by Christopher Paslay
Inquirer columnist calls news editor who values excellence, truth, and integrity over skin color “ignorant”.
On Sunday, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote an article about the principles of journalism headlined, “Alarming decline of diversity in newsrooms.” She opened her piece by writing:
“A high-level editor once told me that of all the journalistic values he thought were critical to running a top-notch newsroom, racial diversity ranked, like, fifth on his list.
For him, the more traditional principles of ‘excellence,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘integrity’ took precedence.
Frankly, I was shocked – not because of his honesty, but because of his ignorance. There can be no excellence, truth, or integrity in covering the news without a diverse newsroom.”
As a veteran schoolteacher who’s taught journalism to a diverse group of Philadelphia teenagers for a number of years, after reading Ms. John-Hall’s piece in Sunday’s Inquirer, I was shocked by her alarming decline of good sense.
Two things struck me as concerning after reading her piece:
1. That Annette John-Hall would consider someone who valued excellence, truth, and integrity over skin color “ignorant”.
2. That excellence, truth, and integrity are not universalistic human qualities, rather, subjective notions based on race.
Since Ms. John-Hall’s piece is, to be blunt, not only idealistic but dreadfully generic, I’d like to be trite myself and quote from one of the most overused but important speeches in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream:
“. . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .”
I wonder if Ms. John-Hall would consider MLK “ignorant”?
Tragically, the idea that all people, regardless of race, possess universalistic human qualities such as “excellence,” “truth,” and “integrity” is under attack by writers such as John-Hall. She insists it’s the news media’s job to help people come together and understand each other in an increasingly polarized society, yet she herself perpetuates this polarization by her obsession with skin color and her penchant for observing everything in society through the prism of race.
“And while the media have a responsibility to cover the news with excellence, accuracy, and integrity,” John-Hall writes, “they also have an obligation to report with cultural authority if they want to stay relevant to the communities they cover—and to themselves.”
In other words, black reporters should cover black neighborhoods, white reporters should cover white neighborhoods, Jews must cover Jewish communities, and gays should write about the Gayberhood.
As a journalism teacher, I find two problems with this line of reasoning. First, reporting with “cultural authority” inhibits a journalist’s ability to be a neutral observer. When it comes to objective hard-news stories, the journalist is primarily concerned with the 5 “W’s” and the “H”. In other words, the journalist is concerned about the facts. And true facts will remain facts regardless of who reports them.
That is, of course, unless a reporter wants to inject his or her own “cultural authority” into a story. For example, how objectively is a homosexual reporter who’s been subjected to assaults because of his sexuality going to report a story on the beating of a gay student on a university campus? How will this reporter’s personal baggage impact the retelling of events? Traditionally, an editor might pull such a person off of a story like this because they are too close to it. Better to have a random, disconnected reporter cover the events.
The second problem I have with John-Hall’s “diversity” argument is that it suggests that at our core, human beings are fundamentally different. I’m not talking about cultural or physical differences, I’m talking about differences when it comes to universal ideals such as “integrity” and “excellence”.
If you will, Ms. John-Hall, can you explain to me the difference between white “integrity” and black “integrity”? Can you explain the difference between Russian “excellence” and African American “excellence”? The difference between gay and straight “accuracy”?
News organization in America must be careful not to discriminate because of race. When a journalist has mastered his or her craft, he or she should be given the opportunity to work for a news organization, regardless of his or her skin color. In other words, the principles of “excellence,” “truth” and “integrity” are not subject to cultural interpretation, and this fundamental ideal is the first thing I teach my journalism students.
Core principles do exist that connect all people as human beings, despite John-Hall’s insistence otherwise. With that said, it’s a good thing Ms. John-Hall is not teaching about these principles in a classroom environment.
No offense, Ms. John-Hall, but you’d make a lousy journalism teacher.