An intriguing e-mail arrived in response to my recent column about Av Westin's new handbook setting down "best practices" for TV journalists and issuing a status report on the newscast business in 2000.
His thumbs are down.
Westin, a former top ABC News executive, had said that while researching his handbook he was shocked to learn from news reporters, producers and managers of their workplace experiences that involved racism and news caving in to commercial pressures.
The former included newsroom policies of omitting coverage of African Americans because of race.
The e-mail I received was from a news director who is "very concerned about many of Westin's points."
He said that he is white and closing in on middle age. He said that he works in a small city far from the glamour and gaudy news bankrolls of Los Angeles. He said that he's held his job nearly three years at a station that badly trails the leader in the market, and that he supervises a staff of less than 25 in a news milieu where $30,000 a year makes you Tom Brokaw.
"The comments about racism--there was a time I wouldn't have agreed," he wrote. Since then, he added, he'd learned of African American children vanishing or being murdered in his area. "And no one [in the media] pays attention."
He closed his e-mail by making this dire pronouncement about the business: "I feel we've finally lost our bearings forever."
In his e-mail, he had also expressed "fear that if I speak up [publicly], I'll be on the beach and my daughter will starve." I promised him anonymity in exchange for giving me his comments on the phone.
"This business has done a much better job of minority hiring," said the news director, whom I'll call Jim. "But I know how certain stories are covered." He mentioned being told by a friend producing a newscast in a large city what happened when he made the murder of an African American his lead story one evening. "I'll never forget what he told me," said Jim. "He said the next day he was told by the [station] general manager, 'We didn't really need that lead because no one cares when one nigger kills another nigger.' "
That was 15 years ago. But Jim doesn't think much has changed.
Before getting his present job he was a reporter in a middle-sized city where he covered "three awful stories about missing girls." One girl, in her late teens, "was as Anglo as you could get, and her father was a local pastor," Jim said. "We covered that story for years."
The disappearances of the two younger girls, both African American, went all but uncovered until their bodies were found. A reporter asked the police why they didn't provide more details of those cases earlier, Jim recalls. "They said they sent out press releases but no one paid any attention."
Jim's world is a microcosm in some ways, for it's impossible not to draw parallels here with the soaring bonfire of coverage generated by the death of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. Her unsolved murder in Boulder, Colo., immediately became a TV news obsession not only because it was mysterious, her family wealthy and there was ample footage of her performing as a dolled-up little beauty queen that TV could rerun again and again.
It mattered greatly, also, that JonBenet was white.
"Otherwise it would not have been a national story," Jim agreed. "It would have been a story for a couple of weeks in Boulder, then it would have died out. It would be an unsolved case, and every five years some newspaper reporter would pull it out of a file and write a retrospective on it."
Jim also relates to what Westin mentioned about commercial pressures put on some news departments to insulate advertisers from negative coverage. "My first summer in this job, I had a reporter who wanted to do a [negative] story that we discovered was about an advertiser," Jim said. "I checked over all the facts and said, 'Let's do the story.' I was glad I was able to do that, but I went home that night wondering if I would have to clean out my desk the next day." He didn't. "But a lot of people from the other side of the building [sales] didn't speak to us for a while."
No one ever orders him "to do a story about a client in a favorable way," said Jim, adding that he generally likes the company for which he works despite his scrawny news budget, and doesn't want to leave. "But we have had subtle pressure to ease up on a story or back off or soft-pedal. We haven't done it. But I always feel I'm on the edge of having my head chopped off because of it."
Jim wonders what he would do if he lost his job over an ethics dispute with his bosses. "I don't have a fall-back career," he said. "I left the business once, and I sold paint at Sears. Another time I left the business and sold suits."
He has a small daughter. "I keep her fed and well clothed," he said. "I want to send her to a good school some day. If I take a stand and it costs me my job and I end up selling shoes, it will be awful telling a little kid she can't go to college because of what daddy believes in."