Dear Mayor Lightfoot, thank you for acknowledging the elephant in the roomJohn W. Fountainon May 21, 2021 at 9:41 pm

Mayor Lori Lightfoot | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Black journalists are still largely MIA from nightly national newscasts as anchors, mostly invisible on editorial boards and as news directors of television networks.

I am an American journalist in deep dark Black skin. And I have borne, over a 36-year journey in American journalism, the weight of “reporting while Black.”

I know well that among some white colleagues the skin I’m in too often ignited their presumption that I was somehow “less than,” not up to snuff, unqualified or unprepared for the job. This was my constant anvil to bear.

Truth is, by the time I arrived at the Chicago Tribune in 1989, many of my Black colleagues and I were college degreed up with journalism internships to the hilt. And yet, my sense was that Black journalists were always “incompetent” until proven “competent.”

I later learned that some white reporters who became foreign or national correspondents and major section editors did so without having even one college degree.

I also learned, perhaps too late, that to break your silence on matters of race or on your news organization’s glaringly biased coverage, was to risk being labeled a whiner or malcontent. It meant risking possible career castration.

I got the sense early on that “diversity” in American newsrooms was a game of cat and mouse. I sometimes wondered whether our Black faces were simply window dressing for the diversity firestorm the Kerner Report lit in 1968 with its scathing critique, “that the news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States.

“…Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America,” the report continues, saying this is, “not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society.”

It is still inexcusable.

By the time I began entering American newsrooms as an intern in the mid-1980s, it was clear that Black faces were at least present. But whether we were celebrated or valued was an entirely different matter.

As a Black journalist, I always had the sense that my voice — and my pen — no matter how celebrated beyond the newsroom were not as valued within it. That a “Black” story told by a “white” reporter always held greater “legitimacy” and “authenticity.”

And this: That to examine racism in America, reporters never need venture beyond the American newsroom.

“Some would say you’re an affirmative action hire,” a white female colleague once said as we stood in the New York Times Chicago bureau, where I was then a national correspondent.

Hmmm… Years earlier, she was just an intern when I was already a full-fledged Tribune reporter. I had more degrees, more experience and had arrived at the Chicago bureau at least a year before she had. But I was the affirmative action hire? Puh-leeze.

Fifty-three years since the Kerner report, Black journalists are still largely MIA from nightly national newscasts as anchors, mostly invisible on editorial boards and as news directors of television networks — something Mayor Lori Lightfoot pointed out this week to a lot of people’s chagrin.

She didn’t lie, though she clearly stepped on toes.

Dear Mayor Lightfoot, Thank you, for acknowledging the decades-old journalism elephant in the room.

Black journalists’ perspectives, insights and ideas remain sparse on the daily platter of American journalism.

This despite the Kerner report’s recommendation long ago that news media hire, promote and retain reporters and editors of color. This amid the perpetual lie that, “We can’t find talented journalists of color.”

Truth is, I never wanted to leave Chicago. But to achieve my journalistic dreams, I had no other option. It’s simply my journey of reporting while Black.

Author@johnwfountain.com

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