1. Archive

Why are so many media critics white and male? Because media isn't trying hard enough to change

jay_sherman_critic_1994-209x300.jpgIt was a question which seemed so obvious, I laughed when I read it in the headline.

But then a half-dozen people forwarded me Shani Hilton's story for Washington City Paper asking "Where are the Women and Non-White Media Critics?" -- a commentary pegged to hiring of another white guy to monitor media, Andrew Beaujon at the Poynter Institute.

There's a lot of backstory here for me. Poynter, which owns the newspaper where I work, the Tampa Bay Times, hired Beaujon as it was losing one of the biggest names in media reporting, Jim Romenesko, in what turned out to be a very controversial departure. I didn't apply for the position myself, but I know people who did, and they were some quality individuals.

But as a black man who has covered TV and media in some form or another for the past 15 years, I wasn't surprised to hear that many of the applicants for the job were middle-aged white guys. When I was a pop music critic in the '90s and purely a TV critic years ago, the ethnic balance was pretty much the same -- a sea of middle-aged white guys with a smattering of women and the occasional non-white person.

I'm not sure I agree with the explanation offered by Beaujon in Hilton's piece, that "media criticism, which is a fly-in-the-soup job, is fundamentally an alt-weekly pursuit, and alt-weeklies' DNA is heavily white and male." Because this is a tradition which seems to predate the alt-weekly influx he represents.

51xnluqy5ol._bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa300_sh20_ou01_.jpgOne look at the Project for Excellence in Journalism's list of media critics reveals names like NPR's David Folkenflik, Marketwatch's Jon Friedman, the Chicago Tribune's Steve Johnson and MediaShift's Mark Glaser. All middle aged white guys who seemingly didn't come up through the alt-weekly farm system.

More telling is the fact that the PEJ's list includes some names who don't do media coverage anymore, including the Los Angeles Times' Tim Rutten and the Tribune's Phil Rosenthal.

Even when newspapers were healthy and had separate critics to cover classical music and jazz and architecture, those jobs were dominated by middle aged white guys. But there are fewer of these jobs than ever, making diversification more difficult.

Also, these are unusual jobs. You don't often find people growing up to hope they will become the next Howie Kurtz or David Carr -- much more likely to find folks aiming to be the next Mitch Albom or Maureen Dowd (even Kurtz has moved on from pure media analysis and reporting to become the Daily Beast/Newsweek Washington bureau chief).

These are prestige jobs with lots of autonomy and visibility, at least within the profession. Becoming the voice of a major news organization for all things media is a big gig, and it has always been hardest to diversify the big gigs.

But I think the biggest reason why there isn't more diversity in media critic circles is because the industry hasn't made it happen.

As a longtime advocate for diversity who has mentored people, recruited for my newspaper and helped organize through the National Association of Black Journalists, I have discovered an important fact about diversity in media: It is hard. And it requires continued, specific, focused effort.

People have to be developed so they're ready for a big job when it opens up. And anyone with any experience in media will tell you the worst thing many news organizations do is develop their own staff and talent.

So I guess the real answer to Hilton's question "where are the female and non-white media critics?" is simple:

They haven't been developed yet.

Whether or not they eventually will, may be the most important question of all.