Diversity and the incoherence of journalism’s ideology

By Robert Jensen

Published in Dissident Voice · June, 2008

[This article first appeared in Outlook (magazine of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association), Summer 2008, p. 9.

The ideology of contemporary corporate commercial journalism is incoherent, and one place to see clearly this confusion is the news media industry’s approach to “diversity.”

Journalists, of course, commonly assert that they are non-ideological, that they approach their jobs as neutral professionals rather than as actors on the political stage. But mainstream news media, like all institutions, operate from a set of assumptions about how the world works and how it should work — in short, an ideology. There is no neutral ground on which to stand, no special journalistic existence outside ideology.

At the core of journalism’s rather peculiar ideology is the assertion of this illusory political neutrality, which serves mainly to paper over journalism’s commitment to, and support for, existing systems and structures of power. Journalists typically do remain neutral while covering contests between Republicans and Democrats or the struggles of one group of capitalists against another. But through their definitions of what is newsworthy and who is a reputable source — which are rooted in reflexive acceptance of the existing political and economic systems — journalists routinely give aid and comfort to the powerful by helping to validate the hierarchy inherent in those systems.

When it comes to racial/ethnic, gender and sexual diversity, the ideological nature of journalism — and the inadequacy of the analysis underlying the conventional point of view on these matters — is clear. When a group such as the American Society of Newspaper Editors makes a “commitment to racial parity in newsrooms,” it is asserting a political position that implicitly acknowledges the racial inequality in U.S. society. There would be no need to achieve parity if not for racism and its consequences; in a non-racist world, the color of individual journalists would be irrelevant. ASNE’s linking of that hiring goal to the journalistic goal of “full and accurate news coverage of our nation’s diverse communities” shows that news managers see staffing as having an effect on news coverage. It’s not simply an issue of the politics of internal employment practices but the political agenda of news coverage.

To be clear: I’m glad ASNE, other journalism associations, and individual media companies have made such acknowledgements and commitments, even if they consistently promise more than they deliver. But whatever one’s opinion about the question, any position taken is clearly political. For journalism to claim political neutrality is, frankly, a little silly.

In defense, journalists might argue that the recognition of inequality and a commitment to coverage that celebrates the humanity of all people is no longer a contentious political issue but a widely accepted goal of the overwhelming majority in society. From this point of view, diversity could be seen as no more political than the common commitment to promoting the welfare of children, for example. But even if we accept that (which is highly contentious given how many white people believe we have achieved a “level playing field”), the way in which any person, organization or profession tries to address such issues will be inescapably political.

Far from being radical, mainstream journalism’s approach to diversity is centrist, rooted in the politics of a dominant culture that tends to focus on individual effort rather than structural change. Are the managers of news media companies interested in hiring more non-white people to work within the existing system or in challenging the white-supremacist system? If the latter, it’s obvious that the problem is not just too few non-white people in the newsroom, but too many white people who are invested in maintaining that existing system premised on white supremacy. Are the predominantly male managers interested in programs to promote more women or in undermining the destructive hierarchy central to patriarchy? Are the top decision-makers in journalism interested in hiring more out lesbians and gay men or in a direct challenge to the paranoid heterosexism woven into the fabric of the culture? In my experience as both a working journalist and a journalism professor, the managers running the corporate commercial news media are committed to maintaining those systems — not challenging them — and pretending that this isn’t a political project.

I described the politics of contemporary corporate commercial journalism as centrist, but it may be more accurate to label mainstream journalism as conservative. If the core pathologies are white supremacy, patriarchy and heterosexism in a corporate capitalist system that valorizes the hierarchy that produces inequality, then any status quo/centrist politics are in reality conservative; they have the effect of helping to conserve the existing system, even when advocating minor modifications to make it appear more liberal and tolerant.

This analysis should raise critical questions about an organization such as NLGJA, which describes its mission as working “within the news industry to foster fair and accurate coverage of LGBT issues,” language that is in sync with the illusory claims of neutrality of the industry. The questions include:

* Does NLGJA believe that hiring more LGBT people who will work within the heterosexist system is adequate to the task of LGBT liberation?

* Is NLGJA committed to ending the heterosexism that is an integral part of a patriarchal system based on hierarchy and men’s oppression of women?

* Do the gay men in NLGJA share a commitment to such feminist politics? What conception of feminism do NLGJA members, male and female, endorse?

* Do all the white members of NLGJA share a commitment to ending the racial hierarchies in a white-supremacist system?

* If the group shares such commitments, why are they not articulated as part of the group’s mission?

Whatever one’s views, they are fundamentally political questions. Ignoring them doesn’t remove one from politics, but rather puts one on the political side of the status quo, of the existing distribution of power and resources. If journalism is to be a positive force in helping U.S. citizens come to terms with the unjust and unsustainable nature of these hierarchical systems, working journalists are going to have to reject the industry’s naïve claims of neutrality and work to help push the profession to more actively resist the powerful regressive forces that dominate society.

The journalists organizations that, along with NLGJA, are rooted in a recognition of the pathology and cruelty of those hierarchies — the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Asian American Journalists Association, and Native American Journalists Association — offer some hope, but only if they can give voice to a different vision not only of journalism but of the world. Journalists from the dominant groups — heterosexuals, white people, men — should add their voices to this struggle as well.

The goal should be not diversity within unjust and unsustainable hierarchies, but liberation. That term may seem awkward today, but we should remember that the movements in which these organizations are rooted spoke not of acceptance of the domination inherent in hierarchy but of real freedom and real justice. That, not diversity, is the dream of liberation.