It happened about 15 years ago, but Joel Dreyfuss can still remember the day a newsroom executive at the Washington Post walked up to him and asked where she could find "other blacks as good as Joel Dreyfuss."
Dreyfuss, now an associate editor at Fortune magazine, was a reporter at the Post then and he replied:
"Well, you have whites here who aren't as good as me. Hire blacks as good as them."
Dreyfuss was outraged, but his experience is not uncommon.
Too many newspapers trying to recruit minorities are caught up in what Shelby Coffey, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, calls "the Jackie Robinson syndrome." They won't hire minorities unless they're superstars.
Many white journalists "get by hitting .270 and being only fair second basemen," says Coffey, a white; it's wrong to insist that minorities meet a higher standard.
But minority journalists say many editors insist on just that.
Some editors genuinely committed to diversifying their newsrooms don't want to risk a failure that could inhibit their efforts. Other editors are afraid that if a minority doesn't succeed, pressure for diversification will make demotion or dismissal difficult.
In fact, Max Frankel, executive editor of the New York Times, angered many blacks recently when he said that if a black editor were "less than good, I would probably stay my hand at removing them too quickly" precisely because such action might be perceived as a "political act" and could "hurt the organization."
Frankel later explained that he hadn't meant to imply a double standard for minorities, but the whole question of standards--double and other--is both part of the "Jackie Robinson syndrome" and one of the most sensitive aspects of the entire newsroom diversification issue.
Editors who want to hire only superstar minorities--or editors who don't want to hire any minorities--often reject minority applicants because, "They don't meet our standards." It is perhaps the most common explanation given for the low percentage of minority editors and reporters--and the explanation that most angers minorities.
To be sure, some minorities don't meet the standards of some newspapers--just as some whites don't meet those standards. Given historic patterns of discrimination, education and journalistic indifference to minorities, the problem is no doubt more acute for certain minorities.
As Thomas Greer, the black editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, says, "You have to have a good working relationship with the English language to work for a newspaper. Unfortunately, too many blacks don't have that relationship."
Some white editors assume all blacks lack that relationship.
Ken Bunting, a black who is metropolitan editor of the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, says that an editor at another paper he worked for as a reporter once came to him after he'd been there three weeks and said, in what was clearly intended as a compliment, "I've been reading your copy for three weeks now--and you can spell."
Like Bunting, many blacks--and many Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans--have splendid working relationships with the English language. But many white editors still say, "They don't meet our standards" or "They're not qualified."
"The plaint . . . 'We can't find qualified Negroes' rings hollow from an industry where, only yesterday, jobs were scarce and promotion unthinkable for a man whose skin was black," the Kerner Commission on civil disorders said in 1968. Today--22 years and 14 black Pulitzer Prize winners later--minority journalists say that same explanation is worse than hollow.
"Any paper that uses the excuse 'We can't find anybody who meets our standards' is engaging in bullshit," says Bob McGruder, managing editor for news at the Detroit Free Press. "I know that there are some black journalists in this country that could meet the standards of any newspaper.
"We're talking about serious, important . . . work," says McGruder, a black, "but we ain't talking about brain surgery."
Minorities are particularly resentful of the invocation of "standards" because that suggests people have always advanced via a meritocracy; many minorities are convinced that "America is not a meritocracy; it never has been," in the words of Linda Williams, assistant business editor at the Los Angeles Times.
Whites are often hired and promoted--in journalism and elsewhere--because of whom they know or where they went to school or because they're part of an old-boy network, and many minorities feel that when white managers reject them because they allegedly don't measure up to some "standard," the only standard being applied is a double standard.
Should there ever be a double standard?
Al Neuharth thinks so.
As chairman of the Gannett Co. before his retirement last year, Neuharth was largely responsible for making Gannett an industry leader in minority hiring and promotion.
On occasion, Neuharth says, he didn't necessarily pick "the most qualified" person for a given job, figuring he "had to start somewhere" if his policies were to succeed. But he insists he always picked a minority who was qualified.
Some critics say that because most Gannett papers are mediocre journalistically, it's been easier for them to hire and promote less-qualified minorities (and less-qualified whites) than it would be for papers with higher standards.
But Neuharth says that while there is "some truth" to the argument that there are not enough "qualified" minorities for the best papers, "more often, that's an excuse, not a reason."
If an editor can't find "ready, available, qualified" minorities, he says, "you have to apply whatever affirmative action philosophy you think is appropriate and maybe you lower your standards a little and increase your training efforts and develop them into the kind of qualified people that you want."
Many minorities object to this idea--especially now, when the pool of qualified minorities is much larger than when Neuharth first began pushing minority recruitment. They fear that any talk of "lowering standards" not only triggers resentment among their white colleagues but taints all minority journalists. They risk being perceived as not having been good enough to make it on their own, says Carol Shirley, a Native American who is assistant editor of the Westside section of the Los Angeles Times.
But newspapers already "lower their standards," says Michael Fancher, executive editor of the Seattle Times. They do it every time they hire a person of any ethnic background who has good potential instead of someone already more accomplished. Fancher recalls hiring a white reporter whose ability at that point may not have merited his being hired, "But we . . . . looked at him and said, 'There's a guy who's got potential beyond most of the other applicants."
"He comes in the newsroom, and everybody says, 'Gosh, they hired him because he's got potential.' If he had been black, the presumption would be, 'Oh, gosh, they hired him because he's black.' "
But minorities, in journalism as elsewhere, have often had to worry about double standards of varying sorts.
As minorities, they're often expected to write about minority issues. Many are eager to do so. Others feel morally obligated to do so, if only because they know that if they don't, no one else will. But either way, unless they can be both "home boys" on the street "good old boys" when they get back to the newsroom, they may not succeed, says Felix Gutierrez, vice president of the Gannett Foundation.
Moreover, some minority reporters don't want to write about minorities at all because they don't want to be "ghettoized"--stereotyped as being interested only in minority stories.
Minority reporters--and editors--may also have to deal with editors who don't fully trust them to handle certain stories, even though whites would be trusted implicitly on the same subject.
As Joel Dreyfuss of Fortune magazine says, sardonically:
"It's OK to send Leroy out to cover something, but can you respect him sitting at the 4 o'clock meeting making decisions about what goes on the front page? Can you trust him to cover South Africa fairly?"
When the Washington Post was criticized for going easy on Marion Barry earlier in his troubled tenure as mayor of Washington, for example, much of the grumbling inside the Post was directed toward Milton Coleman, the assistant managing editor in charge of local news coverage.
Coleman, who is black, denies having shown Barry any favoritism, but it's clear he was discomfited at more than a personal level by the criticism; many black editors feel a special responsibility to succeed so as not to damage the chances of others in their ethnic group--and they know that any misstep will probably be magnified because of their ethnicity.
Unlike whites--another double standard--they don't yet have the freedom to fail.