The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

“I’ve sat in enough panels, strategy sessions, and conference calls to remember how each moment follows a similar cadence: a period of concern and reflection that eventually gives way to the status quo.”

This summer, a national movement focused on racial equity and Black Lives Matter found its way to the media. Newsrooms — including at The New York Times — saw an explosion of internal activism that forced cosmetic changes — capitalizing the B in Black, naming Juneteenth an official holiday — and substantive adjustments, including new beats, hirings, and masthead promotions aimed at diversity and inclusion.

I’m doubtful this energy lasts, a pessimism informed by my own experience in the industry, even as a young journalist.

Before there were new jobs in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I remember the new jobs after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray were killed years ago. I remember the commitments to cover white identity politics and political grievance after the 2017 rally in Charlottesville. I’ve sat in enough panels, strategy sessions, and conference calls to remember how each moment follows a similar cadence: a period of concern and reflection that eventually gives way to the status quo.

That’s because the question of media diversity is not one of knowledge, but of will. We know the barriers to getting new people of color in the building, of retaining these reporters with adequate support and competitive salaries, of promoting them to editor and masthead positions. We also know the enduring impact that race and identity have had in American politics. Still, the issue is treated as flash in the pan, not a throughline topic as core to voter’s decision-making as taxes or health care — a consequence of a media industry whose refusal to reckon with itself has impacted our ability to cover the country.

In the past four years, the explicit nature of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric has changed this. Race could no longer be avoided as crowds chanted “Send her back” about Congressional women of color. His wariness to condemn white supremacy, former KKK leaders like David Duke, or racist and anti-Semitic marchers in Charlottesville was something that even an industry expert in racial avoidance couldn’t avoid.

It’s clear to me that it’s that Trump-sized window — not some radical change by media leaders — which has allowed some Black and Brown journalists to grow their voice and reporting in this moment, covering topics that were resisted for years. I did stories about nativists in St. Cloud, racist conspiracies in Arizona, or the internet think tanks that bubble up to the President. I have seen other people of color across the industry do the same, highlighting stories that may have previously gotten lost.

What happens when Trump is no longer there? If past is prologue, race takes a back seat again, as American political leaders return to their bipartisan agreement to only deal with the issue on its surface. That would be a shame, considering the incoming Democratic administration faces key questions on how it will match its rhetoric of racial equity with substantive action. And Republicans, faced with a president who lost but has a firm grip on its base, must themselves wrestle whether his explicit rhetoric of white grievance still has a home in the party.

I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I’m not expecting it. The story of media and race is one largely defined by failure, with the occasional glimmer of success. It mirrors the country itself.

Astead W. Herndon is a national politics reporter for The New York Times.

This summer, a national movement focused on racial equity and Black Lives Matter found its way to the media. Newsrooms — including at The New York Times — saw an explosion of internal activism that forced cosmetic changes — capitalizing the B in Black, naming Juneteenth an official holiday — and substantive adjustments, including new beats, hirings, and masthead promotions aimed at diversity and inclusion.

I’m doubtful this energy lasts, a pessimism informed by my own experience in the industry, even as a young journalist.

Before there were new jobs in the wake of George Floyd’s death, I remember the new jobs after Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray were killed years ago. I remember the commitments to cover white identity politics and political grievance after the 2017 rally in Charlottesville. I’ve sat in enough panels, strategy sessions, and conference calls to remember how each moment follows a similar cadence: a period of concern and reflection that eventually gives way to the status quo.

That’s because the question of media diversity is not one of knowledge, but of will. We know the barriers to getting new people of color in the building, of retaining these reporters with adequate support and competitive salaries, of promoting them to editor and masthead positions. We also know the enduring impact that race and identity have had in American politics. Still, the issue is treated as flash in the pan, not a throughline topic as core to voter’s decision-making as taxes or health care — a consequence of a media industry whose refusal to reckon with itself has impacted our ability to cover the country.

In the past four years, the explicit nature of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric has changed this. Race could no longer be avoided as crowds chanted “Send her back” about Congressional women of color. His wariness to condemn white supremacy, former KKK leaders like David Duke, or racist and anti-Semitic marchers in Charlottesville was something that even an industry expert in racial avoidance couldn’t avoid.

It’s clear to me that it’s that Trump-sized window — not some radical change by media leaders — which has allowed some Black and Brown journalists to grow their voice and reporting in this moment, covering topics that were resisted for years. I did stories about nativists in St. Cloud, racist conspiracies in Arizona, or the internet think tanks that bubble up to the President. I have seen other people of color across the industry do the same, highlighting stories that may have previously gotten lost.

What happens when Trump is no longer there? If past is prologue, race takes a back seat again, as American political leaders return to their bipartisan agreement to only deal with the issue on its surface. That would be a shame, considering the incoming Democratic administration faces key questions on how it will match its rhetoric of racial equity with substantive action. And Republicans, faced with a president who lost but has a firm grip on its base, must themselves wrestle whether his explicit rhetoric of white grievance still has a home in the party.

I would be happy to be proven wrong, but I’m not expecting it. The story of media and race is one largely defined by failure, with the occasional glimmer of success. It mirrors the country itself.

Astead W. Herndon is a national politics reporter for The New York Times.

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