Where Joe Williams' departure leaves Politico's newsroom diversity

Reporter Joe Williams’ departure from Politico is part of a longer story that began back in 2009 when the National Association of Black Journalists and others publicly chastised the publication for its lack of diversity. This week, under pressure from conservative online publications that claimed Williams had made racist comments about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Politico accepted Williams' resignation.

What does Williams’ separation mean for the media organization’s reputation in terms of diversity, and what does it say about Politico’s sensitivity to external criticism?

NABJ President Greg Lee Jr., says that while the company has made some diverse hires, there is still a severe lack of African Americans and other persons of color in newsroom management. “Politico has said diversity is a priority, but the numbers just don’t bear it out,” Lee told Poynter in a telephone interview, adding that he planned to reach out to both Williams and Politico. Lee said he is particularly interested in the kind of support system Politico has in place for journalists of color, especially those in management.

Williams and his ex-boss, Politico’s Editor-in-Chief John Harris, declined to discuss specific details of their separation, but both spoke candidly by telephone about the publication’s diversity efforts and its climate.

In June 2010, Williams was the first African American editor hired at Politico after an outcry erupted over the news organization’s lack of diversity, as evidenced in a March 2010 CNN report that showed only white men in an editorial meeting. Williams’ arrival came “as the operation expands its staff and tries to shake a reputation for lacking racial diversity,” the Maynard Institute’s Richard Prince reported at the time.

Williams, a 28-year veteran journalist and then-deputy chief of The Boston Globe’s Washington Bureau, became Politico’s Deputy White House Editor. But that stint would prove short-lived. Politico reassigned Williams to White House Correspondent, specializing in the intersection of race and politics, less than a year later. (Williams said he was replaced by Rachel Smolkin, a white, female journalist who had formerly supervised the White House and legal affairs teams at USA Today. Smolkin remains White House Editor, according to her Politico bio.)

Williams’ move to a reporter slot was supposed to be a win-win for all involved: Politico got someone who it thought was telegenic, who happened to be a person of color, to help build its brand on TV news shows while Williams, in turn, was able to hone broadcast skills that he’d rarely used as a print journalist.

“They said they wanted me as a reporter, which would get me closer to the action so that I could describe some of the things I would talk about on TV with more authority,” Williams said. “They said I was good at it.”

All of that came to a crashing halt last month when, in an appearance on MSNBC, Williams said that Romney appears to be “very, very comfortable with people like him.” Williams went on to qualify his statement by saying, “white folks.”

Certainly worse has come from the mouths of journalists and they weren’t fired. Most notably Mark Halperin called President Obama “a dick” on-air in 2011. While Halperin apologized and was suspended from his side-job as a regular commentator on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe," no action was publicly taken by his full-time employer, Time Magazine, where he is an editor.

Politico’s decision to initially suspend Williams indefinitely without pay before the two parties mutually decided to part ways reflects a double standard in the news media of political correctness for some journalists, but not others, writes Nida Khan in theGriot, a website owned by MSNBC that targets an African American audience.

"Politico didn’t hesitate to give in to right-wing pressure and call into question this man’s stellar journalistic career,” according to Khan, a New York-based journalist and contributor to The Huffington Post. “The real question for Politico (and other news outlets for that matter) is: Would they have been so quick to suspend Williams if he were white?”

NABJ’s Lee agreed that Politico was likely feeling pressure from conservative media outlets, which contributed to Williams’ exit.

“If they are feeling the pressure from a group of people, it would be unfortunate that they couldn't stand up to that,” said Lee, a senior sports editor at The Boston Globe. Even when considering controversial tweets that Williams may have published on Twitter, Lee said Williams' comments “were not an offense that should have led to [Williams] leaving Politico."

John Harris, left, editor in chief o Politico, and Jim VandeHei, executive editor, speak to advertisers in Arlington, Va., Friday, Jan. 19, 2007. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

When asked if Politico is sensitive to external criticisms, Harris said that the publication tries to be transparent about how it does its work, but isn’t reactive. "Saying that we’re sensitive to criticism means that we sort of react precipitously to it and I don’t think we do,” he said. “Most of the people who are senior managers in our newsroom have been at this business a long time, so we’re accustomed to criticism and public pressure, and we’re perfectly prepared to resist that when we feel that we’re right.”

Harris said he did not believe, as some conservative news outlets and mainstream media blogs suggested, that Williams’ comments on MSNBC were racist.

“I was more interested in whether the comments met our standards of what we consider fair,” he said. “We have expectations for our reporters [who appear on television] that are the same as when they are writing under their bylines. We want them to reflect that it’s our job to observe politics in a non-partisan way.”

Harris acknowledges that it is sometimes tough for journalists to do that these days, when there is a lot of pressure to pick sides, especially on cable news channels with their fundamental interest in ideological arguments. “We ask, we insist, that our people don’t partake in that,” Harris said. “We’re there as neutral observers.”

NABJ’s Lee said that Williams was a high-profile hire for Politico two years ago, and that his departure from the publication “makes Politico’s situation worse” in terms of diversity.

Harris countered that Williams’ absence from Politico is independent of its diversity efforts and that he planned to soon talk with NABJ about how they can work together to continue Politico’s diversity outreach.

“Obviously Joe Williams is an African American journalist, a voice and a reflection of diversity who is no longer with us,” Harris said. “But our commitment to diversity is undiluted.”

When asked if Politico is a good place for black journalists, Harris said the organization he helped found in 2007 is a good place for any journalist who is passionate about politics, government and policy.

Politico is not a great newsroom for any and all journalists. There’s a particular type of journalist who seems to thrive at our publication, someone with a high metabolism and very high in these core topics,” he said. “We’re a great publication for any journalist, particularly and especially journalists of color, to come work. Politico journalists have more fun and more impact than they did in their previous jobs. It’s a damn good place for journalists who are interested in politics and share our kind of competitive feel for being the best in politics.

“I see Politico as a place of opportunity because we are growing,” Harris continued. “We are hiring. We don’t have a hiring freeze like many newsrooms. We don’t have buyouts and layoffs and in some cases closures like many other newsrooms. I’m pleased with, proud of the opportunities we’ve been able to give any number of journalists, mid-career journalists but particularly young journalists, to come in and show their stuff."

“We’ve got responsibilities and obligations broadly in the newsroom to be more diverse. At one point, early in our existence, I was quite unsatisfied with our progress in that. I would say now I am still not satisfied, but I am more encouraged by the efforts we’ve made,” Harris added.

“We’re doing better and I want to be better still. No individual gets hired for any reason other than we think they will be a hell of a great journalist covering politics, government or policy. In an individual case, I don’t put people in a particular category or a box. More broadly, as a whole, I look at, 'Are we giving opportunities for the best reporting jobs, are we moving people up the ladder, putting people in senior management jobs and doing that in a way that reflects our goals, including diversity? ' ”

Williams, who is simultaneously defending himself against reports that he assaulted his ex-wife while also trying to save his professional reputation, acknowledges that his former employer has hired a handful of young reporters from diverse backgrounds, but says that those hires have not resulted in "obvious advances in diversity."

When Williams was asked whether Politico was a good place for journalists of color, he said: “Politico is a place where you make your own opportunities, build your own brand,” he said. “If you get the opportunity to do that, it’s up to you to take advantage of that.”

Williams, who has written that he was targeted by "the right wing noise machine," said he hopes to parlay the experience he gained at Politico to reinvent himself, and that he hopes to remain in journalism.

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    Tracie Powell

    Tracie Powell is a senior fellow for Democracy Fund, a bipartisan foundation established by eBay founder-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar to help ensure that Americans come first in our democracy. Tracie is also founder of AllDigitocracy which focuses on media and its impact on diverse communities. 


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