George Pyle: Journalism must also look inward to deal with racism

(Richard Vogel | AP file photo) In this May 16, 2016, photo, pedestrians look at news photos posted outside the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles.

About a month ago, there was The Cartoon.

It was by The Salt Lake Tribune’s own esteemed artist Pat Bagley. It was the one that showed a doctor and a police officer looking at a large X-ray, apparently of the officer, and seeing a visage of a hooded Ku Klux Klansman about where the cop’s lower spine should have been.

There were protests and angry letters and tweets about how the cartoon said all law enforcement officers are racists.

That was not the intent of the cartoon. The intent was to note that there is a vestigial shadow of racism in that walk of American life, as in many others. After all, it wasn’t a group of insurance salesmen who turned the fire hoses on the Freedom Riders. It wasn’t a greengrocer who cracked John Lewis' skull on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

The problem is not that police are uniquely racist. The problem is that, whenever any officer or groups of officers are afflicted by that widespread social shortcoming, or even when they fail to stand up to it, the damage they can do is much greater than that done by, well, insurance salesmen and greengrocers.

So, one might ask, what about journalists? Isn’t there a problem with racism in that august profession, too?


Last Sunday, the opinion staff of the Los Angeles Times dropped a massive self-examination of the racism that had been part of that newspaper’s news coverage and editorial views going back to 1882. Titled “Our reckoning with racism,” the collection owned up to the L.A. Times' history of bigotry, going beyond its support for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (a view officially regretted in 2017) and continuing through such happenings as the Watts riots of 1965 and the civil unrest after the beating by police of Rodney King.

The Times' assessment of itself was blunt.

“For at least its first 80 years, the Los Angeles Times was an institution deeply rooted in white supremacy and committed to promoting the interests of the city’s industrialists and landowners,” the lead editorial said. “The modern notion that journalism’s core precepts include uncovering hard truths and exposing inequity would have been foreign to [Publisher Harrison Gray] Otis and other press barons of the last Gilded Age.”

The articles outlined how, even in a city with large African American and Latino populations, the newspaper staff remained overwhelmingly white. There were efforts over the years, off and on, to fix that. But Hispanic editors would leave in frustration and Black reporters felt disrespected.

Exhibit A in the newspaper’s case against itself was a 1981 reporting blockbuster about how upper-class (i.e., white) suburbs were increasingly the victims of “marauding from the inner city” (i.e. Black and Latino).

In 1943, when on-leave sailors attacked groups of Mexican “Zoot Suiters,” Times coverage put the blame on the Hispanics, not the white aggressors. The framing of the incident was bad enough that Eleanor Roosevelt complained about it.

A archival review of many American newspapers, including this one, would probably be equally cringeworthy.

The key to solving the problem of institutional racism in journalism — and in law enforcement and business and everything else — is to get more Black and Hispanic and Asian and every other sort of human being into the business. Even if white journalists continue to do much of the reporting, the fact that they will have to face colleagues of color back in the office (or the Zoom meeting) can only raise awareness and sensitivity.

There is a lot of work to do here. Most of the newsrooms I have worked in over the years were blindingly white. Which made some sense in Kansas, I suppose, but less so in the Rust Belt city of Buffalo, New York. And in Salt Lake City, a community with significant Latin and Islander populations, the largest (and best) newsgathering outfit in town is rather bereft of color.

Women are fairly well represented here, including two of our previous three editors. And the entire team of journalists who earned us a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the rotten way victims of sexual assault have been treated at some Utah colleges was a team of women.

Rather than say that gender and ethnic diversity are less important than professional qualifications, we should see that in some lines of work — law enforcement, journalism, medicine — being a woman or a person of color or a person who is/isn’t a member of a community’s predominant religious affiliation is an important professional qualification.

George Pyle

George Pyle isn’t ready to give up his job as editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune to someone who isn’t an old white guy. But he could use more columns from a wider range of contributors.


Twitter, @debatestate