A great man once wrote—well, actually, I once wrote—that to discuss any aspect of race in this country is to invite an “Al Campanis Moment.” For the uninitiated, a Campanis Moment arrives when, by the slip of a tongue or somebody’s misinterpretation, a discussion of race ends with the speaker being tossed onto the pillory.
New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Goldberg is getting this treatment from some for having told Washingtonianmagazine how newsroom diversity kept him from getting a permanent job at the Washington Post in 1989, after he worked there one year as a reporter. A Post reporter has weighed in against him in Romenesko Letters, and the Post’s executive editor and managing editor have castigated Goldberg somewhat unfairly—while defending the paper’s diversity program—on an internal message board.
If you follow Romenesko, you already know the back story: In a Friday afternoon dispatch on Sept. 23, Washingtonian national editor Harry Jaffe described the Post as The New Yorker’s “farm team” because a growing numbers of former Posties are now working for the magazine. In the piece’s middle, Jaffe writes this about Postie turned New Yorker Goldberg:
Jeff Goldberg’s career at the Post was doomed by diversity. He came as a Post intern in 1986 and covered the police beat. “It was the center of the journalistic universe,” he says. “I rode around covering murders. I had old-fashioned editors yelling, ‘How old is that dead body?’ “Goldberg was up for a full-time job, he says, when an editor took him aside and said, “We would like to hire you, but we have to hire a Hispanic for that slot.” He went on to report from the Middle East, but when he returned, editor Milton Coleman said the Post had no jobs. Metro editor Jo-Ann Armao told him to send some clips. He got his clips working for the New York Times Magazine for several years before joining Remnick at the New Yorker in 2000.
About two hours after the Washingtonian piece posted, Post reporter David Nakamura unloaded on Goldberg in the Romenesko Letters section with his scathing “open letter.” He writes, “I was terribly sorry to read in the Washingtonian that your career at the Washington Post was doomed by diversity and that, in your words, an editor told you your spot here had to go to ‘a Hispanic.’ ”
Goldberg returned fire on Romenesko a couple hours later, noting that the words “doomed by diversity” weren’t his, and insulted Nakamura back.
By yesterday, the row had spilled over into a Post internal message board. There, executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. and managing editor Philip Bennett responded to a posting by a staffer who had ripped Goldberg for feeling “his career at the Post was ‘doomed by diversity’ or so it said in the article” and wanted to hear from management on the topic.
Downie went first:
I have not yet seen the Washingtonian piece cited by Phong Ly, but I want to make clear that improving diversity in the newsroom and in our coverage has never been in conflict with hiring the best journalists and producing the best journalism. Quite the opposite. We have been fortunate to attract to our newsroom many outstanding journalists of color who have greatly improved our journalism throughout the newspaper, as can be be (sic) seen, for example, in our hurricane coverage. I’m pleased, as I will detail at Monday’s staff meeting, that we have signficantly (sic) increased the diversity of our staff and its leadership this year, which has also increased our capacity to produce great journalism. I’m sorry that someone who long ago failed to make the grade here would attack our diversity efforts.
A minute later, Bennett posted this:
The Goldberg comment is appalling, offensive, idiotic. His own search for a diversity-free workplace may have succeeded. That’s not where we live, or want to live, or intend to live. Diversity is a cardinal value of The Post and the communities we cover. Period.
Bennett says his internal post was a response to the staffer who characterized what Goldberg said. “The idea that white males’ careers at the Washington Post would be ‘doomed by diversity’ is absurd,” he says.
But the “doomed by diversity” line that Nakamura picked up on and Downie and Bennett alluded to was Jaffe’s invention, not Goldberg’s. Jaffe calls it a “lame attempt at alliteration” to describe what he thought happened to Goldberg at the paper.
“Goldberg never used that line,” Jaffe says. “He never implied it.”
Bennett says if that doomed diversity wasn’t Goldberg’s notion, then he doesn’t have a beef with The New Yorker writer.
In an e-mail and phone interview, Downie acknowledges that Goldberg didn’t “attack” the paper’s diversity efforts, and that “blamed” is what he thought he wrote on the paper’s internal site. But he still dismisses Goldberg’s account of how the paper passed him over. Downie writes via e-mail:
We do not designate slots for minorities, although we seek diversity in candidates for all of our openings. In Goldberg’s case, I was part of the decision-making. We decided that we did not want to hire him, period. We had enough openings on the Metro staff (as we often do because of its size) that his candidacy was not affected by the hiring of anyone else, minority or otherwise.
Goldberg recalls that the paper’s city editor *, Mary Jo Meisner, told him explicitly that she wanted to hire him but had to give the slot to a Hispanic. Meisner, now at the Boston Foundation, remembers Goldberg as a “great, scrappy, young reporter,” but of the Hispanic comment she adds, “I do not remember this.”
In 1989, Downie was managing editor to Ben Bradlee’s executive editor. According to Goldberg, Downie told him, “We’d love to have you back” after he was passed over. Goldberg took this to mean he should reapply for a job in the future after acquiring more experience.
The he-said, she-said quality to this rumble makes determining what happened at the Washington Post 16 years ago impossible. But the story is worth musing over because it reveals the inner tensions at work in businesses, schools, and branches of government that take pride in increasing diversity, as the Post does. In 1991, when Downie became executive editor, 17.1 percent of the paper’s newsroom staff was nonwhite. According to a summer 2005 study, the percentage of nonwhites in the newsroom at the Post had risen to 21.4, better than the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.
At the risk of falling victim to my own Al Campanis Moment, let me think out loud about diversity. Without a doubt, diversity can improve the newspaper quality by putting ears, eyes, and brains inside the newsroom that understand the world outside. So, how do you increase diversity? You recruit for it and you train for it. But that effort isn’t always painless. It’s predictable that when a minority is hired or promoted that someone on staff will suspect that a diversity calculator in the backroom made the personnel decision, not a human being who considered only merit.
Goldberg isn’t the first journalist I’ve heard say he was passed over at the Post for a minority. In 20 years of Post watching, I’ve heard a dozen anecdotes from folks who claimed that an editor said they were being passed over for a promotion or hired because the slot had to serve diversity. Others say they were told to read between the lines for the reason they didn’t get the job.
Whether the claims are true or not, when diversity plays a significant role in hiring it makes race the prism through which folks start viewing their jobs. (It’s telling that both Bennett and Downie reacted so strongly against Goldberg before reading the allegedly offensive article.) Which is to say: Jeffrey Goldberg’s comments to the Washingtonian didn’t start the debate at the Post over the unintended effects of promoting diversity, it just brought them back into the open.
Interests declared: Goldberg is a friend; the Post and Slate are owned by the same company; and my wife, a Post employee, is on maternity leave. Send e-mail to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)