As our fine city wraps up hosting the White Privilege Conference and gears up for a school board election where the achievement gap is front and center, it feels like Madison is finally engaging in some discussions that should have been started years ago.
One of the things that held us back from recognizing some of our racial problems sooner, and will continue to hold us back until it is resolved, is that our local media are made up of far too many white voices.
The lack of newsroom diversity is a nationwide problem. The reasons are pretty simple. If you were a first-generation college student, would you pick a field with low pay, an uncertain future and obligatory unpaid internships? There is a privilege to choosing the field of journalism; it draws in people from middle-class backgrounds whose relative family wealth means they can afford to take a less lucrative career.
Still, Madison's newspapers have staffs that are exceptionally white. The vast majority of the staff of the Wisconsin State Journal and Cap Times is white. At a time when our school district is dealing with a ton of major issues regarding race, the major education reporters for both papers, Molly Beck and Pat Schneider, are -- guess what -- white too.
Madison has a lot of great journalists who make a positive contribution to local media but they lack diversity. I feel like this does a disservice to the discourse in Madison. Like anybody, journalists can be limited by their own experiences and surroundings; those sharing similar backgrounds will have gaps in their outlooks and perspectives. Good stories will go unreported until the problems behind them get so big they can no longer be ignored.
The State Journal and Cap Times acknowledge there's a problem, but they approach it with a paternalistic perspective. Even if you believe that journalists can put on their magic cloak of objectivity, take a look at the opinion desks. At the State Journal, editorial page editor Scott Milfred, cartoonist Phil Hands and the somehow-employed Chris Rickert are all white men. At the Cap Times, Paul Fanlund and John Nichols are not only white men, they are pretty much the whitest white men that have ever lived. At this point, I'd be pleased if these publications took the baby steps to add a woman to that group.
Take a look at how much discussion Rev. Alex Gee's essay spurred last December. The Cap Times has milked that for months -- just see what happens when Madison's media let someone different speak for a change. I don't want to propose anything too crazy, but what if they actually hired a black writer to be on staff? Or even a Latino or Hmong writer?
Isthmus doesn't get a free pass either. I understand that as a white guy writing about how there are too many whites in Madison media. My life is built upon a healthy web of hypocrisies. I tried to write something about my experience with race, and I could only write about it from my own limited perspective as yet another white guy.
Isthmus, admirably, gives paid opportunities to fresh, inexperienced writers, which is rare today. Isthmus gives me work when I have clearly never studied journalism. But those opportunities still disproportionately go toward white freelancers. When the editors decided to start up Madland, the two writers they selected were white. Hey, at least the other is a woman.
It is time the "professional" papers in Madison realize that the Simpson Street Free Press is kicking their asses when it comes to having a writing staff that looks like Madison. Otherwise, they will learn the consequences of having a staff that is less and less representative of the communities it covers.