Morning Mediawire: Apologizing for decades of racist coverage, NatGeo explores … itself

March 13, 2018
Category: Newsletters

The headline says it all: “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

With that, National Geographic editor in chief Susan Goldberg announced the findings of a historian’s audit of the 130-year-old magazine’s archives. Until the 1970s, National Geographic rarely covered people of color in the United States. The magazine had used slavery-era slurs. It had portrayed “natives” elsewhere as “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages,” Goldberg writes.

“It hurts to share the appalling stories from the magazine’s past,” she said in an editor’s note. “But when we decided to devote our April magazine to the topic of race, we thought we should examine our own history before turning our reportorial gaze to others.”

That move has been widely praised. “Fascinating, honest self-assessment by National Geographic about its racist history,” tweeted David Plotz, CEO of Atlas Obscura. “Good for @susanbgoldberg and @natgeo for doing it so openly.” WGBH commentator Callie Crossley, a producer on the classic civil rights documentary “Eyes on the Prize,” could not remember anything quite this blunt and far-reaching. The closest, she says, was Ben Smith’s 2014 opening of BuzzFeed’s hiring practices and commitment to put leaders of color in key places in the organization.

Katherine Maher, the Wikimedia Foundation’s executive director, compared it more favorably than the recent New York Times acknowledgement of its systemic failure to feature a representative number of women in general or men of color in its obituaries since 1851.

There are differences. The New York Times’ scope in its Overlooked project was limited to obituaries, and the NYT’s gender editor, Jessica Bennett, was clear about the abysmal percentage of women represented — only 20 percent in the past two years. Bennett says the paper gathered records from all obituaries from 1853, and had to redo database queries when realizing that naming customs up to the 1970s often had women using their husbands’ names, like Mrs. John Smith.

Bennett adds that the paper already has expanded its historical obits to include men of color, also severely underrepresented, but she did not say when those would be posted. The Times has 50 completed historical obits — the first 15, of women, were published on Thursday. Readers have suggested more than 2,100 other historical subjects, says Times communications director Ari Isaacman Bevacqua. The next “Overlooked” obit will appear Thursday and each week thereafter, Bevacqua says.

The National Geographic’s issue includes looks at the absolute lack of scientific support for racism and the preponderance of racial profiling and traffic targeting in America, despite statistics that show no differences by race in those who commit crime. The cover story is on twins — one black, one white. Another story, by NPR’s Michele Norris, looks at age-old “white anxiety.”

Norris’s conclusion? “It’s hard for an individual — or a country — to evolve past discomfort if the source of the anxiety is only discussed in hushed tones.”

So … enough with the hush. Let’s go loudly, proudly into the news that you should know about today:

Quick hits

MILESTONE: Who knew the mysteries of the mind and human behavior would hit 100 podcast episodes? That’s what NPR’s popular Hidden Brain podcast did Monday night, with a talk on happiness, experience, memory and irrational decision-making with Nobel-winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”). “Decisions,” Kahneman told relentlessly curious host Shankar Vedantam, “are made by the remembering brain not the experiencing brain.” Beginning as a segment on Morning Edition, Vedantam’s heady, upbeat stuff has rocketed to the Top 10 iTunes podcasts. A broadcast radio version, launched in October, runs on 155 stations, according to NPR’s Isabel Lara.

Courtesy Rukmini


ANOTHER MICROPHONE, PLEASE: The NYT’s Rukmini Callimachi has known displacement and separation since she was 5 years old, packing two stuffed animals for what she was told was a vacation. But her mom, grandmother and herself would be fleeing Communist Romania. Callimachi moved to Switzerland and then California, became a journalist and has been tracking radical Islamic movements for years. She’s been named to lead the NYT’s first-ever nonfiction narrative podcast. Entitled “Caliphate,” the documentary miniseries is set in the land that ISIS once ruled by terror. Callimachi has been one of the best in explaining the movement’s power. If you want to hear her talk first about her flight from Bucharest as a kid — and narrow escape from Hungary — it’s here.

BIG WORLD: The AP has announced a 17-member team to help on enterprise stories of all platforms around the world. It includes Martha Irvine, who recently distinguished herself in video coverage of formerly Democratic counties that voted for Trump; and Lori Hinnant, who found the blogger in Mosul, Iraq, who had told the world, secretly, under a pseudonym, of the real-time horrors of his city’s ISIS occupation. Their charge: breaking news and offering the type of distinctive enterprise not found elsewhere.

AN EARLY WINNER: Subscription sports sites are notching gains, Digiday’s Max Willens reports. It’s not just The Athletic, which claims 100,000 subscribers at its $48-a-year rate, it’s DK Pittsburgh Sports and the 7-month-old Boston Sports Journal, which charge up to $35 for a year’s subscription. Also doing well: Hook ‘Em, a paywalled sports product from the Austin American-Statesman. The key is listening to readers, says Paul Fichtenbaum, The Athletic’s chief content officer. “We’re intent on serving our audience, and we know what they want.”

FOIA, OH BOY YA: The government censored, withheld or couldn’t find 78 percent of Freedom on Information Act requests last year, the AP’s Ted Bridis reports. The data include the first eight months under Donald Trump, and Bridis says it may be an early clue on whether the administration will comply with FOIA requests.

LAYOFFS AT UNIVISION: Following the failure to launch an initial public offering, the cost-cutting is beginning at the company that runs America’s biggest Spanish-language network, as well as the Gizmodo group of websites, The Onion and The Root. The first 20 to go include the CEO and the president of Univision’s Fusion Media Group.

A NEW CEO AT VICE MEDIA: Depleted by firings and resignations and a culture of sexual harassment, Vice is looking to A+E Networks chief Nancy Dubuc, according to Hollywood Reporter. She could replace co-founder Shane Smith as CEO, and Smith would go on to other projects at Vice.

TAMING THE WILD WEST AT REDDIT: There’s a race to detoxify the internet, even at a place its devotees say feels proudly untamed, one of the last places online to resist homogeneity.

YOUR GOOD NEWS STORY: The 18-year-old Waffle House server in Texas looked at the guy across the counter. He had an oxygen tank and needed help cutting his food. She did it for him. A customer, struck by the kindness, took an image and put it on social media. Evoni Williams emerged with a day in her honor and a $16,000 college scholarship.


What we're reading

DON’T WORRY, MOM: Jill Lawrence, longtime journalist, has been a fighter for gender equality throughout her career. But Frances McDormand’s Oscar call for an “inclusion rider” got her thinking: Will this hurt my screenwriter son? Her son put it this way: Inclusion is embarrassingly overdue, and it will improve everyone’s writing. Plus, there is room for many these days, particularly with the boomlet in scripted work.

WILL AMERICANS SAVE THEIR DEMOCRACY?: That’s the question the New Yorker’s David Remnick asks. The answer, he argues, is more than a Women’s March or the Never Again movement. Precisely, it is getting 60 percent of registered American voters to cast ballots this November.

NOT THAT KIND OF SPY: Felix Sater, Trump pal, has been portrayed variously as a convicted criminal, a Russian Mafioso, a spy. Effectively, he has been a spy — but for the United States, says BuzzFeed News. He worked as an asset for the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, and tracked Osama bin Laden. Then he worked for more than a decade for the FBI, providing intel on everything from the mob to North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons.

JUST ONE MORE: This from the cover story in National Geographic that we mentioned:

"Are they twins?”


“But one’s white and one’s black.”

“Yes. It’s genes …

"… As time went on, people just saw the beauty in them." The story.

Photograph/Robin Hammond

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Editor's note: This story has been edited to correct the AP Global Project item. Martha Irvine is joining the team, not Martha Mendoza. And it is Lori Hinnant, not Hinnard.