No Whites Allowed?

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently sparked a new skirmish in the culture war. She decided to grant the only one on one interviews about her anniversary in office with non white reporters.

S2: We are a city that has almost three quarters people of color. I believe that the city hall press corps needs to reflect the diversity of our city.

S1: So is this radical fairness a political stunt or both will dive in next on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to A World, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Illinois politics and especially Chicago politics can be a rough business where losers can get regularly dragged even all the way to prison and winners can make it all the way to the White House. The city has corruption problems, police problems, education problems, and in its last year, a pandemic. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a lot to answer for as she marks her second anniversary in office. But who Litefoot decided she would answer to made national headlines.

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S3: Your office says that you invited black and brown journalists to this round of interview, but why? I’m happy to vouch for Craig, for Heather Sharon and others.

S2: Well, look, I think in this one day when we are looking at the two year anniversary of my inauguration as a one of a color as a a lesbian, it’s important to me that diversity is put front and center.

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S3: There are some folks who’ve been feuding with some of them, my white colleagues. Some people look at this as sort of a payback.

S2: It has nothing to do with that. The facts are the facts. Look at the people who cover City Hall.

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S1: For more on this controversy, we’re joined by veteran political journalist Aaron Haynes. She’s editor at large and one of the founders of the 19th, the nonprofit news group focused on American women. Aaron Haynes joins us now. Welcome to A Word.

S4: Thanks for having me.

S1: Right off the bat, this Lori Lightfoot have a point when she talks about the lack of diversity within the Chicago press corps and how is that sort of historically affected, how news gets reported, especially in cities?

S4: Yeah, listen, so there was definitely a message there, but the delivery was somewhat tainted, right? She said the quiet part out loud, I guess, for for lack of a better lack of a better phrase there. Listen, there is a lack of diversity in political journalism at the federal, state and local level. And we know know coverage of city hall. That’s a coveted beat at a lot of major news outlets. And far too many of those spots go to people who are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. This is the pipeline for people who maybe want to eventually cover the state house, who maybe eventually want to cover Congress, who may eventually want to be White House correspondents. Right. So that kind of experience matters. And also those kinds of folks do hold kind of an outsize prominence in a newsroom and and do wield kind of a lot of power in terms of holding the powerful accountable in a community. And so I do think that her point about the lack of diversity in the folks who are covering city hall in places like Chicago is certainly valid. It is why organizations like my beloved National Association of Black Journalists was created was to try to increase media diversity in spaces like politics and other beats. But intent is access should be expanded, right, and not contracted. So the answer is not necessarily to exclude white journalists. It is to have more black and brown journalists in those newsrooms. Right. Because, I mean, of course, if these newsrooms had a black or brown journalist to send over to interview Mayor Lightfoot, I don’t know if we would still be having this conversation. I don’t know if the outrage would still be there.

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S1: Why do you think we end up with these ultra white press cause for cities to have a ton of black people? Is it because black people don’t go into journalism? Is because they go to black news outlets? Is there a feeder problem when it comes to places like Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit? Like how the heck does that happen?

S4: Yeah, well, I mean, I think there’s a few things. I am from Atlanta where I certainly was spoiled and I saw anchors who were black doing the nightly news when I was eating my dinner and watching television when I was growing up. You know, I think that that representation does matter and that is a representation that is absent in a lot of our major American cities. Now, I think, you know, part of it, too, is, you know, the beats that maybe folks gravitate towards. Politics has not always been the most popular beat for for black and brown folks. But also, you know, when you have a beat that is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, what you get is, you know, a phenomenon that happens in all kinds of institutions. Right. Like you have those white men kind of plucking the next generation from folks who look like them or who remind them of themselves at their age. Right. Like, I don’t remind most white men of themselves. So that kind of mentoring, that kind of somebody putting their hand on your shoulder and saying, you know, you could do this or why don’t you think about covering politics if that is not happening from somebody especially who kind of shares your lived experience, that may not be an area that folks necessarily gravitate to. So that’s part of it, too. And I think it is. Kind of a quality of life issue for some folks, you know, especially folks who are young broadcasters, right. Like I mean, the cost of living in some of these cities and what some of the salaries might be in some of those newsrooms may make people think twice about, you know, trying to struggle and make it and go to some of those places to do some of those jobs. So, you know, I do think, you know, as an industry, there just needs to be more intentionality about diversifying these spaces.

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S1: So Lori Lightfoot says, hey, everybody lost their mind, you know, when I made this decision, blah, blah, blah. And look, maybe she was slightly exaggerating. Maybe she wasn’t. But a lot of right wing politicians and commentators were screaming and yelling, causing all the smoke and nonsense, including Fox’s Tucker Carlson.

S5: If someday the Chicago police round up the entire population of the city, Lori Lightfoot would have no trouble pulling the right ones out of line for punishment. By the way, in case you’re wondering, yes, that was a Nazi reference was deserved. Lori Lightfoot is a monster. Any society that allows politicians to talk like this has a very ugly future ahead. Very ugly.

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S1: I wonder, is this response from Tucker, is it surprising to you? Does it remind you of what we hear a lot at the local level? And is this something that also taints what we learn about local politics when all these sort of reporters tend to be these white guys?

S4: This is kind of a catch twenty two for these politicians where race and gender are involved when they try to talk about their frustration and look, all politicians are subject to scrutiny, should be held accountable. We are in the business of afflicting the comfortable right. But at the same time, when it does feel racial, when it does feel gendered, if they do try to speak out about that, that is something that can provide fodder for folks who would just as soon not acknowledge those racial and gender disparities in coverage.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more on race conscious media policies with journalist Aaron Haynes. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about Chicago Mayor Lightfoot’s race conscious interview policy with journalist Aaron Haynes of the 19. Lori Lightfoot hasn’t exactly been a hero to many black and brown Chicagoans while she’s been in office. The big story before all this was her botched handling of the police shooting of the death of Adam Toledo, an unarmed Latino teenager. What are some of the other tensions between Litefoot and in black and brown communities in Chicago?

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S4: I mean, this is somebody who former federal prosecutor who was swept into office after the Laquan McDonald killing. And so I think that there were certainly activists even then who I heard from, who were skeptical about the kind of leadership that she was going to provide, the perspective that she was coming from, and how kind of the national narrative around her and her identities jibed with what folks on the ground were seeing and what their experience was of her and with her. And so I think some of that has played out. I mean, look, I think her handling of the pandemic was something that that frustrated folks, because we know that the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black and brown folks from both the public health and an economic perspective, Chicago was certainly a place that was pretty hard hit. You know, I think also just the city’s progress and, you know, who has and has not kind of had an opportunity to benefit from that in the first half of her tenure is something that folks on the ground have certainly been critical of. And so, I mean, there are legitimate questions to ask.

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S1: Do you think that black journalists fear losing access or sometimes fear being critical of black politicians because they see themselves as having to be a balance between the inherent unfairness of how a lot of white reporters and journalists cover those politicians

S4: for black journalists who, you know, are already, like I said, kind of being accused of not being able to be objective. Right, of not necessarily being professional. We just have to do our jobs. You know, it is not on us to make others really comfortable with us doing that job or how we do that job. We we just have to be professional. Yes. I think that that there have been black journalists who have been critical of Mayor Litefoot, you know, raising those questions about their leadership, as you would as you would raise questions about the about the leader of any major American city, because that’s your job, right? If you are covering the mayor, whoever that mayor is, you know, that is your obligation to to to cover that. But, yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting because, you know, you’re trying to do your job. You’ve got some white people who may be accusing you of being biased and then maybe you’ve got some people in the black community who are like, what are you doing? Like, you’re hurting our person. So, you know, yeah, there is that. So you really I mean, you’re damned if you do. You’re damned if you don’t. So you might as well just do your job to the best of your ability.

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S1: In addition to, say, black journalist from time to time being positive or negative life, she did actually have somebody who spoke up and her defense, and that was D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser. Here’s her clip.

S6: And I think she decided to make a point on this anniversary that we need to see more beat reporters that look like the cities that they’re capturing. And that’s been a discussion I’ve had with editors around this city. And we want to continue to to urge them to hire people. That reflects the cities in the city to city hall so that they work.

S1: How do we balance when we’re calling somebody a sellout or not authentic to their community with what they’re sort of realistic obligations are, huh?

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S4: Well, you know what, Jason? I actually think that’s the wrong question. And here’s here’s why I say that. Here’s what I do. And I’m take it. I’m I’m I’m hijacking this. I’m hijacking this interview. What we should do more of and I think this is across political journalism, like we should be going back to those communities, to the coalitions that that elected a lot of these black mayors, because we know that or any, you know, any politician, be they state or federal, state or local, you know, we’re 12 percent of the population. You know, we are not you know, we can be part of a winning coalition. But like, you know, the black community does not on its own, you know, elect folks. But, you know, in cities where you do have sizable black populations that do factor in heavily to, you know, the success of that politician, going back to those voters and saying, is this what you voted for? You know, asking them what kind of job the mayor is doing instead of I mean, yes, of course. You know, we are, you know, in our desks and being very high minded about, you know, assessing the performance of these politicians. But I mean, really, the assessment that matters is the assessment of the people that they are working for. And let me also say this. I mean, if you were listening to that clip, Mayor Bowser’s doing a version of the same thing that Lori Lightfoot did, she just didn’t tell everybody that she was doing it right. I mean, as you know, I’ve been at the 19th here for a little bit over a year. I’ve heard stories quoting only women for months. And this was a deliberate choice. Why? Because if their story is it, quote, only me and nobody says anything. And I did it until somebody noticed. And it took several months. But eventually it was like, hey, like all your stories have all women. Yes, they do. You know, the United States is still a man. So we have to quote him sometimes. Sure. But if there is a woman to be asked about an issue, she a politician, she a voter, my default setting is going to be because of my lived experience to amplify the voice of that woman, because that is not happening in enough places and spaces in our journalism, in our democracy, in our society.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more with veteran journalist Aaron Haynes. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Diversity in Media with Aaron Haynes of the 19th. You’re one of the founders of the 19th. It’s led by women. You report about women and race when you have been doing this months and months and months of like, hey, I’m going to find women who are economists. I’m going to find women who are astrophysicists. I’m going to find women who do this and the other. Can you point out how that has maybe framed a story that you reported on differently than what you saw in and other major news outlets? Like how did you end up learning something different or coming up with new reporting that wasn’t the case and other outlets because they were primarily talking to men or exclusively talking about

S4: so much of it is about voice. And I think that that was especially true last year during the election, because most of the voters that I was talking to were women and that was on purpose. I was thinking about who we are talking about. My mom is a woman in the suburbs, but that is not who people thought about when they thought about suburban women voters and who we need to hear from. You know what faith voters, who is a faith voter, if not, you know, the folks that are in the black church, not how we were talking about faith voters, rural voters. You know, I’m from Atlanta, but I’ve spent some time in the country, in Georgia with my relatives. I know that there were black rural folks, black Midwestern folks. Right. Who are we talking about? And we talk about who’s in the heartland, who are we talking about? And we’re talking about who’s educated. Black women are the most educated. So, like, really reframing a lot, especially a lot of the archetypes around voters, around voting blocs. I felt like I was able to do that in the kinds of voices that I was putting in the stories about the election, and then also just making sure that we had an accurate kind of portrait of the women who were being disproportionately impacted by and responding to the pandemic. And, you know, so talking about that, hammering that as much as possible, not just me, but as a newsroom, that was something that we were committed to. You know, when we look back at this and we look back at our coverage, I know that we can at least say that this newsroom told the truth about who and where we were as a country in that moment.

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S1: We’ll take this back and looking at that when it comes to Litefoot, so. On the one hand, you know, she was trying to make a point about press diversity, but there’s also a cynical take that maybe she threw this out there because she was trying to change the subject off of what have been her many high profile failures and controversies. Do you think there’s any truth to that? I mean, do you think that this is just some sincere thing by Lightfoot or was this sort of sort of I mean, throw this thing out here, because then we’ll start talking about race and diversity. What we talk about, the fact that, you know, I’m way too chummy with the cops and I misappropriated federal funds or in a pandemic,

S4: you know, I do not personally know Mayor Lightfoot, so I do not know what is in her heart or mind in terms of her motivation for, you know, saying what she said. But listen, I do think that this conversation has been a distraction, whether she has meant for it to be or not. At the end of the day, let’s start lining up those interviews, whoever is going to do them right. I mean, I’m certainly interested in talking to Mayor Lightfoot and would be interested in, you know, would have been interested in doing that had she not kind of thrown out this mandate, had she done that or not, because this is somebody who, again, is at the halfway mark, is emerging from a pandemic, definitely had her own issues during the racial reckoning. This is somebody who is newsworthy from a political perspective.

S1: If you had an opportunity to just been the ear of a lot of important black mayors in this country, what would you tell them they could do to increase the diversity, even have an influence on increasing diversity in the local press coverage in their city?

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S4: Tell their white male counterparts that they need to push for this to every politician, should want a diverse press corps questioning them. There’s nothing stopping you at a press conference from saying, you know, this really should be more diverse. What about your communications team? How diverse are they? What is their relationship with journalists of color in their communities and beyond? If that is an imperative, then things begin to improve for everyone. But it cannot just be, you know, them raising their voices as as black and brown folks in elected office. This should be something that all of us are calling for. So the things can be different if white politicians do not also see this as something that needs to be addressed. That is a problem.

S1: Aaron Haynes is the editor at large and one of the founders of the 19th.

S4: Thank you. Thanks for having me, Jason.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review. Did you know you could be listening to this show ad free? All it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month. And it also helps us keep making our podcast sign up now at Slate Dotcom a word. Plus, the show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ayana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts. It’s late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.