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
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
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
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.