Remember the sitcom Sanford and Son? There was a scene that I’ll never forget, where the son, Lamont, played by Demond Wilson, told a white guy, “I read Life Magazine. How come you don’t read Ebony?” I knew the answer, of course, but it nonetheless struck a chord. We, meaning ordinary white people of general good will, have neither an understanding nor much of a concern about what our fellow citizens, who happen to have black skin, are thinking and feeling. It’s not so much that we are antagonistic toward the idea of knowing, but that we just don’t care enough to do so.
Since then, the idea has morphed into the concept of whiteness being normalized, which it was and is because it represents the perspective of the majority. Black people constitute 13% of Americans, and like it or not, they are not the majority. But does that mean they aren’t of sufficient worth to be part of the whole, to have their world seen by the majority?
Wes Lowery argues that part of the problem that gave rise to the invisibility of black people, except when they do something that interests white people like behave poorly, is the absence of black people from the newsroom.
His complaints and his skepticism were familiar, voiced for decades by black people both outside newsrooms and within them — that most American media organizations do not reflect the diversity of the nation or the communities they cover and too often confine their coverage of black and brown neighborhoods to the crime of the day.
If there was a black reporter, he did the “black beat,” went into black neighborhoods, covered black stories and reported them in a such a way as to make it past the gatekeeper, the white editor who would decide whether some facet of black life was interesting enough to the white audience to make the cut. Lowery calls bullshit.
Now, almost a decade later, as protesters are taking to the streets of American cities to denounce racism and the unabated police killings of black people across the country, the journalism industry has seemingly reached a breaking point of its own: Black journalists are publicly airing years of accumulated grievances, demanding an overdue reckoning for a profession whose mainstream repeatedly brushes off their concerns; in many newsrooms, writers and editors are now also openly pushing for a paradigm shift in how our outlets define their operations and ideals.
There’s a reason why the mainstream media is called “mainstream.” It appeals to, and is accepted by, the mainstream of the American public. Whether newsrooms, editors, brushed off black existence because of racism or a misguided sense of what the majority of their audience, their white audience, was interested in is rendered irrelevant if, as Lowery argues, there is now a paradigm shift. It’s not that everyone is required to read Ebony, but that Life can include stories of interest and concern to black people as well as white. Neither to the exclusion of the other. Both to be included, because black people exist too.
But Lowery doesn’t end there.
For years, I’ve been among a chorus of mainstream journalists who have called for our industry to abandon the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard, and for reporters instead to focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.
This is a very tough notion to swallow. It’s one thing to argue that the appearance of objectivity does not require a reporter to include one side’s claim that “space aliens made him do it” as if it was a sufficiently credible claim to serve as the equivalent argument to “the cop shot an unarmed black man.” It’s another to choose not to include the facts of what preceded the shooting.
Lowery has not claimed the “moral” authority to be dishonest in his journalistic presentation because one truth must bear out. Indeed, he does just the opposite.
And so, instead of promising our readers that we will never, on any platform, betray a single personal bias — submitting ourselves to a life sentence of public thoughtlessness — a better pledge would be an assurance that we will devote ourselves to accuracy, that we will diligently seek out the perspectives of those with whom we personally may be inclined to disagree and that we will be just as sure to ask hard questions of those with whom we’re inclined to agree.
Presenting perspectives with which one disagrees is hard, especially when one is quite certain that, despite its facial credibility, it’s a lie at its core. Sometimes it’s a logical fallacy. Sometimes it’s an “accepted fact” that isn’t a fact at all. It’s often counterintuitive and maybe it reflects a reality that has been brushed aside by the dominant narrative for generations, but it’s false and has always been false.
For those of us who prefer facts, the real facts, even the facts that fail to confirm what we believe to be the truth because we would rather be wrong in our belief than be wrong because we rely on lies, Lowery’s argument for change hits home.
But can this be accomplished? I don’t doubt Lowery’s integrity, his sincerity in being both the voice of a hidden world and diligently putting the facts to paper even if they’re not the facts he would prefer. I do, however, doubt that most reporters can do this, and will be as diligent in lying for their cause as any partisan, whether by commission or omission. I want to read what Wes Lowery writes as I want to know the facts from perspectives that aren’t mine. But not all reporters are Wes Lowery. I hope Wes Lowery will be Wes Lowery too.