of robberies where refusniks got shot. Then the journo interviews a local resident. Then he delves a little bit into the phenomenon to see what the academics have to say. What Jelani calls tsk tsking (tutting?) i’d guess arises from a criminologist the journo quotes. “You don’t have much money on you; it’s nuts for the victim to refuse,” he said. “Here’s the second layer of nuts: You’ve got a rational robber. If the victim refuses, why doesn’t he just find somebody else?” So if it left it… Read more »

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