Opinion: One of Each

At least one of each. 

That was the unwritten genius of New York’s ‘Eyewitness News’ back in the day. In the city that invented economic and social diversity, founding newsroom architect Al Primo decided that his on-air news team should reflect the community it sought to serve. 

It seems so obvious now, if just for commercial appeal and good manners. But while newsrooms preached prevailing liberal doctrines of integration and equality for the rest of society, at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the vast majority of TV, print and radio newsmen were, well, men. White men.

Fred Friendly, CBS News icon and producer for seminal newsman Edward R. Murrow, helped change the status quo when he developed, along with Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the Ford Foundation, a program to recruit minorities into journalism. I was class of 1970, graduating to a job at Eyewitness News just as Primo’s brave new world was changing everything. 

True, Primo had white guys in the anchor chairs, like poppa bears Roger Grimsby and Bill Beutel. He also made sure, however, that virtually every sizeable racial, ethnic and religious group in the city was represented. These included, but were not limited to: blacks, whites, old, young, tall, conservatives, liberals, radicals, short, males, females, Italians, Anglos, Irish, Greeks, Catholics, Protestants, Jewish and Latinos. Asians came in the next wave.

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You can Google a 1971 Eyewitness promo that features me bringing the dour Grimsby, the all-American Beutel and the rest of our technicolor team to a Puerto Rican wedding. After some initial hesitation by both sides, the news team was warmly welcomed by the wedding party. 

By the end of the spot we all danced salsa together.  

The substantive concept of Eyewitness News was not integration for integration’s sake. They recognized race and ethnicity, far from being a disadvantage, was an asset, albeit an unofficial and unstated one. The thinking was that if a reporter hailed from certain, definable communities, he or she would bring special skills and insider knowledge about that community to the reporter's job. 

It was certainly true for Eyewitness, which for that era became more gritty, relevant and urban than its competitors.

In the decades since those glory days of integration innovation, ‘diversity’ became a standard rote goal of news executives. Like ‘world peace’ for beauty contestants, everybody was for it.

That is why the 2010 census of professional full-time journalists by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE) is disappointing. It reports that the percentage of African American, Asian, Latino and Native American journalists has declined for the third consecutive year in U.S. newsrooms. 

The percentage of minorities in America is about 46 percent. The percentage of minorities in newsrooms is about 13 percent.

Thirteen percent is significant, indeed, compared to the four percent minorities in newsrooms back when ASNE started its census in 1978. Awareness of the issue, fairer hiring practices and the various mentorship and apprentice programs have made a positive difference. 

But the fact the last several years have shown declines in minority employment proves that the news media’s recent hard times have taken a disproportionate toll on minority reporters and editors.

Additionally, the concept of affirmative action is itself embattled. If society is to be colorblind, the argument goes, and if all men are created equal, then why even break down newsrooms by race or ethnicity? Aren’t hiring practices and programs designed to increase minority representation inherently unfair to majority candidates?

In a nation changing color right before the eyes of its people, and with white Americans fast becoming the new minority, the argument is logical and potent. But it is also willfully naïve. 

When times are tough, our profession is like most others. Scarce jobs go to people connected to the people in power positions, legacies, old school ties, relatives and such. The bottom line, as the ASNE census makes clear, is that minority strivers are having a harder time breaking into the news business than they have in recent years. Progress is being undone.

“Accurately reflecting the diversity of our communities in our newsrooms and local reports is essential to our industry’s success — now more than ever," says Karen Magnuson, co-chair of ASNE’s Diversity Committee. "As minority populations grow, we must grow with them, finding innovative ways to meet evolving needs for coverage and information delivery.” 

So it was in 1970, and so it is still.

Geraldo Rivera is a senior columnist for Fox News Latino.

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