Journalists hold elected officials accountable. We must hold our profession accountable, too

The media cannot claim to cover communities of color fairly and accurately unless they staff that coverage with diverse voices and lived experiences.

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Lori Lightfoot

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, decrying a lack of diversity in the media of the major US metropolis, said on May 20, 2021 that she will only grant one-on-one interviews to journalists of color to mark her two-year anniversary in office.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times

On the second anniversary of her taking office, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot committed a heinous sin. She spoke the truth.

Last week, Lightfoot sparked a firestorm over the lack of diversity in the media, declaring that on her anniversary day, she would grant one-on-one interviews only to journalists of color.

“I ran to break up the status quo that was failing so many. That isn’t just in City Hall,” the mayor tweeted Wednesday. “It’s a shame that in 2021, the City Hall press corps is overwhelmingly White in a city where more than half of the city identifies as Black, Latino, AAPI or Native American.”

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It’s an abiding shame long borne by national and local media. So, it’s no surprise that Lightfoot’s decision drew widespread, national scorn in the media. The so-called truth tellers did not want to hear it.

Fox News Host Tucker Carlson blared that Lightfoot was racist, likened her to Adolf Hitler and called he “a monster.”

The pleas and promises for more newsroom diversity are decades old, but the progress falls short.

In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors pledged that the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms would be at parity with the nation’s minority population by the year 2000. That goal was missed and reset for 2025. Broadcast news organizations are similarly challenged.

Today, that aim is more elusive than ever. The crush of media consolidation and digital transformation in the media has crippled diversity efforts. Friday’s news that the “vulture” hedge fund Alden Global Capital has acquired Tribune Publishing will certainly hurt.

While high-profile and powerful elected officials stepping up to this bully pulpit is nothing new, they are most welcome.

In the mid-1980s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Operation PUSH pounded away at that cause. For four months, PUSH picketed the headquarters of WBBM-TV, to protest the demotion of its respected Black anchor, Harry Porterfield.

CBS-TV eventually cried “Uncle!” and hired the station’s first African American station manager.

Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor, frequently called out the media for the whiteness in the City Hall press room.

Now Lightfoot, the first Black female and openly lesbian mayor of this minority-majority city, is entering the fray.

So, for one day, just one day, white reporters did not get their usual VIP access to a mayor. They’ll live.

For thousands upon thousands of days, journalists of color have been living with the reality that they are usually left off the bus.

Lightfoot’s gesture got our long-overdue attention.

As Lightfoot notes, the disparities go beyond an elite assemblage of reporters who cover the mayor. The “overwhelming whiteness and maleness” she describes extends to management, editorial boards, specialty reporters and more.

The media cannot claim to cover communities of color fairly and accurately unless they staff that coverage with diverse voices and lived experiences.

Some of Lightfoot’s critics say she is trying to change the subject from reporting on her mayoral shortcomings. If so, that certainly didn’t work.

Others suggest that Lightfoot was looking for “softball” coverage from unqualified journalists of color. That didn’t work either. The suggestion is insulting.

Those beside-the-point arguments are exactly why Lightfoot’s stand matters. A year into America’s national reckoning on race, there is no better time to insist that our storytellers represent America’s rainbow.

Chicago’s press corps — white, Black Latino, Asian, all — are among the best of the best. They should and will continue to hold the Lightfoot administration accountable.

While we are at it, we must hold our profession accountable, too.

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