The Think Tank: Lightfoot’s decision on journalists forces discussion on racial diversity

Lightfoot’s decision to exclude white journalists sets off firestorm. But it’s a conversation long overdue

The latest dustup between the Chicago media and minority communities is unusual because the person behind it happens to be the Mayor of Chicago.

On Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot – the first Black woman to be elected to the position in the city’s history, decided to grant interviews reflecting on her first two years in office – but only to Black and Brown journalists.

The move angered many in Chicago’s City Hall press corps as many suspected Lightfoot – who is under constant criticism for just about everything, wanted to be interviewed by minority journalists because the thinking was, she would get softball questions lobbed at her (turns out this wasn’t the case.) Lightfoot’s move also came under fire from some minority journalists too, including retired ABC 7 political reporter Charles Thomas and Sun-Times and ABC 7 political contributor Laura Washington.

But the reason for the decision was outlined in a letter sent out Tuesday to journalists regarding the lack of minority faces in Chicago’s newsrooms. “The Chicago media leadership must evolve with the times, in order to be a true reflection of the vibrant, vast diversity of our city,” Lightfoot said. “Diversity matters and without it, how can you as the media truly speak to the needs and interests of the diverse and nuanced constituency you claim to serve until you do the work until you do the work necessary to reflect that constituency.” 

The action was panned for the most part on social media – though many Black journalists applauded the move although some questioned the sincerity. Not surprisingly, the story – taken out of context – was picked up by conservative news outlets such as Fox News and Newsmax, but also other mainstream outlets including The Hill, CNN, and NewsNation.

Since former President Donald Trump declared the press “enemy of the people”, the door has opened to similar mistreatment not only by Republican politicians, but also by Democrats. Two weeks ago, Sinclair-owned Baltimore Fox affiliate WBFF – whose corporate owner is known for a conservative slant in their local newscasts, was the subject of a FCC complaint from City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, who is an African-American Democrat. Her office alleges “blatantly slanted, dishonest, misleading, racist, and extremely dangerous” reporting by WBFF, as documented by The Baltimore Sun and Broadcasting & Cable with FCC Republican commissioner Brendan Carr blasting the complaint.

Since taking office, Lightfoot has often had frosty relations with the media corps regardless of color. Of course, she is not the first Chicago mayor to spar with the press. Predecessor Rahm Emanuel was notorious for feuding with the Fifth Estate but defended them on occasion. And former mayor Richard M. Daley bashed the media in a memorable press conference in 2008 after the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times criticized his plan to move a children’s museum to Grant Park. But the same issues Lightfoot is talking about Chicago’s first black mayor also tried to address.

Harold Washington at a Department of Human Services press conference in 1987. (CPL/Harold Washington Archives)

During his time in office, Harold Washington often aired his grievances with the predominately white press corps, especially when he made his yearly appearance at a local television academy luncheon. According to a December 1986 Chicago Tribune article, Washington referred to the local press as “arrogant”, “abominable”, and “a bunch of slugs”. 

One time when he was running for re-election, he walked out of a WTTW interview after producers would not edit out the name of his political opponents in a video piece. A January 1986 press conference nearly turned into a free-for-all after Washington’s press secretary tried to bar reporters from using cameras and tape-recording devices. His relationship with black media outlets (Chicago Defender, Ebony, Etc.) were marginally better but not by much.

During a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists in Miami months before he died, Washington pointed out the need for more diversity in the city’s newsrooms.

And this is the exact same message Lightfoot is saying 35 years later. But the way she did this by publicly excluding white journalists was a massive PR blunder. The statement – again, taken out of context, gave conservative pundits just another reason to blast Chicago, which they do regularly on Fox News and other right-wing outlets – basically gospel to their audience as they love to feast on Chicago misery. The controversy adds to the dysfunctional atmosphere Chicago is long known for, and national cable news audiences can’t get enough of it.

However, Lightfoot’s message is spot on and run parallel to one I have been saying time and time again for the last fifteen years – the need for more diversity in Chicago media and the business in general, especially in newsrooms as they continue to be run by mostly white males. It’s no excuse in one of the most diverse metro areas in the country.

But the one thing Lightfoot and the scores of other people running their mouths on this issue missed are the current market conditions that makes it hard for a racially diverse workforce to thrive. Media consolidation continues abated, with TV station groups merging with each other in order to build scale against Netflix and Amazon. And speaking of big tech, they’re zapping revenue away from traditional media companies, making it hard to produce quality journalism. And now you have hedge funds taking over newspaper companies, who are gutting newsrooms nationwide by cost-cutting.

When companies are looking to lay off staff, they usually turn to people of color first to thin the herd. And the major network-owned local stations here and in the top six markets (Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA excluded as it is owned by Tegna) are now under the control of major media conglomerates of ViacomCBS, NBCUniversal, and Disney respectively, where local news stations aren’t exactly a priority as streaming is replacing linear TV as the main source of viewing. These companies are more interested in the streaming numbers Punky Brewster and Baby Yoda are racking up than anything in their O&O stations’ newsrooms.

Over the last two years, tensions have risen between Chicago’s communities of color and the city’s media in the wake of George Floyd’s death, calling into question whether media coverage of minority communities are fair. This included two rounds of looting in the city and a recent column published by Eric Zorn about the police shooting of Adam Toledo. But of course, the tensions have always been there – look what happened at CBS 2 in 2011 when a manipulated video featuring a four-year-old somehow made it onto the air.

While Lightfoot should be applauded for pointing out the obvious, keep in mind someone else did 35 years ago, so she shouldn’t take all the credit. But the way this was executed was awful beyond belief, knowing she can’t pick and choose who can interview her.

Or maybe, she wanted it this way.

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