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Changing the discussion about the future of journalism: speech text

Below is the text of a speech I delivered at Florida International University University yesterday.  You can find a Storify look at the event here — and a video soon will be archived there as well. Video and text will also be available through FIU and the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center sites.

Leading from the Outside: Rethinking Journalism Leadership When Change is the New Normal

Good afternoon. Thank you, Dean Reis, for that warm introduction. And special thanks to the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center – and to Lillian herself, for bringing me here. I am honored indeed to be part of your Hearst Distinguished Lecture Series.

I hope to present to you today the much-discussed topic of the future of journalism in a very different way.

My goal is to sketch out for you a media future that offers real promise to make our world a better place. A media future that could make informing ourselves more compelling, that could engage people in civic life and nourish our communities. It could make people believe in the possibilities of self-government, and cause them to feel hopeful about the future of our democracy.

No doubt this sounds like a fantasy. The fabric of our society seems badly torn these days, and our government virtually paralyzed by divisiveness and obstructionism.

I believe that it is within our power to have a very different kind of conversation, drawing upon the technological and social media advances available to us today. And I think that the single thing that would make this happy result most likely, would be a true democratization of media, both within traditional institutions and for the public more broadly. A media that looked and sounded like our society – ALL of our society — would change the conversation. If our journalism, our movies, our television shows, our blogs – even our advertising and public relations – if all of our media looked like America looks, we’d have a different civic dialogue. Things that now seem impossible to discuss would gradually become discussable. Divisions that seem unbridgeable would begin – not easily, not quickly, but they would BEGIN — to be bridged.

 

First, let us take a moment to see how the media DO look today:

(Brief commentary here on slides showing underrepresentation of women and people of color in newspapers, wire services, television leadership, movies, internet outlets and tech and social media companies. See these — and more — at http://www.womensmediacenter.com/pages/2015-statistics)

Judy VanSlyke Turk, whom many of you know, has done terrific work, funded by the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication. This is a benchmark study on the Status of Women in Communication, looking across multiple disciplines to provide a broad perspective. Given that understanding a challenge is the first essential step toward addressing it, this important work will be critical to moving forward on these issues.

 

And now — WHY do the media look this way?

Well, as we all know, it’s complicated. Let’s address this first in regard to the legacy media – the traditional institutions — and then look at the still emerging, wild-west world of technology and social media.

For traditional journalism outlets, I’d say the simplest and broadest explanation of the underrepresentation of women and people of color is that the people who do the hiring tend to self-replicate. They look out over the possible candidates, and they spot those who remind them of themselves when they were young. “Now THERE is a promising young talent”, they think to themselves. They fish in the pools in which they grew up. The fact is, we all find comfort in assembling around us people like ourselves. And we promote, as leaders, people who have the same leadership skills that we recognize in ourselves.

The problem is that this is a recipe not for growth and vitality, but for narrowness and risk aversion. That’s the main reason the media look so lopsided.

Another very important reason for underrepresentation, particularly of women, is work-life balance (or, more accurately, IMbalance). Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, feminists fought for (or this is what I have always felt we fought for) equal rights, equal opportunities and shared responsibilities. The hope was that, when the revolution ended, women would have the same opportunities in the workplace as men did, and that women and men would share equally in the responsibilities at home. But we got stuck halfway through that revolution. We got the work, and not the balance. As women have entered the workplace in ever growing numbers, leaving no one at home to do the equally necessary work of caring for home and family, things have actually gotten tougher on everyone. Time spent on the job has risen across the board. A study released this year by the Harvard Business School showed that, in 1975, the average annual number of hours worked was 1,394. By 2013, it was 1,711.

Clearly this is an unsustainable situation, hard on children, difficult for marriages, a death knell for personal development. And far too often, it’s portrayed as a problem caused by women. (There’s a long history of this, dating back to the pre-feminist years. Margaret Sanger, the mother of birth control in this country, gave an interview to Mike Wallace. He asked her, “Could it be that women in the United States have become too independent – that they followed the lead of women like Margaret Sanger by neglecting family life for a career?” That was 1957. The blame has kept coming ever since.)

But there is good news on this front. A Pew Research Center study in 2013 showed that about the same number of fathers as mothers reporting having a hard time balancing work and family life – with fathers saying even more frequently than mothers that they wished they could spend more time with their kids.

And, just a couple of weeks ago, a report showed that men are increasingly suing employers for failing to accommodate their role as fathers. Joan C. Williams, a University of California Hastings College of Law professor put it this way: “The huge thing that’s changed only in about the past five years is suddenly men feel entitled to take time off for families. They’re willing to put their careers on the line to live up to that idea. It’s revolutionary.”

But what would REALLY be revolutionary would be if social and corporate policies were changing as quickly as people’s lives have changed. Instead, we see the pleas for family leave, flexible schedules, more widely available and reasonably priced child care and other such measures, set forth decade after decade, each time with an undertone of resigned understanding: Such accommodations to the new reality have happened in virtually every other industrialized society, yet they seem unlikely to happen here any time soon.

I believe this is partly – maybe even substantially — the media’s fault. What we have is a tradition-bound, largely negatively focused media that too often fails to recognize the possibility of change. And I believe that the primary reason for that is that journalism’s leaders have never embraced the inclusion of all Americans.

Many have written about how our media leach us of hope. Just a few days ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote: “We journalists are a bit like vultures, feasting on war, scandal and disaster. Turn on the news, and you see Syrian refugees, Volkswagen corruption, dysfunctional government.

“Yet that reflects a selection bias in how we report the news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. Indeed, maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.”

Kristof notes that: “One survey found that two-thirds of Americans believed that the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost doubled over the last 20 years. Another 29 percent believed that the proportion had remained roughly the same.

“That’s 95 percent of Americans — who are utterly wrong. In fact, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty hasn’t doubled or remained the same. It has fallen by more than half, from 35 percent in 1993 to 14 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which figures are available from the World Bank).”

I believe that we have an outdated mode of journalism, one that is wrong for the times we live in. This is especially true of that all-important kind of journalism that we call political reporting. I came of age myself as a cub reporter in the years of Watergate, and I understand the lure – and indeed the importance – of having a press that can bring down a president. Ferreting out corruption, and shining a spotlight on it, remains one essential goal of a free press. But we became so enamored of topple-the-mighty journalism that we forgot about raise-up-the-people journalism. We became so focused on exposing what’s wrong that we’ve damn near convinced people that nothing can go right. Our spirit-crushing political coverage is hooked on scandal, riddled with anonymous accusations and awash in acid-drip commentary. Nine parts terrier-with-a-bone to one part useful information, it cements us in a status quo of grim futility.

I don’t want to let anyone forget that good journalism requires skepticism. But today’s cynicism is the face of an old, worn-out model. What political journalists are covering, of course, is a culture that is itself so cynical that it affords plenty of opportunity. But a cynical press covering a cynical political process is a most unpalatable closed circle, and our democracy is suffering mightily from it.

How can we have hope when we see failure everywhere? How do we overcome biases when they are constantly reinforced? How can we imagine inclusion when EXclusion defines what we watch and listen to? A study by the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research last year found that 33 percent of Hispanics believe the news media accurately portray their communities. Among African-Americans, 25 percent see their communities as accurately portrayed.

These complaints are not new. Almost 50 years ago, something very important happened in this country, as a result of social unrest that convulsed cities across the nation. A body that we call the Kerner Commission – formally, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — in 1967 wrote that “the news media have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism. By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.”

The report went on, “Slights and indignities are part of the Negro’s daily life, and many of them come from what he now calls ‘the white press’—a press that repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America. This … is not excusable in an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society. “

The Commission reported that one person they interviewed had this to say: “The average black person couldn’t give less of a damn about what the media say. The intelligent black person is resentful at what he considers to be a totally false portrayal of what goes on in the ghetto. Most black people see the newspapers as mouthpieces of the ‘power structure.’”

The Kerner Commission concluded that the media had been “shockingly backward” in hiring black reporters and editors. And this is a condition that remains woefully true today. Despite years of at least nominal attempts, so little came of the diversification effort that an organization of newspaper editors eventually came to call it “mission impossible.”

 

Having established that our media institutions fail badly at inclusion, let us turn now to what appears to be an equally impossible mission – fulfilling the hopes of democratization in new media.

You would think that the remarkable new worlds opened before us by technology and social media would guarantee a more democratic, more richly representative media. Alas, you’d be wrong. You’ve seen the statistics.

Here, let us note first that the white and male dominance has NOT come about because women have been unsuccessful. A 2012 study from Dow Jones VentureSource indicated that start-ups led by women are actually MORE likely to succeed. A Strategic Management Journal article concluded that innovative companies with more women in top management showed stronger performance. So how do we explain the statistics we saw – how do we explain that we are replicating the same old patterns in this world of brand new, wide-open opportunities? And not just in terms of leadership at media startups – but, more broadly, in terms of who is heard on the Web.

The deeply discouraging truth is that new technologies are giving sexism new opportunities – and not just sexism, but truly abhorrent misogyny. You know, back in their heyday, newspapers were a pretty intimidating force. The average person found it hard to pierce the armor. That’s why the great press critic A. J. Liebling said, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” That’s why Mark Twain said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

Well, now, of course, everyone has freedom of the press. And everyone has an opportunity to pick a fight. And boy, do they pick ‘em. It turns out that, when people who haven’t had much opportunity to speak before are heard, new truths emerge. And some people very literally HATE that — no doubt because they’re afraid of the change it represents. So what we’re seeing is that these new tools of expression are being turned into new tools of OPpression. And women – women of color, particularly — are being hounded out of the public square.

This is especially sad, given that women have long been woefully underrepresented in traditional commentary – in op-eds, columns, even letters to the editor. I remember hearing some years ago about a clinic in which women were being taught to write op-ed pieces. “Write about what you know,” said the leader. “Oh, I’m not really an expert on anything,” the women demurred. The teacher’s first thought was, “Funny — I’ve never heard a man say that.” But the next thought, for each of us, should be that we are ALL experts on our own lives, and our experiences are essential if society is to understand its challenges, and try to solve them.

Women are often held back because they think that it’s their job to keep things running along smoothly, to keep people happy. They’re uncomfortable with the idea that they might cause problems. But we cause problems by NOT speaking up. It’s our families, our children who are hurt when we don’t point out the problems with being stuck halfway through that revolution, with nobody having time to care for one another. These are problems that we are expert in, and our voices must be heard. It is our responsibility to speak out so that society might move forward on these challenges.

And this is why it’s so deplorable to see women’s voices – now given the opportunity to be heard – met online by a small minority of haters. A Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center fellow, Dr. Michelle Ferrier –an associate dean at Ohio University’s Scripps College of Communication, spoke eloquently about this at a recent Online News Association panel. “If we stereotype ‘trolls’ as just misfit teen boys,” she said, “we fail to address their goal: to silence women and people of color in media.”

 

The arts

Now I want to move away from journalism for a little while and take you into the world of the arts, where so often leadership toward change takes place.

Let’s begin with a young New Yorker named Lin Manuel Miranda. The man is a genius. The MacArthur Foundation made it official the other day, giving him one of their so-called “genius grants,” but any friend of mine will tell you I’ve been calling him that ever since I saw his rollicking new play “Hamilton” on Broadway. He wrote the book AND the music AND the lyrics — and he stars in the play, as well. Here’s what the New Yorker review said about “Hamilton:”

“Rooted in hip-hop, but also encompassing R. & B., jazz, pop, Tin Pan Alley, and the choral strains of contemporary Broadway, the show is an achievement of historical and cultural reimagining. In Miranda’s telling, the headlong rise of one self-made immigrant becomes the story of America. Hamilton announces himself in a signature refrain: ‘Hey, yo, I’m just like my country / I’m young, scrappy and hungry / And I’m not throwing away my shot.’”

The review continues:

“It does not seem accidental that ‘Hamilton’ was created during the tenure of the first African-American president. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as the work of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women… Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America’s current moment—under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country’s island margins—are never far from view.”

The play is nothing less than a game-changer – because it’s so inclusive. First, he brings together an astonishing array of original music. But more important, he brings together an astonishing and utterly unexpected array of PEOPLE. And in doing so, he quite simply changes the way you look at this nation, and at its founding.

 

Now let’s consider the nation’s new poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. The other day, as he was preparing for his first official reading, he did an interview with NPR. And he talked about a poem he wrote in response to the shooting tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. He said that “poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, ‘This tragedy, it happened far away. I don’t know what to do. I’m concerned but I’m just dangling in space.’”

“A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you’re giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we’re going to change somebody’s mind — no, we’re going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That’s the best we can do.”

Herrera is the child of Mexican migrant farmworkers – a childhood he described beatifically as “like living in literature every day.” The people who heard this on NPR – think what a lovely, mind-expanding opportunity they had in listening to him, as he offered this insight. As he gave us one individual’s constructive response to the kind of tragedy that keeps engulfing us with such deadening regularity. How sad that such an opportunity is so rare in today’s media.

 

A couple of week ago, at the New York Public Library, I had an electrifying experience at a program introduced by Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who composed and delivered the poem for President Obama’s first inauguration. The evening featured Carrie Mae Weems, an artist, in conversation with Claudia Rankine. Rankine is a poet. She has a remarkable new book out, called “Citizen: An American Lyric.” It gives us a gripping sense of what it’s like to be black in our country at this moment.

One critic has said that Rankine’s book “comes at you like doom.” Another called it “one of the best books I’ve ever wanted NOT to read, adding: “Its genius…resides in the capacity to make so many different versions of American life proper to itself, to instruct us in the depth and variety of our participation in a narrative of race that we recount and reinstate, even when we speak as though it weren’t there.”

 

“We speak as though it weren’t there.” Indeed we do. And surely that is in large part because, for far too long, it has NOT been there – this narrative, the narrative of black life. Not there in our journalism, not in our movies or TV shows. Not there, in our media. That evening, in New York, I received a privilege which traditional media have largely robbed me of — the experience of listening to three brilliant African-American women talking about the truths of their lives. An experience at once challenging and full of the promise of growth.

Here is one thing that Rankine said that night in New York: “By not speaking up, one is complicit. You allow things to happen to you because you don’t want to make the space you’re inhabiting uncomfortable.”

We so badly need, in this country, to be ready to be uncomfortable – without fear or hatred. To be open to the new. To understand one another’s experiences as being intertwined with our own. And to believe in the possibility of moving forward together.

How do we do that in a world in which new voices are straining to be heard, a world in which journalism is trapped in conventions that often render it more of a hindrance than a help?

One of our most thoughtful press critics, NYU’s Jay Rosen, has noted that different times require different journalism. He wrote that journalism’s “possibilities and problems are different than they were in, say, 1974, when Richard Nixon resigned and the press felt a surge of power, as a righteous institution performing well in an hour of need. Today, what we most need from journalists is their enlivened imaginations, as they try to picture a scene where democracy and citizenship are not in a slow fade.” That, by the way, was in 1999 — and the fade has only hastened.

For many years now, journalism critics (including many journalists) have recognized the problem and offered up solutions. We have seen civic journalism, public journalism, solutions-oriented journalism, wisdom journalism, knowledge-based journalism and more.

All these efforts have come to little. Journalists mostly keep on doing what they’ve done for decades. Changing the minds and habits of journalists seems well nigh impossible. But changing the FACE of journalism – changing the VOICES in journalism: That is where the promise lies. That is what could make other changes possible.

Consider the moment in which we are living, and the place in which we are fortunate to live. We have always been a nation of immigrants. By 2055 there will be no racial or ethnic majority in this country. We are building our society afresh every day. Wouldn’t it be great if we could have the kind of game change in journalism that Lin Manuel Miranda has brought to theater? Perhaps that could help us see ourselves as capable of building that new society – help us see ourselves as RESPONSIBLE for doing that. Oh, how we could use a journalism nourished by new blood and loosed from the constraint of its conventions. A journalism whose ranks are bolstered by citizens assuming responsibility for the public dialogue.

Think what could happen through a richer embrace of all of our human talent – all the remarkable women and men, immigrants and natives of this great country. Through an understanding that the experience of the migrant worker’s child is as valuable to our comprehending our society as is the experience of a Wall Street investment banker. We might come to recognize that our democracy needs our hearts as much as it needs our minds – and that enabling democratic self-government is about enabling each of us to understand the unity we can achieve, simply by bringing our individual humanity to civic life. With the aid of a more egalitarian, more representative media we can build a more egalitarian, more representative society.

We need a journalism that makes a place for all of our lives; and, in all of our lives, we need to make a place for journalism. By that I mean a place for both the consumption – the thoughtful and discerning selection and support of media by each of us — and the creation of information in the public interest. For, as traditional journalism is diminished and undermined by economic forces, we have not just an opening but a responsibility to help inform the public debate. We have a responsibility to be heard, and to safeguard the space where those with differing views can also be heard.

Like most efforts, this one, for most of us, will start at home. It will start in our communities – geographic communities, communities of interest. We can help shape the debate, help create a sense of direction, help foster hope. We can think of our world as the founders thought of this new country – it is ours to shape. We start now, start here, and new possibilities will begin to open up. And the national conversation will change along with those possibilities.

I think back to that dazzling evening I described at the New York Public Library, where those talented women, with their fierce passion and warm generosity, gave us the gift of their fresh ideas and deeply human experiences. Gifts all of us could benefit from. Gifts all of us could offer, if we had the chance – and took the opportunity — to see and hear one another.

In closing, let me say: This is my dream of what might be possible. I offer it up after 45 years in journalism – a craft that I love. And with the huge faith that I hold in the wisdom of the American people. I hunger for something like this, because we so badly need it now, at this period of our democracy, in order to realize the promise of which we are the caretakers. It may seem unlikely. But this is something journalism could do, if all of us took up these roles. I hope you will seize this opportunity.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions and comments.

 

 

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