Diversity and the Incoherence of Journalism’s Ideology

The ideology of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is incoherent, and one place to see clearly this confusion is the news media industry’s approach to “diversity.”

Journalists, of course, commonly assert that they are non-ideological, that they approach their jobs as neutral professionals rather than as actors on the political stage. But mainstream news media, like all institutions, operate from a set of assumptions about how the world works and how it should work — in short, an ideology. There is no neutral ground on which to stand, no special journalistic existence outside ideology.

At the core of journalism’s rather peculiar ideology is the assertion of this illusory political neutrality, which serves mainly to paper over journalism’s commitment to, and support for, existing systems and structures of power. Journalists typically do remain neutral while covering contests between Republicans and Democrats or the struggles of one group of capitalists against another. But through their definitions of what is newsworthy and who is a reputable source — which are rooted in reflexive acceptance of the existing political and economic systems — journalists routinely give aid and comfort to the powerful by helping to validate the hierarchy inherent in those systems.

When it comes to racial/ethnic, gender and sexual diversity, the ideological nature of journalism — and the inadequacy of the analysis underlying the conventional point of view on these matters — is clear. When a group such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors makes a “commitment to racial parity in newsrooms,” it is asserting a political position that implicitly acknowledges the racial inequality in U.S. society. There would be no need to achieve parity if not for racism and its consequences; in a non-racist world, the color of individual journalists would be irrelevant. ASNE’s linking of that hiring goal to the journalistic goal of “full and accurate news coverage of our nation’s diverse communities” shows that news managers see staffing as having an effect on news coverage. It’s not simply an issue of the politics of internal employment practices but the political agenda of news coverage.

To be clear: I’m glad ASNE, other journalism associations, and individual media companies have made such acknowledgements and commitments, even if they consistently promise more than they deliver. But whatever one’s opinion about the question, any position taken is clearly political. For journalism to claim political neutrality is, frankly, a little silly.

In defense, journalists might argue that the recognition of inequality and a commitment to coverage that celebrates the humanity of all people is no longer a contentious political issue but a widely accepted goal of the overwhelming majority in society. From this point of view, diversity could be seen as no more political than the common commitment to promoting the welfare of children, for example. But even if we accept that (which is highly contentious given how many white people believe we have achieved a “level playing field”), the way in which any person, organization or profession tries to address such issues will be inescapably political.

Far from being radical, mainstream journalism’s approach to diversity is centrist, rooted in the politics of a dominant culture that tends to focus on individual effort rather than structural change. Are the managers of news media companies interested in hiring more non-white people to work within the existing system or in challenging the white-supremacist system? If the latter, it’s obvious that the problem is not just too few non-white people in the newsroom, but too many white people who are invested in maintaining that existing system premised on white supremacy. Are the predominantly male managers interested in programs to promote more women or in undermining the destructive hierarchy central to patriarchy? Are the top decision-makers in journalism interested in hiring more out lesbians and gay men or in a direct challenge to the paranoid heterosexism woven into the fabric of the culture? In my experience as both a working journalist and a journalism professor, the managers running the corporate commercial news media are committed to maintaining those systems — not challenging them — and pretending that this isn’t a political project.

I described the politics of contemporary corporate commercial journalism as centrist, but it may be more accurate to label mainstream journalism as conservative. If the core pathologies are white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism in a corporate capitalist system that valorizes the hierarchy that produces inequality, then any status quo/centrist politics are in reality conservative; they have the effect of helping to conserve the existing system, even when advocating minor modifications to make it appear more liberal and tolerant.

This analysis should raise critical questions about an organization such as NLGJA, which describes its mission as working “within the news industry to foster fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues,” language that is in sync with the illusory claims of neutrality of the industry. The questions include:

* Does NLGJA believe that hiring more LGBT people who will work within the heterosexist system is adequate to the task of LGBT liberation?

* Is NLGJA committed to ending the heterosexism that is an integral part of a patriarchal system based on hierarchy and men’s oppression of women?

* Do the gay men in NLGJA share a commitment to such feminist politics? What conception of feminism do NLGJA members, male and female, endorse?

* Do all the white members of NLGJA share a commitment to ending the racial hierarchies in a white-supremacist system?

* If the group shares such commitments, why are they not articulated as part of the group’s mission?

Whatever one’s views, they are fundamentally political questions. Ignoring them doesn’t remove one from politics, but rather puts one on the political side of the status quo, of the existing distribution of power and resources. If journalism is to be a positive force in helping U.S. citizens come to terms with the unjust and unsustainable nature of these hierarchical systems, working journalists are going to have to reject the industry’s naïve claims of neutrality and work to help push the profession to more actively resist the powerful regressive forces that dominate society.

The journalists organizations that, along with NLGJA, are rooted in a recognition of the pathology and cruelty of those hierarchies — the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, and Native American Journalists Association — offer some hope, but only if they can give voice to a different vision not only of journalism but of the world. Journalists from the dominant groups — heterosexuals, white people, men — should add their voices to this struggle as well.

The goal should be not diversity within unjust and unsustainable hierarchies, but liberation. That term may seem awkward today, but we should remember that the movements in which these organizations are rooted spoke not of acceptance of the domination inherent in hierarchy but of real freedom and real justice. That, not diversity, is the dream of liberation.

Robert Jensen is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar balkas said on June 16th, 2008 at 2:52pm #

    mainstream media people also lie a lot. i don’t read it any longer.
    and they lie knowingly. they’r required to lie and not for pennies but for megabucks.
    probably 90% of all MSM people r a bit left of hitler and mussolini.
    remember when MSM wd show only fat russian women? and look at the women in US now!
    they wd have to pay me to read what they wright. thanx

  2. Jeff Bartlett said on June 16th, 2008 at 3:04pm #

    I have often wondered the equality question when it comes to an open voice and open mind in the workplace, whether its a news room or a minimart.

    I understand the fundamental need, and fully endorse, equality in the hiring process but do not believe that all groups are as effected by your so called “status-quo suppression”.

    Take the minimart for example, three people apply for the job: a flamboyantly gay man, a Gothic teenager and a typical college student. The college student inevitably gets the job and the other two individuals are out of luck. Its often said that the Gothic type person cannot gain employment because of his chosen appearance of dark make-ups and piercings, while the gay man can cry foul to the hiring process. In reality, he was not hired because of his flamboyancy, not simply because he was gay. It was his outward appearance that he was unwilling to compromise, just like the Gothic kid.

    Its much the same when police or fire stations hire new cadets. In Canada, they often know that they will be hiring 100 people and break that down according to representation: 50 White Males, 15 White Females, 10 Visible Minority Males, 5 Visible Minority Females, 10 aboriginal descendants and 10 miscellaneous people. How can equality exist if they are not going to simply hire the top 100 candidates for the job, without even viewing their color, creed or beliefs?

    So when is it equal opportunity and when is it unfair acceptance to meet a growing demand for unequal hiring?

  3. hp said on June 16th, 2008 at 5:14pm #

    Nepotism has morphed, in keeping up with our exciting times, into an altogether new life form.
    Something along the lines of non-discriminatory neo-opportunism, via a state sanctioned participatory psuedo-democratic lottery.

  4. hp said on June 16th, 2008 at 5:31pm #

    P.S. Lawyers love it.
    Every new applicant as well as new hire, comes complete with real life walk and talk attorney, a prepared lawsuit and free lunch.
    (English language translator not included)

  5. hp said on June 17th, 2008 at 9:03am #

    Lloyd, gore Vidal must be feeling feisty these days. Here’s his latest. The NYT, believe it or not.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/15/magazine/15wwln-Q4-t.html?_r=1&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&oref=slogin

  6. BD said on June 17th, 2008 at 3:32pm #

    Jensen’s right on the money in terms of his analysis, but the weighty question still hanging before us is, what will the hierarchy-free, liberated news organization look like? As Jeff asked, how will hiring be made blind? How do we move, for example, toward bringing gay male journalists to commit to feminist politics, and would such an endorsement be an outward or truly inward commitment? Have the groups Jensen cited (NABJ, NAHJ, etc) articulated a different vision for journalism yet? I’d be interested to know.

  7. hp said on June 17th, 2008 at 6:41pm #

    Well here’s something that never changes or subsides.
    More Zionist Israeli lying. One big lie after lie, after lie.
    Beyond the hiring of gay, straight, black, white or green, lies the same corrupt and corrupting message.
    NO criticizing Israel! NO truth about Israel.
    Dirty rats is right.

    http://www.whatreallyhappened.com/israellibertyrep.php