Workers Ask Washington Post to Diversify Newsroom

Feb. 23, 2005
“Why are we still here?” radio host Joe Madison asked a panel of speakers
gathered in a church basement around the corner from the Washington Post
Feb. 10 to discuss hiring and other forms of discrimination at that
newspaper.

And “What are YOU going to do?” he asked the 40 or so members and staff of
the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, CWA, gathered yet again to discuss
the decades-old dilemma of how to get the Washington Post newsroom to fairly
hire, promote, pay, and assign women and minorities.

The Kerner Commission report in 1968 cited failures in the media’s coverage
of minority communities as one cause of that year’s riots. Seven Washington
Post reporters filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission in 1972 (and met in the same church basement to discuss it).
Former Executive Editor Ben Bradlee commissioned a newsroom survey on
diversity in 1986. A commission named for and chaired by current Post
Ombudsman Michael Getler issued a critical report in 1993. And yet hiring
and wage discrimination are still big problems. A memo that a “Diversity
Committee of Minority Journalists” delivered to the executive editor last
November argued that the recommendations of the Getler report have gone
unfulfilled.

A report by the UNITY Journalists of Color convention last summer, available
at http://unityjournalists.org/dcdiversity.pdf, looked at diversity issues
at the Post and at the Washington bureaus of other newspapers and news
services. UNITY found that the Post, which has 43.2 percent people of color
in its circulation area, has 8.7 percent journalists of color covering
Washington for its national desk. That’s four people out of 46. The Post’s
8.7 percent compares to 29 percent at the Washington bureau of Knight
Ridder, 28 percent at Gannett, and 18 percent at the Boston Globe. The Post
is ahead, however, of the USA Today (3.8 percent), the New York Daily News
(0.0 percent), and the New York Post (0.0 percent). Although it’s not
covered in the UNITY report, the Baltimore Sun, where workers are also
represented by the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, also lags behind
the Post.

A number of the panelists discussing the problem in February 2005, commented
that at the Post there is a brief moment of progress following each flair-up
of this issue, followed by poor follow-through from management, complacency
from workers, and a failure to institutionalize specific requirements for
change. Post metro reporter Spencer Hsu said that workers fail to join the
equal employment opportunity committee guaranteed in the Guild contract
because “complacency grows among minority journalists.”

“People are temporarily satisfied by one or two promotions,” Sports copy
editor Stephen King said.

The latest flair-up began last November when Executive Editor Leonard Downie
Jr. selected Phil Bennett, Assistant Managing Editor for Foreign News (and
not Eugene Robinson, the African-American Assistant Managing Editor for the
Style section) to become the Post’s new Managing Editor. This meant that
there would continue to be two white men in the two top slots.

In a letter to staff, Downie cited the Bennett-led coverage of recent wars,
including the war on Iraq, as justification for his promotion. Not all Post
reporters or readers have been pleased with the Post’s coverage of the war.
In fact, criticism of it has forced responses in print from Getler and Post
Media Reporter / CNN host Howard Kurtz. (Yes, Kurtz wears both of those
hats, and they say volunteering for a political campaign is a conflict of
interest!)

Last Dec. 1, about 40 Post reporters met with Downie, Bennett, and Milton
Coleman, the Deputy Managing Editor responsible for diversity matters. The
reporters had drafted the seven-page memo in November, which laid out their
concerns and recommendations. Their argument focused on the need to appeal
to the residents of the circulation area. They cited focus groups from last
fall in which minority residents “delivered a clear message: We do not see
ourselves reflected in the pages of the Washington Post.”

As a result of the December meeting, Post management agreed to meet again by
March 1 and to have a plan of action by June 1. (Madison suggested that
Martin Luther King Jr. would have called this “the paralysis of analysis”
and asked those present why it had to take six months to get started.)

One of the issues on which the Newspaper Guild, which represents 1,400 Post
employees in an open shop, has focused is so-called merit pay. Post
management bargains for low salary increases in contracts on the grounds
that those who deserve more money will receive it in raises based on merit.
But the Guild’s analysis of data provided by management shows that merit pay
at the Post is never given to most employees, and that who receives it
depends significantly on sex, age, and income level.

The typical merit raise for men is one-and-a-half times that for women.
While 9 percent of women aged 20-29 got a merit raise, 42 percent of men in
their 40s did. The best way to receive more merit pay is to already earn one
of the highest salaries. Not a single man or woman earning less than $30,000
received a merit raise in the most recent years for which data has been
provided. But 69 percent of men and 64 percent of women earning over
$100,000 did. The percentage of men and women receiving merit raises
gradually increases with salary level, and the size of the raises is largest
for those already earning the most.

Much of the discussion on Feb. 10 focused on the Post’s failures with regard
to training, promoting, and retaining minority reporters, two of whom leave
the Post each year for every three hired, according to participants in the
discussion. Anna Lopez, Executive Director of UNITY and a participant on the
panel, said that reporters grow frustrated when they reach a plateau and can
‘t get another promotion, and that’s the biggest reason why they leave.

Madison, who was serving as much as an instigator as a moderator, demanded
to know from Post employees on the panel and in the room whether they lacked
courage, and what they would do if on March 1 the Post had done nothing.
Would they strike? Would they walk out? King said the possibility of a
strike had been discussed, as had a “byline strike” in which reporters
refuse to have their names printed above their articles.

Guild Administrative Officer Lori Calderone raised the topic of involving
the community, which she said is directly affected by the impact on the Post
‘s coverage of the lack of diversity in the news room. Madison agreed. He
said that an examination of 300 newspapers showed that whether an obituary
of Ossie Davis, the well-known actor and activist who recently died, made it
onto the front page, tended to vary with whether there was anyone black in
the news meeting.

Madison also described a campaign undertaken in the 1980s after the Post
printed some articles offensive to many African Americans. A radio show
asked readers to dump their Sunday edition of the Washington Post on the
sidewalk in front of the Post building every Sunday morning. Post staff was
forced to enter the building making their way through piles of wasted
advertising blowing in the wind. After 13 weeks, during which the show’s
ratings skyrocketed, the Post’s editor and publisher went on the show and
apologized.

Hsu said he favored simply the cancellation of subscriptions rather than
dumping papers in the street. Richard Prince, copy editor on the foreign
desk, and also on the panel, said that people should call the editor or
ombudsman and write letters to the editor. Various speakers agreed that
another meeting should be held with not just workers, but readers and
members of the community.

The Guild staff asked members to volunteer to serve on the equal employment
opportunity committee. That committee will be looking for help from anyone
interested in taking action to improve the Post’s reporting.

Contact the Guild at tharris@wbng.org or 202-785-3650 and tell the Post what
you think at ombudsman@washpost.com or 202-334-7582.