Ruben Navarrette: Diversity meets journalism

SAN DIEGO – There’s a rift between CNN and the National Association of Black Journalists. Now the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus wants to make a federal case out of it.

CNN’s parent company, Time Warner-owned Turner Broadcasting, is cutting 1,475 positions. About 300 of those cuts are at CNN, coming through layoffs and voluntary buyouts. Some of those who lost jobs were African-Americans, but others were not immune. Among the departing is HLN host Jane Velez-Mitchell, who is of Cuban and Irish descent.

Nevertheless, Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, has expressed concern that the layoffs have dramatically reduced the number of African-Americans in senior and executive roles at the cable network. (Disclosure: I am a contributor to CNN.)

In a statement posted on the NABJ’s website, Fudge argues that America’s news networks should look like America.

“In a nation growing increasingly more diverse, it is imperative that the organizations tasked with keeping us informed reflect the same diversity,” she said. “Ethnic sensitivity both on-camera and behind it demonstrates a corporate understanding of the benefits of diversity, and a genuine respect for the audiences’ needs.”

As a Hispanic journalist, here’s what I am thinking: “What? You mean there are African-Americans in top jobs at a television network?” As bleak as the media picture is for the population that was once the nation’s largest minority, it is worse for the group that now holds that title. Most of what Americans see on network television news still comes in only two colors: black and white.

Fudge makes several broad references to diversity, but she zeroes in on one specific group. Listen.

“Any staffing changes that disproportionately cut the number of African-Americans at CNN – intentionally or otherwise – are an affront to the African- American journalism community and to the African-American community as a whole,” she said. “It is my sincere hope that these reports are not true, and that Time Warner works to ensure that the diversity of its viewers across the country, and the world, is reflected and protected in all areas of its organization.”

This all started after the NABJ spoke up about the layoffs. According to Richard Prince’s online “Journal-isms” column, the NABJ put out a statement saying it was concerned about “the atmosphere for African-Americans at CNN.” NABJ President Bob Butler claims that, two days later, a representative of the network called him to complain about the statement.

At the time, there was a request pending from NABJ that CNN sponsor its conference in Minneapolis next year. In an announcement, Butler said that the representative abruptly told him: “Consider your request denied.” A CNN spokeswoman maintains that nothing has been decided.

Now the Congressional Black Caucus is applying pressure to help the network decide on its next move.

Anyone who tunes into this tele-drama is going to get a quick tutorial on diversity, money, politics and power. Let me tell you what this ruckus is really about.

In a word: protection. Many media companies support the NABJ – and similar groups that profess to represent Hispanic, Asian and Native-American journalists – by sponsoring their conferences. You can believe one of two things: that the companies do this because they care about diversity; or that this is a quid pro quo whereby they help sponsor the conferences with the expectation that – the next time they’re accused of not doing enough for diversity – the organizations will at least stay quiet or perhaps even come to the media companies’ defense.

It’s an old trick in corporate America. Tobacco companies and soft drink manufacturers gave millions to racial and ethnic advocacy groups. And, we don’t hear much from those groups about efforts to hook minority teenagers on cigarettes or child obesity in minority communities.

We don’t know if it was protection that CNN was after from the NABJ. But if Butler is telling the truth, it doesn’t look good that a network executive scolded the organization and threatened to pull the plug on funding – all in one phone call.

This breakup is for the best. CNN should not support the NABJ’s convention. It should also not give a dime to the other organizations that claim to represent journalists of color. These groups should never have accepted money from media companies to begin with, since it compromised their ability to be industry watchdogs.

All this talk about diversity, and what this flap really provides is something more important: clarity.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is