Inside the Fishbowl, does diversity of D.C. press corps pale?

Reading the Fishbowl blogs about the media — there are three of them, for New York, Washington and Los Angeles, all part of mediabistro.com — one sometimes gets the impression that media people of color exist merely as window dressing. They rarely do anything collectively on their own.

Earlier this month, the Washington City Paper ran a cover story on Betsy Rothstein, editor of the D.C. operation. “With Fishbowl DC and Betsy Rothstein, the Beltway’s media culture gets the gossip column it deserves,” its headline said, over a story by Moe Tkacik.

Inside was a two-page layout of “The Fishbowl DC Cast of Characters.” All 22 were white.

“Factually yes, that’s correct. All the ‘Boy Banders’ are White,”
Rothstein said via e-mail, referring to Generation-Y pundits who make up one of the categories in “The Fishbowl DC Cast of Characters.”

But, Rothstein added, “Quick Google and Nexis searches will reveal that I have written about a number of black journalists as well as black lawmakers in the course of my writing career here in Washington.” She went on to list many of them.

Her boss, Chris Ariens, vice president and editorial director of
mediabistro.com, backed her.

“As for your first question about what FBDC is doing to diversify
coverage of D.C. media, I believe that’s an assumption that the site isn’t already doing enough — an assumption I can’t support,” he wrote by e-mail.

“I believe all our blogs can do a better job covering all the trends and topics they report on. There is constant conversation and feedback given to all our bloggers to ensure they’re providing the best, most newsworthy, most interesting content for all our readers. Your e-mail/questions help that process.”

Rothstein and Ariens are certainly correct; black journalists have appeared in FishbowlDC and its siblings. But maybe that isn’t really the issue. Perhaps it’s whether they have been there in any memorable ways.

After reading my post on this topic in my “Journal-isms” column, Eugene Kane, columnist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, sent this to the e-mail listserv of the National Association of Black Journalists:

“It’s amazing to me that I know so many top-notch black journalists in D.C., including top ranked editors, writers, columnists, etc. yet the national and local media seems to act as if Washington D.C. media is still the sole province of folks like Bob Woodward, David Gregory, Sally Quinn and white folks who write for Politico.

“Invisible?

“Got to be some reason…”

Michael Schaffer, editor of the City Paper, defended his paper’s
choices for “The Fishbowl DC Cast of Characters” in an e-mail that read, in part:

“Our reporter read every Fishbowl post of Betsy’s that had appeared in the year she’d been writing Fishbowl… She picked the names that in her opinion represent the folks who pop up either most frequently or most dramatically in that space, often on the receiving end of Betsy’s teasing. That’s not to say they are the only people covered, by any means. I don’t think there’s any implication that this was a scientifically selected gallery of the media types who appear in Fishbowl.”

It’s important to note that the Fishbowls are not unique. Most of the substantive activities of journalists of color are ignored by the mainstream media, blogs included. That includes black journalists going to Haiti to help fellow journalists impaired by the earthquake, or the revelatory stories chronicled by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists at its annual awards dinners, which until recent budget problems were held in Washington.

We see journalists of color at a National Press Club event or a bookstore signing, but black bloggers held a national “Blogging While Brown” conference in Washington; the national black press comes to town every year as part of the National Newspaper Publishers Association conference; and the various journalists of color organizations hold mixers, dinners and
ceremonies that herald the achievements of their peers. The mainstream generally leaves these kinds of events unreported, along with the story tips those activities could generate.

The issue seems more acute in cyberspace. Unlike their predecessors in print and broadcast, online operations haven’t felt the sting of boycotts, lawsuits and EEOC complaints.

Amy Alexander, one of the few African-American media critics and author of the forthcoming “Color of Content: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention,” thinks the problem has to do with who is doing the reporting and editing (in the process she uses my work to make her point).

“This Rothstein list, it is a case of same song, slightly different
key,” she wrote me by e-mail. “Who will call her on the ridiculousness of such a list?…”

“The turmoil and upheaval of mainstream media (across all platforms) has meant fewer staff positions available, in general.

“The ‘media beat,’ as a relatively recent genus, has pretty much always been the province of white and usually white male journalists. But as is the case with Tech coverage, and international relations, and fine arts criticism, journalists of color have not really been taken seriously by gatekeepers as ‘serious’ contenders for these jobs, or for the media beat. Right now, I can count on one hand journalists of color who are PAID (and PAID being the key word here) [to cover media]:

“– Richard Prince

“– Eric Deggans

“– Natalie Hopkinson at TheRoot (if part-time).

“There has been a proliferation of ‘media criticism’ at Web-based and broadcasting outlets, and even at the traditional print outlets that remain, the media beat is considered prime real estate. It has also become something of an obsession with growing numbers of bloggers and pseudo journalists.

But Howard Kurtz, for example, held that chair at The Washington Post for nearly thirty years. And at the NYT, I don’t think any journalist of color has ever had that spot, although Margo Jefferson excelled at Cultural Criticism for quite some time.

If anyone knows of any other black, Latino, or Asian journalists besides those I’ve already named, who are covering the media full time, at a marquee news organization, and who are receiving a living wage and health benefits, you know, the full ride, I would like to know. I don’t see them, and it is something of a scandal… which of course doesn’t get covered except by Richard Prince.”

Just as Alexander, Kane and other journalists of color have different takes on the media news of the day, they disagree on whether the media-reporting pool at MediaBistro is effectively diverse enough.

“While we employ more than 50 freelancers across the U.S. and Canada, it starts here, at our home office in New York,” Ariens said in his e-mail.

“Of the 9 full-time editors/managers at mediabistro.com, four are people of color. Donya Blaze is our managing editor. Aria Hughes is our social media coordinator/editorial assistant. Tonya Garcia is our editor of PRNewser.com and Kiran Aditham is our editor of AgencySpy.com. That is a track record I am very proud of and I know helps our coverage of issues of diversity across the media.”

Portions of this article appeared in Journal-isms, published by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.

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  • Anonymous

    The body of work that Richard’s produces and reports on is incredible…He is the a lion as a journalist and a must read daily….

  • http://www.facebook.com/alfred.ingram Alfred Ingram

    Same stuff, different day