Join Rinku for a Virtual Townhall on the Kerner Report


Earlier this week, Rinku shared three positive takeaways from the last 50 years on you can read to prepare for the Townhall.

One of three original collages that multimedia artist and "Whose Streets?" filmmaker Damon Davis created to mark the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report. Illustration: Damon Davis

For nearly three years, through the Drop the I Word campaign, Race Forward worked with many other groups to get the Associated Press to take “illegal immigrant” out of their style guide. When the AP finally did so in 2013, they started a ripple effect that led USA Today and the Los Angeles Times to drop it too, not to mention all the newspapers that used AP Style as policy. One of the hardest things I’ve had to face since the 2016 presidential election is that this word, which we had worked so hard to get out of popular discourse, has come roaring back to life.

Such a turn of events might make even the most committed activist feel like a failure, and I did. But then I wondered, how much worse would it be if the AP was still validating that word, while a modern crop of White nationalists uses it as their clarion call? Much worse, indeed.

On this 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report on urban uprisings, I’ve read thousands of justifiable words about how little has changed and has even gotten worse for people of color in the media. But there’s no question that the last 50 years would have been immeasurably worse without the actions of reporters and news consumers of color.

Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the Kerner Commission to unearth the causes of dozens of urban uprisings in the late 1960s. The Commission looked hard at the media coverage of the unrest and of Black communities, finding “a significant imbalance between what actually happened in our cities and what the newspaper, radio and television coverage of the riots told us happened.”

This failure followed a long pattern of news media bias, the Commission noted. “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” The report, published as paperback, became an instant bestseller.

The Commission made multiple recommendations for improving coverage of Black communities. The largest was the creation of an institute of urban communications. This institute would train reporters on urban affairs and recruit, train and place Black journalists in newsrooms. The institute would also work to improve relations between police and the press, regularly evaluate the media’s performance on racial issues and create an urban affairs news service to syndicate coverage.

As far as I know, such an institute was never built. Johnson, having pushed through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, largely ignored the report and rejected most of its recommendations, including those on controlling housing segregation and creating jobs.

Still, a look through the last 50 years of our journalism reminds me how deep and wide our bench is for tackling the many problems that still remain. So I’m outlining three positive trends in race and journalism of the last half century.

Positive No. 1: A critical mass of people of color have entered mainstream news

In the late 1960s, journalists of color started entering mainstream media in large numbers. There were still only a few at any single outlet, but for the first time, a critical mass of Black, Latino, Asian and Native American journalists worked in daily corporate news outlets. Many nightly television newscasts had at least one anchor of color. These reporters made huge sacrifices and broke major stories, opening the door to the next generation of journalists of color who would be published by the mainstream press.

One early hero of the Kerner period was Ruben Salazar, the first Mexican-American reporter to cover the Chicano community for a mainstream outlet. Salazar started his career in the 1950s with the El Paso Herald-Post, where he got himself arrested for vagrancy so he could investigate the treatment of prisoners in the local jail. He reported at the L.A. Times until 1970, covering, among other things, the 1965 United States occupation of the Dominican Republic. Salazar died during the Chicano Moratorium March against the War, hit by a tear gas projectile fired by the police. By then, he was the news director for the Spanish language television station KMEX.

Another hero of the period is Carol Jenkins, who became a television anchor in the ‘70s reporting on national and global stories, including three presidential elections and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Jenkins comes from a family of leaders in the historic Black press. Print wasn’t for her, but as television news became a thing, Jenkins thought, That might be the way in. Her first job was with Lem Tucker, one of the first Black reporters to work in network TV. “I was hired as a researcher but the writer who was supposed to show up didn’t, so I got to write,” Jenkins recently told me about joining the WOR-TV news department that Tucker was building. “Then the reporter who was supposed to turn up didn’t, so I got to report. I loved it.” Jenkins went on to have a 30-year career in television news, co-anchoring broadcasts for WNBC for 23 years.

The camaraderie and support of colleagues of color enabled them all to succeed. Jenkins recalls, “Melba* Tolliver was a nurse.Chris Borgen was a cop. We all learned to do journalism on the job and in the streets,” she said. “There was a great deal of camaraderie. We knew that some in the management of these news organizations did not want us there, so everybody needed to be extremely careful because the slightest infraction or not living up to standards, you would be sent out of town to work your way back to New York. ”

Jenkins and her peers made it possible for reporters of color to keep breaking major stories through big corporate outlets. Without them, it’s far less likely that reporter Rachel Swarns would have told us that Georgetown University sold enslaved people to save itself, or that Nikole Hannah-Jones would have done her incredible series on continued resistance to school desegregation at the New York Times. José Antonio Vargas may never have been at the Washington Post, which would have made his coming out as an undocumented immigrant far less newsworthy. Melissa Harris-Perry would not have been on TV every weekend for three years, giving organizers and advocates like me a regular shot at getting our work in front of a large national audience.

All these mainstream reporters of color had to get organized, and institutions were established to do that. In 1977, Robert C. Maynard started the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, which has trained thousands of journalists of color for mainstream news careers. Maynard himself became the editor of the Oakland Tribune in 1979 and bought the paper in 1983 (becoming the first African American to own a major city paper), transforming it into a prize-winning outlet during his tenure. Four national associations for reporters of color were established in the early 1990s. Among their most important functions is recognizing excellence among contemporary journalists of color.

Read more here.