Today and throughout February, I am posting brief excerpts from my upcoming memoir, “Coming Full Circle — From Jim Crow to Journalism.” This is part of a story about the discontent among black journalists at The Washington Post.
Eventually some of us started to share our concerns with management, including with editor Ben Bradlee. He was never one to take criticism well but he listened politely. One person he listened to was Milton Coleman, an African American who was a Metro reporter, city editor and then a reporter on the national news staff. Coleman had Bradlee’s admiration — and his ear.
In 1985, my last full year at The Washington Post, as the newspaper finally began to listen to voices of discontent, Coleman was asked to conduct a survey of all journalists in the newsroom, to gauge attitudes about affirmative action. The survey was a snapshot of employee opinions on a broad range of subjects. The underlying mission was to ascertain how African American journalists were faring, and perhaps to see if there were solutions for retaining talent.
The survey, conversations and a 15-page report were completed and submitted in February 1986. The survey team included three African Americans — Coleman, Jeanne Fox-Alston and Eugene Robinson, and three white males — Robert Signer, Barry Sussman and Tom Wilkinson. These six were probably there as much for their areas of expertise in the newsroom as much as their races. For example, Fox-Alston, an African American, was the newsroom’s recruiter at the time; Sussman designed and conducted surveys and opinion polls for the newspaper.
There were some key takeaways in the report entitled:
BLACKS IN THE NEWSROOM OF THE WASHINGTON POST
Where We Are; Where We Should Be, and How Are We going to Get There
A Report to the Editors of The Washington Post
The report described the newsroom as a place full of favoritism, cronyism and snobbery, a place where “edicts” dropped from on high along the lines of “so-and-so is going to Tokyo” as a correspondent, or “so-and-so is moving to work on the national desk to work in Texas, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Some who responded to the survey asked “how is it that such things are decided?”
On the Metro staff, 20 out of 102 (19.6 percent) were people of color, but once there, it was difficult for minorities to move to other teams across the newsroom, giving Metro the negative moniker as the newsroom’s “ghetto” for black reporters. It was difficult for black reporters to move across the room to work in sections like business, sports, features or national. Thus, many black reporters were ripe for picking by other big newspapers and The Post lost ground with diversity.
Next: A seat at the table