Unity 2012 and Affirmative Action


Like the Olympics, it happens every four years. But you won’t see a lot of spandex at the convention of minority journalists called Unity, happening this week in Las Vegas.

You won’t see a lot of black journalists either.

Unless they’re gay.

For the first time, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), will not be at Unity. It chose to pull out of the major confab and stage its own convention earlier this year. It leaves just the Asian, Hispanic, and Native American journalists of color to unify in the desert with their new full partner, the gay, lesbian, transgender journalists of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).

I don’t know whether or not to expect Anderson Cooper.

But if you have fewer blacks and more Anderson Coopers, it’s obvious that the tone of Unity from this point forward will be very different.

In April, Unity, Inc. recognized that fact and officially dropped “journalists of color” from its name.

Maybe then it should have dawned on me too. The mission seems to have changed.

NABJ leaders always said pulling out of Unity was a business matter. At that point, the discussion centered around dollars and cents. I was critical of the move and lamented any idea of a break-up.

But since then, it’s clear the real concern goes far deeper than money.

When NABJ held its own convention in New Orleans in June, a commission set up to discuss reunification met and decided it would not rejoin Unity.

As NABJ’s president, Greg Lee, told the Poynter Institute: “We just felt that Unity has lost its way as an advocacy organization.”

Although I took issue with Lee last year, I think he might be right.

Advocacy has always been tricky for journalists who by definition are voyeurs on the sidelines observing the news. Journalism groups have always been careful not to cross the line. They’re not unions. They won’t go to the hilt for the worker. But maybe they could and should. These are the kind of discussions that should be going on, especially in times like these.

Even as we start Unity this week, there are reports of more layoffs at news outlets and even the shutdown of Weekly Reader, many a reporter’s first newspaper.

The industry is hurting. But when you’re beholden to the news outlets for most of your financial support (as almost all journalism groups are), it makes for a rather meek and limited voice. And at the very least, a minority journalism group is about two things: advocacy for coverage of minorities in the media and employment. When a group can’t do those things effectively, you have no right to exist.

When I was a board member of AAJA in the ’90s, we used to have those kinds of internal discussions about the soul of the organization. I got a lot of pushback and left the board. Since then I’ve accepted the limited reality of minority journalism groups. They prefer to play it safe. This may be more true for Unity now than for the individual minority organizations themselves. And that’s odd. What happened to the power of coming together?

When things are out of balance, journalism organizations become just arms for corporate journalism’s PR and HR wings. Public relations and human resources. Their motto: Show the world you care and collect enough resumes to pad your diversity numbers. In the past, the HR home run was finding a genuine twofer. At this year’s Unity, you might find the new diversity trifecta: the journalist of color (Asian, Latino, Native American), who is also female, and gay. An Asian Rachel Maddow? You mean like a latter day Margaret Cho?

So far from what Unity has sent me, the special lunch sessions seem to fall into the PR/HR category. ABC News is hosting a special session to boast about how good it is. Another major session is a talk with the creative heads of Disney’s theme parks. And I’ll bet right now the job booths will be loaded mostly with HR staffers, not many top editors or news execs.

The other top pre-sign up for Unity: A free lunch from a financial firm on how to protect your net worth. That is, if you’re a journalist lucky enough to have a net worth.

That’s Unity 2012?

Considering the Supreme Court in October will take up the biggest threat to affirmative action in years, I’m surprised I’m hearing little discussion about that issue in the pre-convention buzz.

An old friend of mine, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, recently wrote a piece on why we all should be concerned about the _Fisher _case, the current threat to affirmative action.

In the old days, I would look forward to seeing Malveaux at Unity and talking to her personally about the subject.

Now I doubt she would be there without NABJ’s presence.

It’s important too because more than ever before, we really need unity, especially on an issue like affirmative action. This time around, anti-affirmative action forces are using Asian Americans as a wedge to end the policy. Even without real advocacy on the issue, more stories about this would surely help inform the public prior to the Supreme Court argument on October 10.

But if the NABJ/Unity split is a harbinger, it seems like we’re all intent on dividing and conquering ourselves.

Let’s hope not. This week, I hope there’s still some unity at Unity.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.
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