Yellow Journalism

More than six years ago, in the fall of 1995, Ruth Shalit wrote a 13,000-word piece for The New Republic entitled “Race in the Newsroom—The Washington Post in Black and White.” The piece, written before the feisty scribe was drummed out of TNR for a laundry list of journalistic sins, set out to document “the growing backlash against affirmative action at the Post itself.”

Shalit was tackling one of the thorniest topics in newsrooms in America. Her piece came on the heels of two incendiary memoirs written by black reporters who had left the Post (Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler and Jill Nelson’s Volunteer Slavery). Both writers said the paper was a predominantly white enclave into which token blacks were hired but never fully accepted. On the other side of this poisonous divide were the midlevel white journos who were convinced that they would be succeeding faster were it not for the forced diversity represented by the Nathan McCalls of the world. (McCall made an easy target: He had a serious criminal record as part of his vita, having spent three years in a Virginia prison, and admitted in his book to participating in numerous gang rapes of black girls.)

Shalit got an impressive number of things wrong. (Look up Post editor Len Downie’s barnburner riposte for the whole list.) But she did get the forest right, even if she was hard-pressed to accurately identify all of its trees. A half-decade ago, the burgeoning economic boom was just reaching the country’s ink-stained wretches, and most working journalists still remembered the lean years of the early and mid-1990s, when staff-writer jobs were few and far between. Efforts to diversify the country’s newsrooms were often forced and clumsy, and many people, black and white, had legitimate gripes. There was a growing backlash against affirmative action, and it wasn’t limited to the Post’s newsroom.

It was during this time that William McGowan, a former Washington Monthly editor and current Manhattan Institute fellow, signed on with Simon & Schuster’s Free Press to write a book critiquing how a poorly conceived and executed push to diversify newsgathering organizations was robbing American journalism of its objectivity. McGowan aimed to take Shalit’s critique one step further, examining not only how diversification was roiling newsrooms but how it was hurting the product of journalism as well.

It took six years for McGowan’s polemic, Coloring The News, to get published, and by the time it came out, it was no longer a Free Press book. The feisty West Coast house Encounter Books had picked it up. Not surprisingly, a pungent hint of scandal surrounds this move. In late 2001, Encounter’s publicist sent out an e-mail claiming that McGowan’s work had been suppressed by the liberal media cabal running the country’s newspapers, magazines, and publishing houses: “Originally, Simon & Schuster’s Free Press had signed on to publish this book, but decided against it in fear of publishing such a controversial issue.”

It sounds like a great hook: Manhattan Institute fellow has his work squelched by the very liberal theocracy he’s critiquing. Unfortunately this claim, like too many of the criticisms in McGowan’s outdated tome, has only the flimsiest connections to reality. McGowan did indeed sign a contract with the Free Press in 1995. By the time he got around to handing in his manuscript four years later, the editor, editor-in-chief, and publisher of the Simon & Schuster imprint had all moved on.

Still, despite Encounter’s claims, McGowan acknowledges that the Free Press was willing to publish his book; it was the author who balked. “It was clear their editorial vision had changed,” he told me. “If they had taken the book, they wouldn’t have supported it the way I wanted them to.” (“The suggestion that the book was cancelled for fear of controversy is a complete fabrication,” says Mitch Horowitz, the editor who signed up McGowan. “In terms of controversy this book was a walk in the park.”)

And so we are introduced to Coloring the News. As with Shalit’s 1995 article, which McGowan cites approvingly several times, McGowan’s book demonstrates an impressive ability to misinterpret and misreport facts. But McGowan, who seems to have begun this project with an ideological axe to grind, fails to even map the forest correctly. Coloring the News is filled with canards and an unsophisticated tendency to see conspiracies behind every door even as it fails to recognize the tremendous change that has occurred in American newsrooms over the past six years.

Affirmative action in the newsroom, like any other affirmative action debate, became less pressing as the economy got better and there were more jobs to be had. And the country’s news directors, editors, and publishers have become more nuanced in their efforts to broaden the makeup of their operations. That may be one reason McGowan seems to have done little research since the mid-’90s, when he initially signed on to write his book. For example, he harps on some old and much-ridiculed quotes from top New York Times people, including then-executive editor Max Frankel’s “own little quota plan.” But that was 10 years and two top editors ago. Today, the Times has a black managing editor for the first time in its history, an appointment that caused no outcry from partisans on either side of this diminishing debate.

(A humorous example of how out-of-date this book is: Anna Quindlen is the most frequently cited New York Times columnist, and she hasn’t worked for the paper since 1994.)

More disturbing, the examples McGowan does dust off to show double standards and reverse racism in the newsroom, such as the Boston Globe’s Patricia Smith-Mike Barnacle debacle, often are missing so much information as to change their meanings. Elsewhere, McGowan’s analyses are so misleading one has to wonder if the deception is purposeful. Take McGowan’s treatment of the December 1995 killings at Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem, where a black man named Roland Smith set the Jewish-owned store on fire and then shot seven people to death.

The New York Times, claims McGowan, referred to Smith in laudatory terms. “The Times depicted Smith as a man of ‘principle,’ explaining that he lived ‘an ardent credo’ of black ‘self-sufficiency’ and ‘resistance,’ and that his actions inside Freddy’s were not criminal per se, but a strange act of suicide in protest against the ‘institutional force’ of white racism,” McGowan writes.

The article in question actually refers to Smith as mentally deranged. Furthermore, the piece never claims that the massacre wasn’t criminal; instead, it simply quoted a former friend of the killer’s to show how far gone he was: “‘It was an act of insanity for all of us looking in on it … But I’m 98 percent sure he didn’t view it as an act of criminality, but as a strange act of suicide against an institutional force.'” The same day that story ran, the Times printed an op-ed column (by a black writer, no less) that read, “Roland Smith was driven by a sick hatred of whites and Jews and by the criminally irresponsible anti-white and anti-Semitic ravings of protesters who had been picketing Freddy’s.”

Even as McGowan spends thousands of words picking on the Times tendentious coverage of racial issues, he devotes exactly one sentence to last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning project, “How Race is Lived in America.” He calls the 15-week series an “exception” which “managed to catch many of the subtleties and the sense of historical progress often lacking in most of the paper’s daily coverage.”

While McGowan will no doubt refer to negative reviews of his work as further proof that the entrenched media elite don’t want to hear his views, the shame of Coloring the News is that the issues McGowan tries to raise—whether unofficial quotas for newsroom hiring results in a decrease of quality and objectivity; whether racial issues are treated with less skepticism than they should be—do need to be addressed. But as McGowan claims in his book, no serious, thoughtful analysis of these issues has been done, and that includes this work.

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