Reporting While Black: A Work in Progress

"Reporting While Black"

When I arrived at the Chicago Tribune in fall 1989, I soon discovered, that like myself, many Black reporters were degreed up and interned to the hilt. And yet, we were still deemed incompetent until proven competent. White reporters, some of them with no college degree at all, became national and foreign correspondents, ascended to the paper's top management positions.

It should have come as no surprise. It hadn't been that long ago that the first Black was allowed into the Trib newsroom, a Black man named Joe Boyce during the late sixties. There was another before him, Boyce told me. A man who wrote the "Negro News" column but had to drop his column off at the guard desk because he was not allowed in the paper's newsroom.

Boyce, however, was not the first Black in the newsroom, he soon discovered upon his introduction, where he found another Black face: The newsroom's shoeshine man. 

When I arrived in 1989, there was still a shoeshine man, walking through the Trib newsroom, dropping to his knees during deadline, giving white editors and reporters a good shine. I always imagined that is the position that many of our colleagues believed Black reporters deemed as unqualified incapable affirmative action hires who couldn't be their equal or superior were more suited.

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I vowed to never internalize their disrespect. To trust God and journalism. And to keep reporting while Black.

A N.Y. Times editor during my job interview once remarked, "You have some great feature stories here, but can you write hard news?"

My response: "That's like asking a master chef whether he can scramble an egg."

-John W. Fountain

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As I sat at my desk in the newsroom of a big-city newspaper that fall afternoon in 1989, I could plainly see through the glass office the head of another black man bobbing up and down — up and down.
I sat inside my cubicle, writing. I could see the frail, dark-skinned elderly gentleman doing something indiscernible from my cushy chair that yielded a partial view into the editor’s office.

“What in the hell?” I wondered.

I couldn’t resist. I stood up to see. There it was. In plain view:

The gray-haired black man was on his knees. The editor leaned back in his swivel chair, like a modern-day massa’, while the wiry black man, dressed in a blue custodial uniform, buffed out a shine.

Nobody else in the newsroom seemed unusually stricken by the sight. When I inquired of a veteran black reporter, he shrugged and chuckled, explaining that it was part of the regular goings-on ’round here and that I should get used to it.

It was my rude awakening to the American newsroom. And I was certain that I could never get used to it.

Even after all these years, the memory is unsettling. “Al The-Shoeshine Man” meandered through the newsroom, offering reporters and editors a shine. He knelt in their cubicles, down on the carpeted floor.

Al was as much a newsroom regular as the Polish and black women, wearing purplish-blue smocks, who showed up every night to clean the bathrooms, empty the trash and dust off our desks.

Amid the sound of fingers pecking on keyboards at deadline, Al dropped to his knees to shine. A few black women gave Al their shoes to polish outside the newsroom. But Al’s clients were mostly white reporters and editors.

The sight of a brother giving shines in the newsroom troubled me. I confess, however, that I never complained to editors. What disturbed me and some other black colleagues was not that Al shined shoes. It is an honest living. And I’ve always figured a man’s legal trade to be his own business.

It was the image of subservience it conjured — of white men sitting high on their thrones while chocolate shoeshine boys knelt at their feet. It was that my editors either had no sensitivity to the notion that some black folks in the newsroom might find the whole affair offensive, or perhaps they didn’t care.

Either way, I suspected that some in the newsroom saw shining shoes as the kind of trade for which we black folks — even reporters — were best suited. I felt like just another slave on the plantation.

Maybe that would help explain it. Why as a black journalist I always sensed that I was seen as “incompetent” until proven “competent.” Why some whites in the newsroom assumed the only reason I was hired was because I was black. Why we were seen as “quotas.” Not colleagues.

Why I got the feeling that black journalists couldn’t be trusted to cover with fairness and balance stories about race, or civil rights, or the black community.

Why some editors sometimes sent white reporters behind us on assignments. Why black reporters sometimes experienced “big footing” — the confiscation of our assigned news beats whenever big stories broke. Then “trusted” white reporters were assigned the lead in a story that was rightly ours.

Maybe it explains why our numbers in American newsrooms, after all these years, are still paltry. Why American journalism still does not fully value or respect our voices and perspectives.

Why those newsrooms today, while absent of shoeshine men, are also absent of John Fountains. Why I still can’t shake the image of Al.

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