For nearly three years, through the Drop the I Word campaign, Race Forward worked with many other groups to get the Associated Press to take “illegal immigrant” out of their style guide. When the AP finally did so in 2013, they started a ripple effect that led USA Today and the Los Angeles Times to drop it too, not to mention all the newspapers that used AP Style as policy. One of the hardest things I’ve had to face since the 2016 presidential election is that this word, which we had worked so hard to get out of popular discourse, has come roaring back to life.
Such a turn of events might make even the most committed activist feel like a failure, and I did. But then I wondered, how much worse would it be if the AP was still validating that word, while a modern crop of White nationalists uses it as their clarion call? Much worse, indeed.
On this 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report on urban uprisings, I’ve read thousands of justifiable words about how little has changed and has even gotten worse for people of color in the media. But there’s no question that the last 50 years would have been immeasurably worse without the actions of reporters and news consumers of color.
Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the Kerner Commission to unearth the causes of dozens of urban uprisings in the late 1960s. The Commission looked hard at the media coverage of the unrest and of Black communities, finding “a significant imbalance between what actually happened in our cities and what the newspaper, radio and television coverage of the riots told us happened.”
This failure followed a long pattern of news media bias, the Commission noted. "The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective." The report, published as paperback, became an instant bestseller.
The Commission made multiple recommendations for improving coverage of Black communities. The largest was the creation of an institute of urban communications. This institute would train reporters on urban affairs and recruit, train and place Black journalists in newsrooms. The institute would also work to improve relations between police and the press, regularly evaluate the media’s performance on racial issues and create an urban affairs news service to syndicate coverage.
As far as I know, such an institute was never built. Johnson, having pushed through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, largely ignored the report and rejected most of its recommendations, including those on controlling housing segregation and creating jobs.
Still, a look through the last 50 years of our journalism reminds me how deep and wide our bench is for tackling the many problems that still remain. So I’m outlining three positive trends in race and journalism of the last half century.
Positive No. 1: A critical mass of people of color have entered mainstream news
In the late 1960s, journalists of color started entering mainstream media in large numbers. There were still only a few at any single outlet, but for the first time, a critical mass of Black, Latino, Asian and Native American journalists worked in daily corporate news outlets. Many nightly television newscasts had at least one anchor of color. These reporters made huge sacrifices and broke major stories, opening the door to the next generation of journalists of color who would be published by the mainstream press.
One early hero of the Kerner period was Ruben Salazar, the first Mexican-American reporter to cover the Chicano community for a mainstream outlet. Salazar started his career in the 1950s with the El Paso Herald-Post, where he got himself arrested for vagrancy so he could investigate the treatment of prisoners in the local jail. He reported at the L.A. Times until 1970, covering, among other things, the 1965 United States occupation of the Dominican Republic. Salazar died during the Chicano Moratorium March against the War, hit by a tear gas projectile fired by the police. By then, he was the news director for the Spanish language television station KMEX.
Another hero of the period is Carol Jenkins, who became a television anchor in the ‘70s reporting on national and global stories, including three presidential elections and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Jenkins comes from a family of leaders in the historic Black press. Print wasn’t for her, but as television news became a thing, Jenkins thought, That might be the way in. Her first job was with Lem Tucker, one of the first Black reporters to work in network TV. “I was hired as a researcher but the writer who was supposed to show up didn’t, so I got to write,” Jenkins recently told me about joining the WOR-TV news department that Tucker was building. “Then the reporter who was supposed to turn up didn’t, so I got to report. I loved it.” Jenkins went on to have a 30-year career in television news, co-anchoring broadcasts for WNBC for 23 years.
The camaraderie and support of colleagues of color enabled them all to succeed. Jenkins recalls, “Melba* Tolliver was a nurse. Chris Borgen was a cop. We all learned to do journalism on the job and in the streets,” she said. “There was a great deal of camaraderie. We knew that some in the management of these news organizations did not want us there, so everybody needed to be extremely careful because the slightest infraction or not living up to standards, you would be sent out of town to work your way back to New York. ”
Jenkins and her peers made it possible for reporters of color to keep breaking major stories through big corporate outlets. Without them, it’s far less likely that reporter Rachel Swarns would have told us that Georgetown University sold enslaved people to save itself, or that Nikole Hannah-Jones would have done her incredible series on continued resistance to school desegregation at the New York Times. José Antonio Vargas may never have been at the Washington Post, which would have made his coming out as an undocumented immigrant far less newsworthy. Melissa Harris-Perry would not have been on TV every weekend for three years, giving organizers and advocates like me a regular shot at getting our work in front of a large national audience.
All these mainstream reporters of color had to get organized, and institutions were established to do that. In 1977, Robert C. Maynard started the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which has trained thousands of journalists of color for mainstream news careers. Maynard himself became the editor of the Oakland Tribune in 1979 and bought the paper in 1983 (becoming the first African American to own a major city paper), transforming it into a prize-winning outlet during his tenure. Four national associations for reporters of color were established in the early 1990s. Among their most important functions is recognizing excellence among contemporary journalists of color.
Positive No. 2: We make our own media
Just as the Black press fueled the Great Migration from South to North, and the old tribal press reported on the removal of Cherokees from their homeland, today’s ethnic press, including many independent reporters, tells us how people of color are really doing, often in their first languages. Technology gave the chronically under-resourced ethnic press new options for getting their stories done and out. Cable TV, paired with a fairness doctrine that forced licenses into the hands of people of color, generated not only BET, Univision and Telemundo but also dozens of small community-based news shows. Even with limitations, they’ve been critical sources of information for communities of color for decades, long before CNN found Van Jones and MSNBC found Joy Reid.
The Internet made it possible to simply produce our own news and distribute it. Colorlines began as a quarterly print magazine about race and organizing in 1998. Going online enabled us to go daily and reach an audience about 600 times bigger than we could in print.
Independent journalist Mark Trahant, who publishes The Trahant Report, took advantage of the Internet to write about issues that mattered to Native people. “Last summer I wrote 80,000 words on Medicaid. It was boring, deep stuff, but important,” he said. “That’s the beauty of the digital space. You don’t have to wait for the gatekeepers, because the gatekeepers still don’t get it. The internet made it so that anybody can challenge the conventional media.”
Trahant is the new editor of Indian Country Today (ICT), one of the gems of Native journalism. ICT started as a weekly newspaper in 1981 and went online in 2011, generating more than 1 million monthly uniques per month by 2014. The Oneida Nation gifted the publication to the National Congress of American Indians last fall, and Trahant will be relaunching it after a short hiatus.
The Internet has also made it possible for us to digitize much of the great ethnic journalism. The University of Arizona created this archive of 150 years of Mexican and Mexican American press.
In the 1990s, the Pacific News Service launched New America Media (NAM). While both have recently closed down, NAM raised the profiles of existing outlets, including many that were small and local. NAM distributed their work broadly by translating stories from Spanish, Chinese, Bengali and Russian outlets into English and by publishing it directly at newamericamedia.com. The loss of NAM is major, but ethnic press leaders are already thinking about how to organize for the coming decades.
Positive No. 3: Media reformers of color have made headway
My final pick for positive developments of the last 50 years are the remarkable accomplishments of media reformers of color. The National Hispanic Media Coalition, founded in 1986, challenges the coverage of Latinos in mainstream news and cultural productions. The Utility Reform Network helps communities build their own broadband networks. The Center for Media Justice has built a national network of community organizations of color that shaped and won campaigns for net neutrality and better journalism. Color of Change and Race Forward have published reports on what the news media still misses and how it can do better coverage of race issues.
There are so many other developments I don’t have room to cover. So many people of color bought radio stations from the ‘70s on and have adapted to the podcast generation in projects like Generation Justice. Juan Gonzalez has been a leading voice on radio through “Democracy Now.” Institutions like Firelight Media and the National Black Film Consortium support documentary filmmakers of color, who in turn help popularize deep investigation. That is a long list including Stanley Nelson, Sandra Osawa, Ava DuVernay, Michael Premo, Rodrigo Reyes, Dawn Porter, Grace Lee, Maria Hinojosa and Heather Rae. There is the fast-growing field of people of color in arts and culture criticism, like Margo Jefferson, Jeff Chang and the five Latino critics who reviewed the Pixar film Coco for Remezcla.
There’s no question that many challenges remain. Media consolidation is never good for news diversity. Funding for PBS, where so many people of color have found a journalistic home, is under threat. The FCC is trying to do away with net neutrality. But one thing hasn’t changed. People of color are determined to control the story that is told about us by shaping and sharing that story ourselves. As generations have done before us, we will find a way.
Rinku Sen is senior strategist at Race Forward and a James O. Gibson Innovation Fellow at PolicyLink. She blogs at RinkuSen.com on the Maven network.
*Post has been updated to reflect that Melba Toliver’s first name is spelled with a "b" rather than a "v."