In the late ’70s, KOAT-7 Albuquerque featured a public affairs weekend show titled “The Black Experience,” hosted by Juba Clayton. It was one of a spate of Black-focused public affairs shows across the nation, prompted in part by the infamous “Kerner Commission” report, ordered by President Lyndon Johnson following riots in the summer of 1967.
Known officially as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, much has been written about the impact of the report since its release in 1968, particularly Section 15, “The News Media and the Disorders,” where President Johnson asks, “What effect do the mass media have on the riots?”
In response the Commission includes this observation:
“Important segments of the media failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and on the underlying problems of race relations. They have not communicated to the majority of their audience—which is white—a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of life in the ghetto.”
Instantly the media establishment was forced to reflect on its own culpability in maintaining a status quo that had resulted in suffering for millions of Americans. It went off like a bomb across the industry, especially the recommendations from the Commission, which included:
- Expand coverage of the Negro community and of race problems through permanent assignments of reporters familiar with urban and racial affairs, and through establishment of more and better links with the Negro community.
- Integrate Negroes and Negro activities into all aspects of coverage and content, including newspaper articles and television programming. The news media must publish newspapers and produce programs that recognize the existence and activities of Negroes as a group within the community and as a part of the larger community.
- Recruit more Negroes into journalism and broadcasting and promote those who are qualified to positions of significant responsibility. Recruitment should begin in high schools and continue through college; where necessary, aid for training should be provided.
It was unprecedented, and for the next decade, things moved quickly.
In 1978 the American Society of News Editors threw a gauntlet down on the industry, challenging it to ensure the racial makeup of newsrooms nationwide match that of the general public by 2000.
It didn’t happen. It was amended to 2025, but over the last two decades—including a spiraling loss of news outlets—what remains is a goal that is frustratingly elusive.
The media’s most trusted watchdog publication, the Columbia Journalism Review, has been tracking progress on this issue and their headlines starkly tell the tale.
September 2013: “Refocusing on Newsroom Diversity.”
July 2015: “Why Aren’t There More Minority Journalists?”
August 2015: “In Many Local Newsrooms There Are no People of Color.”
August 2017: “Diversity in Newsrooms Has Been Bad For Decades and Probably Won’t Get Better: Study.”
May 2018: “‘This Deepening Division Is Not Inevitable:’ The Failing Diversity Efforts of Newsrooms.”
Later that fall of 2018, CJR published the essay “Decades of Failure,” which included this succinctly brutal dose of reality on the intersection of diversity goals running up against dominant culture orthodoxy:
“The structural forces that contribute to the problem are well known and largely reflect how race and privilege intersect. The main entry points into the profession—unpaid internships and journalism schools—tend to favor people who come from wealthy backgrounds.
“Many jobs are never posted; hires are made through existing networks, in which people tend to affiliate, and empathize, with those like themselves. When people of color do manage to get hired, they find a lack of formal mentorship and they are infrequently promoted into management positions. When job cuts come along—in the past 10 years, the newspaper workforce has been sliced in half—minorities are often among the first to go.”
Fast forward to Black History Month 2021, replace, “Negro” with “Black” in that 1968 Kerner Commission report, and it’s reasonable to ask if their readout feels appreciably different today, especially when viewed through the lens of Black Lives Matter.
On average there’s been between 3 to 5 percent growth in Black representation in newspaper and television newsrooms since the mid-’90s, but Black representation in upper management still remains frustratingly flat.
Studies also show larger market newsrooms more diverse, with more ethnicities represented, than middle and smaller markets, which have the least.
The Women’s Media Center’s report “The Status of Women of Color in the U.S. News Media 2018” shows women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff and 6.2 percent of local radio staff. The minuscule results illustrate the degree of difficulty.
Locally, diversity in our newsrooms look solid, albeit with a small sample of self-reporting outlets, but it bodes well.
Across the television dial in Albuquerque we have an African-American woman as president and general manager at KOAT-7 (see sidebar interview), but no other African-Americans in upper management at KOB-4, KRQE-13, FOX NM or New Mexico PBS.
On air there are two African-American sports anchors and a weekly public affairs host (myself at New Mexico PBS), but Albuquerque, to date, has not showcased a Black face in a nightly news anchor position.
This begs a question: Are we at a moment in time when local public affairs programming like the “The Black Experience,” warrants a return to Albuquerque airwaves?
The Kerner Commission authors put it bluntly when they said, “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training and promoting Negroes.”
Fifty-three years later, from 1968 to Black History Month 2021, and regrettably, those words still ring true.