Sheila Johnson Says OWN Needs More African Americans

Critics who suggest that Oprah Winfrey's new OWN network could use a little more racial diversity found a gentle supporter in Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television.

Johnson, who counts herself as Winfrey admirer, said Thursday on NPR's "Tell Me More":

"The only advice that I say, let's open up your circle a little bit more. You know, we love the Dr. Phils. We love the Suze Ormans. Let's open up. There are other people. And there's also African-American experts out there that I think she should start bringing on her show that can reach even a wider audience."


Host Michel Martin said, "And it's true that there doesn't appear to be a great deal of ethnic diversity in her programming at this point, which is puzzling to some people."

"No. Yes," replied Johnson. "And I think she really should do that and not be afraid to do it. There's really a lot of great experts out there that really know the businesses at hand. And I'd like to see her open up her circle to do that."

Meanwhile, "In a rare Television Critics Association winter tour appearance Thursday, Winfrey told a packed ballroom of TV writers that Saturday's launch of OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network — a joint venture between Winfrey's Harpo Inc. and Discovery Communications — was 'revelatory' for her," R. Thomas Umstead wrote for Multichannel News.

" 'We couldn't ask for more — we built it and they came,' Winfrey told Multichannel News Thursday night during an OWN dinner party. 'My dream is that they continue to come. It's a long process — it's not about this weekend it's about sustainability long term, but I'm pleased with the start.'

"While OWN CEO Christina Norman said the network drew some 13 million viewers during its weekend debut, Winfrey said she's not concerned about ratings. Instead she's focused on providing viewers quality and uplifting programming.

" 'Obviously ratings are important, but they're not as important to me right now . . . I'm not concerned about that,' Winfrey said. 'What I am concerned about is could we get people to the channel. Now that we're able to do that what we know that if we continue to build the channel with programming that is meaningful to our viewers.'" 


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Journalists of Color Urge Meaningful Change on Diversity

The resignation of Ellen Weiss as NPR's senior vice president for news can improve prospects for diversity at the network, according to current and former employees of color, but some say only if her departure signals a more drastic change in the corporate culture.


Weiss resigned in the wake of the NPR board of directors' examination of the firing of Juan Williams, NPR staffers were told on Thursday. It was she who delivered the news to Williams, who on Fox News later Thursday characterized Weiss as "the keeper of the flame of liberal orthodoxy. She was pushing out everyone who had a different point of view. She has kept along her pals, her friends who all think alike."

"Obviously I can't comment on the record because of the 'not authorized to speak to the media' rule," said a newsroom employee, one of eight current and former journalists of color at NPR who shared their assessments with Journal-isms.


"I can't really say if Ellen's departure will be good for diversity since I don't know who's going to replace her. But I can say this:

"Ellen was in positions of authority at NPR for many, many years. She had every opportunity to encourage or demand a diversified workforce, but it was not a front-burner issue for her. You have to keep in mind that Ellen sees the world through the prism of 'NPRness,' which encompasses a certain worldview that may or may not include diversity issues. She was inclined to hire and nurture people who reflect her sense of 'NPRness.' If a person of color reflected that sense, she was all for them. But more often than not, she spotted that sense of 'NPRness' in people like herself — upper middle class or higher, Ivy League or a similarly prestigious schools, even down to a certain temperament, personality and tone of voice.


"The most likely candidates to meet those traits were white women; the least likely were black men. I don't think she consciously excluded anyone from working at NPR, but I don't get the sense that she ever seriously examined her own psyche whenever she looked into NPR's diversity problem."

Williams was a senior news analyst under contract at NPR and a commentator on Fox News Channel. His Oct. 20 firing came over his remarks on Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" that Muslims dressed in Muslim garb on planes made him nervous. For most of his career at NPR, he was the only black male regularly on the air. NPR has since hired two others. NPR also has black women on the air, such as Michel Martin, host of "Tell Me More," and Michele Norris, co-host of "All Things Considered." Others work off-air.


"The key is that Weiss was the establishment here, the institutional memory. She had a strong following," another employee said. "But she also was a big part of this place's inability to change. She was open to diversity but she was too much a product of this place to bring change.

"Her replacement will be the single-most important decision made here for yrs to come," this employee said via e-mail.


The diversity issue at NPR came to a boil in October 2009, when less than 24 hours after hosting the National Association of Black Journalists at its headquarters in Washington, NPR terminated Greg Peppers, the black journalist in charge of its newscasts and one of two black men in newsroom management.

Peppers is now a senior editor at WAMU, the NPR news affiliate in Washington. He messaged that he thinks Weiss' departure will be good for diversity. "I would also hope that the next Vice President for News takes diversity seriously, meaning does a top to bottom review of diversity issues, from hiring to retention and makes significant changes; particularly in the news managerial and editorial areas. There needs to be a diverse of group managers brought on who can hire a diverse workforce as well as green light a story," he said.


A previous diversity flashpoint took place in December 2008, when the network announced it was canceling "News & Notes" and "Day to Day" effective the following March, and would reduce its work force by 7 percent to forestall a $2 million deficit.

Doug Mitchell, an NPR employee of more than 20 years who has trained scores of young journalists of color to enter broadcasting, was among those laid off.


Mitchell and Farai Chideya, who hosted "News & Notes," say they see a deeper problem than a single news executive.

"There's a lot at stake these days and the act of removing Ellen Weiss, I think, is a small part of the performance," Mitchell told Journal-isms by e-mail. "The political challenges are huge and there's relationship building to be done on many scales from Congress to communities of color who are not a very large part of the public media landscape. Opportunities have been wasted and perhaps a change of leadership at that level will kickstart bridge building."


Chideya, who was overseas, sent this message, which she also posted on her blog:

"The framing of the departure of Ellen Weiss will always publicly revolve around Juan Williams. But there was a much longer legacy of questionable decisions regarding diversity and even the decisions to kill the geographic tendrils NPR had in LA and New York, leaving those operations greatly smaller in number.


"Her departure should not be viewed as a victory for the political right, or a case of someone being forced to walk the plank for political reasons. From what I understand, the questions raised by the internal audit are much deeper and more institutional.

"I hope NPR will use this shakeup in leadership as an opportunity to continue some promising steps regarding diversity, including the recent hiring of a reporter to cover diverse communities and having Keith Woods as 'Diversity Czar'. But public radio, including NPR, is facing a much bigger question about how to integrate itself internally, in terms of staff, and also in terms of adjusting its coverage so it can reach an increasingly multi-ethnic nation."


Others saw little hope for improvement. Another former employee said, "The people who chose Ellen Weiss and the people whom she chose are still there. The difference is a pretty cold-blooded corporate mindset as represented by Vivian Schiller, which no doubt has Weiss' minions trembling in their boots, but may not necessarily improve things.

"On paper, as someone said to me, NPR has one of the most diverse workforces in the country but like most intellectual establishments remains suspicious of and downright hostile to African Americans and others who have not adopted the sensibilities of the current media culture in this country. So black Americans, Hispanics and minorities in the strictest sense are there but have seldom had a central role or held key positions that influence editorial decisions in hiring or coverage.


"The numbers are going up but I doubt what you hear and read will change."

Adam Powell, who was NPR's vice president for news and information from 1987 to 1990 and the only African American to hold that post, has been a longtime NPR watcher.


"Since they have failed to increase diversity for the past 20 years — and indeed NPR News is *less* diverse than it was in *1990* — we must conclude that either NPR lacks the competence to do it or NPR has chosen not to do it. One or the other: there is no other explanation," he messaged Journal-isms. "If they say they are in favor of diversity and have tried to implement pro-diversity policies, then they are either insincere or incompetent. ABC News, CBS News, NBC News and Fox News are more diverse than NPR News, which to my knowledge is the only network news organization to have been cited in a federal court order for discriminatory hiring and promotion. It's in the DNA."

Powell is now a technology and globalization expert who works as director of Washington policy initiatives at the University of Southern California.


Pressed on diversity, Schiller declared in April 2009, "We need to make sure that we are constantly thinking about a diversity of audience." Later in the year, she appointed Keith Woods, the No. 2 administrator at the Poynter Institute, the school for professional journalists, to the new position of vice president of diversity in news and operations.

Woods told Journal-isms then that he believed he could succeed because "the leadership of NPR has changed and there is a critical mass of leadership both new and longstanding that wants to see NPR succeed at this."

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NABJ Is $191,000 in Black, Reversing Deficit

"We Accomplished Our Mission for 2010," Treasurer Says

The National Association of Black Journalists has turned a $338,901 deficit at the end of 2009 to a surplus of more than $191,000 a year later, Gregory Lee Jr., the organization's treasurer, told Journal-isms on Friday.


"2010 was a year in transition for NABJ," Lee said, previewing a message he said members would receive next week.

"We renegotiated room blocks and vendors contracts associated with the San Diego Convention, that's a huge chunk. But also we marketed the Convention so members can fill up the hotel block we were committed to fulfilling. Hotel attrition greatly hurt the association in 2009," he said by e-mail.


"We also slashed expenses in most of [the] cost centers. Board members picked up the tab on a board meeting. The philosophy 'if an event is not sponsored, it will not go on' was actually executed at all levels. The Board determined that in 2010 we would lay low with expenses, lower debts and execute a successful convention in San Diego. Execution from all levels was critical and we accomplished our mission for 2010."

As with its sister journalism organizations, NABJ suffered in 2009 as the recession took its toll. NABJ President Kathy Times said in October of that year that NABJ had run into higher expenses than projected at its summer convention and was reducing staff, imposing furloughs and asking members for one-time, tax-deductible donations.


The organization had to pay penalties for unused hotel rooms for that year's Tampa, Fla., event.

"Understandably, many people either doubled up or tripled up in rooms, leaving many rooms empty. Nobody knew when the contract was signed in 2005 that we would be facing the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression," she said then.


The Asian American Journalists Association also faced a budget deficit that year.

It, too, cited a drop-off in membership dues, losses associated with a lower-than-expected turnout at its Boston convention, sponsors who pulled or reduced their support and a buyout of a hotel contract with the Westin Boston Waterfront.


But late last month, AAJA announced that it turned a $207,000 deficit to a $399,000 surplus, emerging "stronger than ever," outgoing National President Sharon Pian Chan told members.

Leaders of the American Society of News Editors, Unity: Journalists of Color, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Conference of Editorial Writers and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association also said they ended the year financially healthy.


However, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has projected a $240,000 deficit for the year, and the National Association of Multicultural Media Executives, dormant for at least a year, now plans to dissolve. The Native American Journalists Association has yet to report.

"NABJ is entering 2011 on a high," Lee said in a statement. "The association finished the last quarter financially on a high. That momentum is carrying into 2011, where fundraising for our Hall of Fame Gala later this month is doing quite well. We have taken steps to end the trend of slow 4th and 1st quarters. We are moving towards year-round fundraising."


Scott Sisters Freed Before Crush of News Media

"Jamie and Gladys Scott are expected to reunite with their mother and children in Florida tonight, a reunion 16 years in the making," Elizabeth Crisp reported Friday for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.


"The Scott sisters left the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility this morning, waving to a crush of news media and yelling 'We’re free.' ”

" 'I never thought this day would come — where I would be on the outside of those walls,' Jamie Scott said during an afternoon press conference. 'It’s still a dream to me.'


"The sisters had been serving life terms for their involvement in a 1993 armed robbery that netted between $11 and $200, but Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour agreed last week to indefinitely suspend their sentences."

Barbour's Dec. 29 decision came in the wake of a furor over an interview in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine in which Barbour, a Republican who had been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, spoke approvingly about a group called the Citizens Council, known in other states as the White Citizens Council.


But it also followed a campaign that saw New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, among others, championing the Scott sisters' cause.

He wrote of the sisters on Oct. 12: "what has happened to them takes your breath away.


Nancy R. Lockhart, who has championed the sisters' cause since she was a law student, wrote last night of the sisters' mother, Evelyn Rasco: "Mrs. Rasco wanted me to inform everyone that Jamie and Gladys have not arrived home yet. The press conference was too much for her and they had to stop at a hospital and have her examined.

"*They are now on the way HOME!*

"Thank you to everyone who assisted in obtaining freedom for the sisters. Your assistance will be needed in gaining a Full Pardon with Restoration of all Civil Rights."


Immigration Backlash Top Race Story on Nightly News

"Illegal Immigration provokes backlash" was the top story involving race and immigration in 2010 on the television networks' nightly newscasts, according to Andrew Tyndall's Tyndall Report.


The topic logged 100 minutes on ABC, CBS and NBC, followed by "adoption of Haitian immigrants controversy" at 76 minutes, "USDA accused of racial bias against farmers" at 37 minutes and "ICE border controls along Mexico line," 21 minutes.

"ABC's Jake Tapper was the most used reporter," logging 335 minutes; and the Gulf oil spill was by far the top story on the newscasts, logging 1410 minutes, compared with 426 minutes for the runner up, the Haiti earthquake.


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Albor Ruiz, New York Daily News: GOP bullies beating drums versus immigrants, setting them up for tough year

Marisa Treviño, Latina Lista blog: GOP comes out swinging against undocumented immigrants and Cesar Chavez