Are you still on the bubble as to whether to attend this week’s Minority Bar Convention? Well, let me tell you about a rousing lecture delivered last night. It was by a journalist, not a lawyer, but it communicated eloquently the value to a profession of a focus on diversity and inclusion.
Gwen Ifill, managing editor and moderator of the PBS news show “Washington Week,” gave a public lecture last night at the downtown Phoenix Arizona State University campus. Her topic was “Diversity and Inclusion in the News.”
Last year, I had the opportunity to view Ifill in action as she covered the GOP Presidential Debate in Mesa. Moving from speaker to speaker in the spin room, she asked pointed queries, always seeking to illuminate her audience with the content, rather than with her own presence. (See more of my debate-followup photos here.)
As I listened to Ifill’s remarks at ASU last night, I was thinking about the State Bar’s own Minority Bar Convention, slated for later this week. Ifill aimed her speech to the mass of Cronkite Journalism School students in the room. Clearly, the legal profession is not the only one in which the topic is a welcome consideration. Her presentation was the perfect entrée to a lawyer event dedicated to diversity and inclusion.
First, some background about Ifill and her work.
“Washington Week” is the longest-running prime time news and public affairs program on TV. Ifill also is senior correspondent for “PBS NewsHour.” She also appears frequently as a guest on “Meet the Press.” As the ASU Cronkite website continues:
“Her appearance is sponsored by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication as part of an ASU award given to the school last year in recognition of its efforts to advance diversity and inclusion. The inaugural Institutional Inclusion Award included a grant to fund the visit under the university’s Diversity Scholar Series, a biannual event designed to stimulate conversations about diversity, social justice and policy making.”
At ASU on Monday, Ifill described her own path to the highest-profile newsrooms in America. She explained how she grew up to be someone who believes diversity and inclusion are “needed for the profession, for politics, for society and for our general national health.”
But “how in the world did a little black girl get it in her head to be a journalist?” Ifill mused. Well, she liked to write, and early on was drawn to believe that news organizations had an obligation to present the truth. That belief played out in her own relationship with a nonjournalist—St. Nick.
She was 9 years old and had grown skeptical about the reality of Santa Claus. Seeing her waver, Ifill’s dad presented her with their daily newspaper, on the cover of which was a wire story purporting to show Santa Claus himself winging his way to their community. That was enough for her.
“I believed again. It was in a newspaper; how could it not be true?”
The reality of news organizations was a different animal entirely. She recalled approaching her desk as an unpaid worker at a major daily newspaper, where she found a piece of paper with the scrawled words, “Nigger go home.”
So surprised was she that she reported her first reaction as thinking, “I wonder who this is for?” But then she took it to her bosses and let them know that it was unacceptable. Though they knew which aging newspaperman had written the message of hate, he would remain in the newsroom. But they offered Ifill a job.
“It’s not how you get in the door,” said Ifill. “It’s what you do when you get through it.”
She said that her entire career is based on the belief that journalists have a special responsibility to “get it right.” And doing that is near-impossible, she said, if you decide it’s unimportant to hear from multiple voices.
She recounted her interview with a young senator from Illinois after he delivered a major Democratic Convention speech. And she admitted that the historic nature of the moment escaped her as she wrangled the questions, the timing and all the technology that goes into a modern convention interview—this one with a younger Barack Obama.
“Change happens while we’re not paying attention,” she said. “Transformation occurs under our noses.”
On the topic of race—and of diversity and inclusion generally—Ifill saw it often in presidential politics.
“Sometimes race helps, and sometimes it hurts. But race always matters.”
Ifill stressed the value of diversity to the journalism profession. For her, it is not an “add-on” or a luxury.
The job of the reporter, she said, aligns with the goals of diversity: Open the doors wider. Listen harder.
When she covers a story, Ifill said, “I feel responsible to hear as many points of view as possible. And I want a newsroom with as many different points of view and understandings as possible.”
“Diversity is not just about race or any subset of the population. It’s how you tell the story more fully.”
“What we get by welcoming diversity and inclusion, by rewarding difference, is simply our salvation as a profession.”
Finally, Ifill said that she is as disappointed as anyone by the rancor in public debate. In contrast, she said that a PBS segment in which Mark Shields and Paul Gigot disagree amicably is one of the most popular segments of the “PBS News Hour.” People clearly yearn for that.
“I am discouraged by the way we all retreat to our corners and only listen to those who agree with us. That’s not healthy. We’re all longing for civility in public conversation, even when there’s disagreement.”
“That, too, is diversity.”
The profession of journalism is not the profession of law, so strict parallels cannot be drawn. Nonetheless, I am struck by alignments, such as: professions in crisis; declining trust among and little perceived relevance to outsiders; declining interest among those choosing professions; occasional tone-deaf leaders who prefer to hear from only traditional voices.
Those characteristics cannot be the path to salvation—for any profession.
Once more, then, here is the link to the Minority Bar Convention.Follow @azatty