We Need You Now, Bill Raspberry!

Journalism pioneers of the 1960s gave blacks a presence in the news media. That voice is fading out.

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Black faces are common on local and network TV news. Several major newspapers are edited by African Americans. Black journalists like Helene Cooper at the New York Times cover the White House. African-Americans middle managers are no longer a rarity. Many newspapers have a black columnist. But as the old media companies cut back, it isn't clear that the next generation of news managers will be as diverse as the last.

The long-term impact of black journalists remains murky. The New York Times may have many more African-American journalists now than the three or four black journalists of the early 1970s, but it is more difficult to see their impact today than when that handful of black reporters regularly made the front page.

One explanation for the reduced impact of blacks may be that the black story is no longer as important as it once was, although I would argue that both the upward mobility of African Americans in the 1980s and 1990s and the degree of black suffering during this latest Great Depression have been underplayed. Another argument is that black Americans have penetrated the mainstream -- like the man in the White House -- blurring the traditional boundaries of the "black" story. Yet how often have we seen stories on the extraordinary success of blacks like American Express Chairman Kenneth Chenault or Nintendo North American President Reginald Fils-Aimé, who made the Wii a household word?

What alarms me about this era is the trend toward racial resegregation in both old and new media. African Americans have been especially invested in newsprint, particularly since magazines have largely remained a white club. But newspapers have borne the brunt of the major media reshuffling -- and black journalists are disproportionately losing their jobs. A recent survey by the American Society of News Editors shows a 34 percent decline in the number of black journalists in newsrooms in the last 10 years.

That isn't surprising to me. Finding a mentor or champion who will sing your praises or fight for you can be a challenge for the African American in a corporate or institutional setting. I've been in enough personnel discussions at mainstream news organizations where black journalists are barely mentioned -- and rarely praised.

"Why are we never considered stars?" a bright young black journalist at Time magazine once asked me. It surely hasn't been for a lack of talent. There's a famous story of a New York Times Magazine editor who came down to the newsroom late one evening and drew the attention of a small group of black journalists who were chatting. "Can we help you?" asked one of the reporters. "No," said the editor. "I was looking for some journalists for stories I need done, but I see they've all gone home."

Black journalists tend to be invisible in new media, too. From the Huffington Post to Salon to Slate to Politico, black faces, voices and topics are few and far between. Instead, black writers tend to be channeled to the new black online media like The Root (of which I was managing editor), the Grio and HuffPost Black Voices -- a kind of nostalgic regression. On one hand, these new outlets give us a friction-free channel in which to express ourselves, but the resources -- and the audiences -- are also far more limited than in the mainstream news products. Most disappointingly, the mainstream websites and news outlets rarely engage the views in these channels.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that 11 a.m. Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. Today, intellectual and political discourse has become as segregated as church attendance 40 years ago. Surveys consistently point to the lack of diversity among Sunday-morning TV's talking heads.

But that is just one aspect of an increasingly racially segregated dialogue: Major newspaper op-ed pages, and publications like the New Republic, the New York Review of Books and the New York Times Book Review, can go weeks or months without publishing or reviewing a black writer. Both liberal and conservative think tanks routinely organize panels on the future of America, the energy crisis, the court system or the U.S. economy without minority representation.

When George Wallace was shot in 1972, legend has it that Bill Raspberry rushed into the emergency news meeting. A senior editor held up his hand and stopped Raspberry, saying, "This is not for you, Bill," implying that the story was outside the columnist's domain. But Raspberry shook off the exclusion and went on to write a series of finely crafted columns on Wallace and what he had reaped.