Getting the Story Can Be a Question of Race

In context of Washington Post columnist Colbert King’s presence and speech at the AAN East regional conference I’d like to address a few issues that I believe were danced around but not frankly addressed in Ruth Hammond’s story.

I will offer the question I asked King again, as stated at the conference: could the average reporter —who even in the alt-weekly world has an above-average chance of being white—have the same success rate in extracting the kind of moving content and responses from crime-ridden and broken-soul— yes, often black—neighborhoods as the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer King without actually living among or even in proximity to these subjects? And yes, King is black.

The question was based off of King’s own opening statement that much of his success came from him living and growing up among the very subjects he covers in Washington, D.C.’s urban villages. I am not really concerned with mere accessibility. I believe, as most probably do, that any reporter can pretty much access anywhere his brave heart leads him. But does the cat that makes his way into the rat’s crib leave with a dead rat or just cheese? Or rather, something cheesy? Which was my question: the quality-of-response factor over just mere entrance.

King has been largely victorious in capturing the heart and soul of the most thugged gangstas in the hood, as well as their victims, and let’s face it — there are a lot of black reporters who couldn’t get the kind of rap King gets from the hood due to the fact a lot of these black reporters are the same middle-class-gassed, Columbia-institutionalized, dis-attached geeks that some white reporters are.

But if race must be the issue, then let’s look at the staffs at many of these papers that purport to champion minority third-class dwellings—and hold your applause if I’m breaking this story. I’m sure the AAN East regional conference, and the AAN national convention the year before, were no real gauges, but I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of a handful of black men and women at this particular conference—the only black at all in some of the editorial seminars (except King, who we all took notes from). But I’m tickled to know how many blacks and minorities are employed at each of the papers within the AAN galaxy.

If there is a great semblance of staffs reflecting the metropolises they cover then where is the representation at these conferences? In the workshop immediately after King’s, that Hammond was not at, we listened to David Holthouse of Denver’s Westword paper speak on “Takin’ It to the Streets.” He spoke about his undercover work in covering Aryan neo-Nazi skinhead societies. Holthouse had to shave his head. Had he given any indication he was in any way down with the media, he would’ve got his ass whooped — it almost came to that over less: one of the skinheads found an Ani DiFranco CD in Holthouse’s car.

He got that story. One story he did not get was when he wanted to cover an Asian street gang. Blue-eyed soul-writing wasn’t quite gonna get him in for that one. As a black reporter I probably wouldn’t have fared much better with the Asian-American Yakuza. We won’t even consider how I’d do in the White Power rallies. With the skinheads, there’s a definite access barrier, unless everything was done over the phone and my race wasn’t revealed, which goes against the philosophy of how I report. With the Asian gang, yeah, I could probably get in, but how earnest would have been our exchange? Could an Asian who actually lived among these gangs get better results?

If you argue no, then the discussion is closed, and I can’t wait to read some of the stories in your papers. If we argue yes, then we get into what I consider the necessary good of what can be done to strengthen our alt-weeklies: hire more minorities. That said, if I attend the AAN East regional conference next year and the minority representation is quadrupled, we still, in my opinion, have a long way to go.

Yours Truly,
Brentin “Hip Hop should be capitalized!” Mock
Pittsburgh City Paper, Staff Writer

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