Tuesday’s edition of PBS NewsHour featured a discussion about “the differences in the experiences of black journalists as contrasted with their colleagues.” One of the guests, Los Angeles Times Executive Editor Norman Pearlstine, talked about how “one of the active debates we had over the past week was about the use of the word ‘looting’ to describe the destruction of the property” that has taken place at several riots that have occurred in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Pearlstine went on to talk about how the seemingly innocent term is actually profoundly racist.
According to Pearlstine, “the feeling among the black journalists at The Los Angeles Times, who frankly educated the rest of us that 'looting' had a pejorative, racist connotation, and that comparing it to the kind of behavior of the police and the kind of behavior that we witnessed really was a false equivalency and yet it was one that we were making as journalists if you picked...up a copy of our paper.”
Dorothy Tucker, the President of the National Association of Black Journalists, argued that the term “riot” was also racist.
Host Judy Woodruff pondered whether “this traditional idea of neutrality in the press” should go by the wayside in favor of speaking with “moral clarity” on the issue of race even if that means “expressing an opinion.” When asked by Woodruff if journalism was “changing in that regard,” Pearlstine responded: “I think it’s changing only in the expansion of the definition.”
As the conversation came to a close, Pearlstine actually admitted that supposedly objective reporters have allowed their personal opinions to influence their reporting for decades: “I think there is some parallel to during the Vietnam period when journalists like David Halberstam were certainly letting their opinions into their journalism and I think it was for the better.” Based on this PBS NewsHour segment taking place a half-century after Vietnam, members of the fourth estate will continue “letting their opinions into their journalism,” which almost always happen to be left-wing, for the foreseeable future.
A transcript of the relevant portion of Tuesday’s edition of PBS NewsHour is below. Click “expand” to read more.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The death of George Floyd and the protests since have re-ignited enormous questions about race and racism, inequality, and discrimination in America. That is true as well for the work that we do: news reporting. There have been a number of developments on that front of late; including a decision by editors at The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to initially pull an African-American reporter off protest coverage following her tweet. Her white colleague also was warned about a tweet he made but was not pulled off coverage until later. That and other incidents have crystallized some of the differences in the experiences of black journalists as contrasted with their colleagues. We explore this and some of the larger issues behind all this with Dorothy Tucker, she’s President of the National Association of Black Journalists. And Norman Pearlstine, he’s the Executive Editor of The Los Angeles Times and we welcome both of you to the NewsHour. Dorothy Tucker, you told one of my colleagues this afternoon, you said this has been a difficult time for black journalists. You described them as frustrated and tired, angry and scared. That’s a lot to carry around at a time when reporters are being asked to cover all of this.
DOROTHY TUCKER: Well, Judy, you know, quite honestly, some of that is what we carry all the time anyway. But it definitely is harder these days. You know, I mean, from my own personal experience, I can tell you in covering the protests, I…I worked over the weekend. I worked, you know, three or four days in a row. And I’m asking questions of people, and I’m interviewing people on this side of the brain but on the other side of the brain, I’m thinking of my 28-year-old son, who was traveling from Atlanta to Chicago driving and praying the entire time that he arrives home safely, you know, that he doesn’t get stopped by a police officer, that something doesn’t happen to him when he stops at a rest shop…a rest stop, you know. So, this is something that we, we carry with us when you’re covering a protest like this, and you have had experiences of racism. You have witnessed it. You know someone who has had a negative exchange with a police officer. So, you know, this is…this is what we live, and to have to now be…wear both of those hats, it is frustrating and it is tiring, and at times because you are in the middle of it, it is scary.
WOODRUFF: Norman Pearlstine, what are you hearing from reporters you know, reporters who work for you who are African-American?
NORMAN PEARLSTINE: Well, they are speaking very much about the same kinds of pressures and tensions that you were just hearing about. They are also commenting quite passionately about the fact that there are not nearly enough black journalists working at The Los Angeles Times and that puts an additional burden on those who are here.
WOODRUFF: And Norm Pearlstine, are there enough? And if…if not, why not?
PEARLSTINE: Well, I think there has been a pattern of underrepresentation for a very long time in all of our publications in the U.S., but it has been especially true at The Los Angeles Times. We live in a progressive community. We live in a city that is 47 percent Hispanic, that has a very active black population that is represented in politics much more than it is in journalism.
WOODRUFF: And Dorothy Tucker, how much difference…I know you have these discussions with colleagues, you certainly discuss it at the National Association of Black Journalists. How much difference is it believed that it would make if there were more journalists of color and…and more journalists of color in positions where decisions are made?
TUCKER: And, and, and that is the key, Judy. It’s not just about having a…an increased number of journalists there. It is important that we see blacks in management positions so that the stories that we cover…I think you would see more equitable reporting in the stories that we cover and the kinds of stories that we cover. You know, I think for African-Americans who are reporting, they come to the editorial meetings with ideas. You know, they come with pitches, and oftentimes they’re just not accepted. Perhaps if there were black managers there, there would be a, a, a better chance of some of the ideas that they’re having, the kind of stories that they would like to do, you know, I think those managers would be more sensitive to that. You know, I…I think just having someone, having more black managers would mean that some of the missteps that we’ve seen, you would not see. You wouldn’t see the case of what happened in…in Pittsburgh. You wouldn’t see the headline that we saw in Philadelphia. You wouldn’t necessarily see what we saw at The New York Times. The list is long. You need someone of color, an African-American at the table when decisions are made to prevent the kind of missteps that we have seen in the media recently.
PEARLSTINE: One of the active debates we had over the past week was about the use of the word “looting” to describe the destruction of property and the…very much the feeling among the black journalists at The Los Angeles Times who frankly educated the rest of us to the fact that looting had a pejorative racist connotation and that comparing it to the kind of behavior of the police and the kind of behavior that we witnessed really was a false equivalency and yet it was one that we were making as journalists if you picked up…up a copy of our paper.
TUCKER: And see, that’s a great conversation to have. I mean, the word riot is very similar. You know, the…there is concern that it is automatically labeled that it’s a riot if it is African-Americans who are protesting, but it’s not labeled as a…as a, a riot when you see the same kind of destruction after a concert or, you know, after a sporting event. So, there are…there are words that have that association, so I appreciate the fact that you’re having that kind of discussion at the L.A. Times.
WOODRUFF: It’s a conversation about…about words. It’s also... we’re increasingly hearing this conversation about the…this idea, this traditional idea in the press of neutrality versus what some are saying now when it comes to subjects like race; where journalists are called on to speak with what they are calling moral clarity, Norm Pearlstine, even if that means they step from pure neutrality into expressing an opinion. I mean is…I guess my question is, is journalism changing in that regard?
PEARLSTINE: Well, I think it’s changing only in the expansion of the definition. We don’t think twice about saying that anti-fascism would be part of our mandate as a, a journalistic institution. Anti-racism certainly should be similarly central to our core. I think that the, the danger is that we not only recognize the need to tell stories, but that we also need to have a moral purpose. Otherwise, I think that the freedoms that we get with the First Amendment are not deserved.
WOODRUFF: Dorothy Tucker, is what’s going on today calling on us to re-examine again that traditional definition of journalism as all about neutrality?
TUCKER: You know, I…I think what is happening today is more than anything, calling on news managers and news outlets to just really pay attention to the varying voices in their newsrooms. Now, when it comes to just whether we should, you know, step over a line, I…I don’t think any…I don’t think anyone is asking for that. I mean, we’re journalists, and we’re going to be fair and we’re going to be accurate. But at the same time, if the information that someone is putting out there is wrong, you know, I think as journalists, as you well know, it is our job to point that out. You know, if what somebody is…is saying to you is unfair and racist, as journalists, it is our job to point that out. And I think what you’re seeing more today is that journalists are more comfortable in doing that. So, I…I, if…you know, I think that’s where the change may be.
PEARLSTINE: I think there is some parallel to during the Vietnam period when journalists like David Halberstam were certainly letting their opinions into their journalism, and I think it was for the better.