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Black Journalists Navigate Bumpy Trump Landscape

At+the+convention+of+the+National+Association+of+Black+Journalists%2C+correspondents+discuss+what+it%27s+like+on+a+daily+basis+to+cover+the+Trump+administration.+L-R+Shawna+Thomas%2C+Vice+News%3B+Abby+Phillip%2C+Washington+Post%3B+Astead+Herndon%2C+Boston+Globe%3B+Darlene+Superville%2C+Associated+Press%3B+Ayesha+Rascoe%2C+Reuters%3B+Adrian+Carrasquillo%2C+BuzzFeed+News%3B+and+April+Ryan%2C+American+Urban+Radio+Networks.
At the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, correspondents discuss what it's like on a daily basis to cover the Trump administration. L-R Shawna Thomas, Vice News; Abby Phillip, Washington Post; Astead Herndon, Boston Globe; Darlene Superville, Associated Press; Ayesha Rascoe, Reuters; Adrian Carrasquillo, BuzzFeed News; and April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks.

At the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, correspondents discuss what it's like on a daily basis to cover the Trump administration. L-R Shawna Thomas, Vice News; Abby Phillip, Washington Post; Astead Herndon, Boston Globe; Darlene Superville, Associated Press; Ayesha Rascoe, Reuters; Adrian Carrasquillo, BuzzFeed News; and April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks.

E.R. Shipp

E.R. Shipp

At the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists, correspondents discuss what it's like on a daily basis to cover the Trump administration. L-R Shawna Thomas, Vice News; Abby Phillip, Washington Post; Astead Herndon, Boston Globe; Darlene Superville, Associated Press; Ayesha Rascoe, Reuters; Adrian Carrasquillo, BuzzFeed News; and April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks.

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It’s been a volatile time for black journalists and pundits during the two years that have seen Donald Trump emerge first as the improbable candidate and then as the even more improbable 45th President of the United States. Some prominent African-American media figures have left the playing field or were reassigned or demoted. Some have thrived. Others have merely held on as truth-telling soldiers. Observers of the scene find themselves trying to reconcile the reality of media companies shuffling personnel to maximize access to a new administration and the alternative reality of covering a racializing narcissist lacking in self-control.

Larry Wilmore, the entertainer and television producer, signaled the topsy-turvy nature of the broadcast business when he emceed the White House Correspondents Dinner during a break in a bruising stretch of presidential campaigning in the spring of 2016. Cable news channel MSNBC’s call letters, he quipped, stood for “Missing a Significant Number of Black Correspondents.”

“Am I wrong?” he asked, needling an audience from whom he was already receiving more winces and groans than laughs. “They, like, fired Melissa Harris-Perry. They canceled Joy-Ann Reid. They booted Touré. I heard they put Chris Hayes on probation because they thought he was related to Isaac Hayes. MSNBC got rid of so many black people, I thought Boko Haram was running that network.”

Wilmore’s joke was an ominous forecast of the shifting media landscape for black journalists and pundits. Seven months later Trump made history as the first person with no government nor military experience to be elected U.S. president. Media companies scrambled to rearrange personnel and program lineups. For black journalists and pundits the demotions or losses months before the election had included Harris-Perry, Reid and Al Sharpton at MSNBC. Post-election amid the disappearing acts, a few black journalists, notably Lester Holt of NBC and April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Networks, rose in prominence.

Screenshot: Lester Holt interviewing President Trump

So what’s to be made of all this?

Carlett Spike, a Columbia Journalism Review Delacorte Fellow, speculates that some blacks are less visible because they are on the wrong side of the liberal-conservative divide. “There has been a shift to conservative pundits. Why is a gray area. Is it to seem more balanced or to answer Trump’s accusations of ‘fake news,’ or just to have the White House views and get more ratings?”

It is commonplace to undergo a changing of the guard among correspondents when a new president takes office, according to April Ryan, who has covered the White House for 20 years for American Urban Radio Networks. Typically, she pointed out, the reporter who covers the winning candidate follows him to the White House. Still, she observes, it is noticeable that “you’re not seeing as many blacks on some networks.”

Eric Deggans, the television critic for National Public Radio (NPR), says that the kind of diversity evident during the Obama years is unlikely to occur in the Trump years. “Because this is a polarizing president and he speaks to an extreme corner of the GOP base, the base that has his staunch advocates, it’s going to be hard to have diversity because of where he stands. Part of the problem is when Obama was president you could have a lot of diversity….Once the pendulum switched, it became harder.” There are not too many blacks who spout the views of the more extreme right that are sought by, say, Fox News.

Ryan insists that “there are journalists out there who can cover both sides of the aisle” but they are not being given the chance because of assumptions about their personal political leanings. “It’s said that we’ve gotten to that mentality that if you’re black, you don’t think a certain way. We’re journalists. We can cover everything.”

The spectacular demise of personnel at Republican- and conservative-friendly Fox News created a veritable jobs fair for media companies, including NBCUniversal and CNN. Chief Roger Ailes was fired in July 2016, leaving a trail of sexual misconduct allegations. Anchor Bill O’Reilly was let go in April, following repeated out-of-court settlements alleging sexual harassment. Around the same time 11 black current and former  Fox News employees filed a class-action lawsuit in New York, alleging racist behavior and statements by the company comptroller that were ignored by company executives. The plaintiffs included Kelly Wright, a current Fox News anchor and former co-host of Fox & Friends Weekend.

Among those gliding through swinging doors during all the tumult were Greta Van Susteren, who was hired at MSBNC after she was fired by Fox News last September, and, Megyn Kelly, the biggest catch who signed a reported $15 million to $20 million contract with NBC. Van Susteren was fired by MSNBC in June after less than six months. Kelly has so far fared better, but her arrival meant giving the boot to rising star Tamron Hall, who had hosted the highly-rated rated third hour of the Today show, a slot expected to go to Kelly, and several shows on MSNBC. The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) criticized the move and accused NBC of “whitewashing” while bringing on board Kelly, who it said had “a well-documented history of offensive remarks regarding people of color.” Hall was offered a multi-year, multi-million contract to stay with NBCUniversal, according the published reports, however she declined. In July, The Hollywood Reporter announced she was partnering with Weinstein Television on a forthcoming daytime TV talk show.

Though no longer having her own daily show, The Reid Report, Reid nevertheless remains a presence at MSNBC as a commentator and as host of a weekend morning show, AM Joy. In fact, in June she kicked up a ruckus when she pointed out the irony of Rep. Steve Scalise’s rescue by a black lesbian D.C. police officer after an Illinois man fired on Republicans during practice for a Congressional charity baseball game with Democrats. Scalise, a well-known GOP homophobe has compared himself to former Klansman David Duke but “without the baggage,” according to a New York Times account.

In some ways black talent in the NBC family may have been collateral damage because of a leadership change that began in mid-2015, as NPR’s Deggans sees it. That is when Andrew Lack, former head of the news division, returned to NBCUniversal in that capacity. That was the height of a scandal that saw the removal of Brian Williams as anchor of NBC’s nightly newscast.

“Lack started remaking the channel,” Deggans said in an interview. “He previously was in charge of MSNBC when it was less partisan. Lack’s arrival coincides with circumstances when a lot of Fox News talent was leaving. All of a sudden Lack sees Greta Van Susteren, George Will, Megyn Kelly and Howard Hewitt are in play. He’s snapping them up to get fans and blunt conservative criticism that MSNBC is in the tank for the left. MSNBC is all liberal, but still not diverse.”

One of his first changes was to reduce Al Sharpton’s presence as host of Politics Nation, which went from five nights a week to 8 a.m. Sundays.

In contrast, Lester Holt’s star has continued to rise, as the veteran journalist – host of the Nightly News and the crime series Dateline – scored the interview of the year when in an exclusive session with Trump in May, the president said he had intended to fire FBI director James Comey, contradicting the administration’s narrative that the office of the U.S. Attorney General sacked Comey, who was investigating alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Holt’s coup was perhaps indirect revenge. Last fall when he moderated the first of three Clinton-Trump debates, Trump complained that the moderators were all Democrats. As it turns out, Holt was a registered Republican.

Screenshot: April Ryan at White House news briefing

The news has not been bad for Ryan, a Morgan State University alumna who was named this year’s Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Her star turn began with the ignorant and insensitive manner she was treated both by President Trump and by his first press secretary, the much-ridiculed Sean Spicer. After she asked President Trump a question at one of his first White House news conferences, the president asked her to “set up a meeting” for him with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, as if she were a social secretary. Not long after Ryan had a testy exchange with Spicer after she asked him how the Trump administration planned to repair its image after a series of missteps. Spicer accused Ryan of pushing an agenda and then twice from the podium told her to “stop shaking your head,” during the televised news briefing.

Several days later, CNN hired Ryan as a political analyst, but according to her, the timing was a coincidence. In a brief interview during the NABJ convention in August, she said that she had been in talks with CNN and another network before the Spicer incident went viral. With the additional platform, she joins a CNN team that includes Don Lemon, Joe Johns, Van Jones, W. Kamau Bell, Nia Malika Henderson, Abby Phillip and Errol Louis. Deggans of NPR says CNN caters to a huge international audience and therefore makes an extra effort to appear racially diverse.

But diversity is still an issue in television news, as it was nearly 50 years ago when the Kerner Commission declared that “the journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes.” And there are consequences in terms of what is covered in all media: Dr. Gregory Adamo, a professor of communication studies at Morgan State University, points out that black analysts and pundits are more likely to resist “normalizing” President Trump and to ask the hard questions.

Richard Prince, who produces the online media column Journal-isms, gives an example from the news side, as opposed to punditry. “A recent Washington Post article said D.C. was a transient town. It’s transient for whites working on [Capitol] Hill, but for people who have lived here for generations – mostly African-Americans – is not a transient town. Who gets to write that story? Has the staff shrunk so much there are people who don’t know the town?”

He adds: “There needs to be a counter narrative to the rush to fawn over [Trump’s] white working class. Be sure to include black and Hispanic working class. We have to be there at the table.”

Roland Martin, the host of TV One’s daily News One Now show host, agrees, noting that on television, “trained journalists are missing” and the networks do not seem to be preparing for the future. “Robin Roberts makes $15 million at ABC and co-anchors Good Morning America. Who’s next? These places don’t have benches. These networks have to develop black talent themselves. The networks are woeful at developing their own talent.”

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