We Need You Now, Bill Raspberry!

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

The Washington Post/Getty Images
The Washington Post/Getty Images

My group, the generation that followed those pioneers, sought to expand coverage of the black community from crisis to routine. There were four black staffers in the Style section of the Washington Post in the 1970s, and we made it a point to write not just about pathology but also about the normal and extraordinary lives of black America: I chronicled a day at the historic Florida Avenue Grill and wrote about a Sunday ride through the Virginia countryside with a black Corvette club.

Hollie West wrote a three-part, 15,000-word interview with Ralph Ellison. Jacqueline Trescott wrote about the downfall of Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes, who ended up on welfare and saddened a generation of fans. Trescott also chronicled the many clubs, some steeped in the professional circles of doctors and professors, that led social life in black Washington, including the annual Kappa Dawn Dance.

Our group defined Howard University as a cultural center full of people who were pioneers in their field, from the physicians at Howard University Hospital to poets Sterling Brown and Stephen Henderson to esteemed librarian Dorothy Porter. Many of our articles were edited by Dorothy Gilliam, another pioneering black journalist.

When more than 50 of us from all over the country crowded into a Washington hotel room in 1975 to create the National Association of Black Journalists, our goals included increasing black representation in the news media, helping redefine news to be more inclusive and tackling some of the barriers we still faced. There were very few black editors making decisions then; there were almost no black foreign correspondents. Black anchors were still rare on local and network television. But NABJ was not welcomed with open arms by our employers; some of the people in that hotel room in 1975 dared not sign the charter. After all, some editors were questioning our “objectivity” for joining an advocacy group.

Almost 40 years later, one could argue that our efforts were a success. Some 2,500 journalists attended the NABJ convention in New Orleans earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden spoke and many of the major media institutions that once looked on NABJ with alarm now send recruiters to the annual event.

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?