Lori Lightfoot only granted anniversary interviews to reporters of color. Is it racism or radical fairness?

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot recently sparked a new skirmish in the culture war. She decided to grant the only one-on-one interviews about her anniversary in office with nonwhite reporters. “We are a city that has almost three-quarters people of color,” Lightfoot said. “I believe that the City Hall press corps needs to reflect the diversity of our city.”

Illinois politics, and especially Chicago politics, can be a rough business. Losers can get regularly dragged, even all the way to prison, and winners can make it all the way to the White House. The city has corruption problems, police problems, education problems, and –in its last year– a pandemic. Lightfoot has a lot to answer for as she marks her second anniversary in office, but whom Lightfoot decided she would answer to made national headlines. Is this radical fairness, a political stunt, or both? On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke about the controversy with veteran political journalist Errin Haines from the 19th*. (The asterisks in the name is “a visible reminder of those who have been omitted from our democracy.”) Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jason Johnson: Does Lori Lightfoot have a point when she talks about the lack of diversity within the Chicago press corps and how has that historically affected how news gets reported, especially in cities?

Errin Haines: Listen, there was definitely a message there, but the delivery was somewhat tainted. She said the quiet part out loud. There is a lack of diversity in political journalism at the federal, state, and local level. And we know coverage of city hall is a coveted beat at a lot of major news outlets, and far too many of those spots go to people who are overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. This is the pipeline for people who maybe want to eventually cover the statehouse, who maybe want to cover Congress, who may eventually want to be White House correspondents. That kind of experience matters, and those kinds of folks do hold an outsized prominence in newsrooms, and do wield a lot of power in terms of holding the powerful accountable in a community.

I do think that her point about the lack of diversity in the folks who are covering city hall in places like Chicago is certainly valid. It is why organizations like my beloved National Association of Black Journalists were created—to try to increase media diversity in spaces like politics and other beats—but access should be expanded and not contracted. So the answer is not necessarily to exclude white journalists. It is to have more Black and brown journalists in those newsrooms. Of course, if these newsrooms had a Black or brown journalist to send over to interview Mayor Lightfoot, I don’t know if we would still be having this conversation. I don’t know if the outrage would still be there.

Why do you think we end up with these ultra-white press corps for cities that have a ton of Black people?

There’s a few things. I am from Atlanta, where I certainly was spoiled. I saw anchors who were Black doing the nightly news when I was eating my dinner and watching television when I was growing up. Representation does matter, and representation is absent in a lot of our major American cities. Part of it too is the beats that folks gravitate toward. Politics has not always been the most popular beat for Black and brown folks.

“There was definitely a message there, but the delivery was somewhat tainted.”

— Errin Haines

But also when you have a beat that is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, what you get is a phenomenon that happens in all kinds of institutions. You have those white men plucking the next generation from folks who look like them or who remind them of themselves at their age. I don’t remind most white men of themselves. So that kind of mentoring, that kind of somebody putting their hand on your shoulder and saying ”why don’t you think about covering politics,” if that is not happening, from somebody especially who shares your lived experience, that might not be an area that folks gravitate to.

And I think it is a quality of life issue for some folks, especially folks who are young broadcasters. The cost of living in some of these cities and what some of the salaries might be in some of those newsrooms may make people think twice about trying to struggle and make it. So I do think as an industry there just needs to be more intentionality about diversifying these spaces.

A lot of right-wing politicians and commentators were screaming and yelling causing all this smoke and nonsense about Lightfoot’s decision, including Tucker Carlson. Is this response surprising to you?

This is kind of the Catch-22 for these politicians where race and gender are involved when they try to talk about their frustration. Look, all politicians are subject to scrutiny and should be held accountable. But at the same time, when it does feel racial, when it does feel gendered, if they do try to speak out about that, that is something that can provide fodder for folks who would just as soon not acknowledge those racial and gender disparities in coverage.

Lori Lightfoot hasn’t exactly been a hero to many Black and brown Chicagoans while she’s been in office. The big story before all this was her botched handling of the police shooting of the death of Adam Toledo, an unarmed Latino teenager. What are some of the other tensions between Lightfoot and Black and brown communities in Chicago?

She’s a former federal prosecutor who was swept into office after the Laquan McDonald killing. And so there were certainly activists even then who were skeptical about the kind of leadership that she was going to provide, the perspective that she was coming from, and how the national narrative around her and her identities jibed with what folks on the ground were seeing. Her handling of the pandemic was something that frustrated folks, because we know the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on Black and brown folks from both a public health and an economic perspective. Chicago was certainly a place that was pretty hard hit. Also, the city’s progress, and who has and has not had the opportunity to benefit from that, is something that folks on the ground have been critical of.

Do you think that Black journalists fear losing access or sometimes fear being critical of Black politicians because they see themselves as having to be a balance between the inherent unfairness of how a lot of white reporters and journalists cover those politicians?

For Black journalists who are already being accused of not being able to be objective, we just have to do our jobs. It is not on us to make others comfortable with us doing that job or how we do that job. We just have to be professional. Yes, I think that there have been Black journalists who have been critical of Mayor Lightfoot, raising those questions about her leadership as you would raise questions about the leader of any major American city because that’s your job. If you are covering the mayor, whoever that mayor is, that is your obligation to cover that.

It’s interesting because you’re trying to do your job. You’ve got some white people who may be accusing you of being biased, and then maybe you’ve got some people in the Black community who are like, “What are you doing? You’re hurting our person.” So really you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t, so you might as well just do your job to the best of your ability.

You’re one of the founders of the 19th*. It’s led by women. You report about women and race. Can you point out how that has maybe framed a story that you reported on differently than what you saw in other major news outlets, because they were primarily talking to men or exclusively talking to men?

So much of it is about voice. That was especially true last year during the election, because most of the voters that I was talking to were women, and that was on purpose. My mom is a woman in the suburbs, but that is not who people thought about when they thought about suburban women voters and who we need to hear from. Faith voters. Who was a faith voter, if not the folks that are in the Black church? That’s not how we were talking about faith voters. Rural voters. I’m from Atlanta, but I’ve spent some time in the country in Georgia with my relatives. I know that there are Black rural folks, Black Midwestern folks. Who are we talking about when we talk about who’s in the heartland? Who are we talking about when we’re talking about who’s educated? Black women are the most educated.

So really reframing a lot of the archetypes around voters, around voting blocs. I felt like I was able to do that in the kinds of voices that I was putting in stories about the election. And then also just making sure that we had an accurate portrait of the women who were being disproportionately affected by and responding to the pandemic. And so talking about that, hammering that as much as possible, not just me, but as a newsroom. When we look back at our coverage, I know that we can say that this newsroom told the truth about who and where we were as a country in that moment.

I want to take this back to Lightfoot. So, on the one hand, she was trying to make a point about press diversity, but there’s also a cynical take that maybe she threw this out there because she was trying to change the subject off of what had been her many high-profile failures and controversies. Do you think there’s any truth to that?

I do not personally know Mayor Lightfoot, so I do not know what is in her heart or mind in terms of her motivation for saying what she said. But listen, I do think that this conversation has been a distraction, whether she has meant for it to be or not. At the end of the day, let’s start lining up those interviews, whoever’s going to do them.

If you had an opportunity to bend the ear of a lot of important Black mayors in this country, what would you tell them they could do to increase the diversity or even have an influence on increasing diversity in the local press coverage in their city?

Tell their white mayoral counterparts that they need to push for this too. Every politician should want a diverse press corps questioning them. There’s nothing stopping you at a press conference from saying, “This really should be more diverse.”

What about your communications team? How diverse are they? What is their relationship with journalists of color in their communities and beyond? If that is an imperative, then things begin to improve for everyone. But it cannot just be them raising their voices as Black and brown folks in elected office. This should be something that all of us are calling for so that things can be different. If white politicians do not also see this as something that needs to be addressed, that is a problem.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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