In 1968, the Kerner Commission report laid part of the blame for urban riots on the nation’s newspapers. The commission accused the press of insensitive coverage of minority communities and “shockingly backward” employment practices. Since then, the proportion of nonwhites among newspaper professionals nationwide has increased from 0.3 percent to 9.4 percent. But “diversity” remains one of the hottest issues in American journalism.
Major newspaper chains like Gannett and Knight-Ridder are waging aggressive campaigns to recruit minority reporters and editors. Editors at the Chicago Tribune have been told their annual bonuses will be affected by their ability to hire and promote blacks. The Associated Press and Times-Mirror (publisher of Newsday and the Los Angeles Times) have special internship programs for nonwhites, and some papers conduct “news audits” to determine whether their coverage is biased against minorities. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has said it hopes to achieve proportional representation on newsroom staffs by 2000. This is an ambitious goal; it would require tripling the number of minority reporters and editors within seven years.
The New York Times has been in the vanguard of this movement. Diversity is the paper’s “single most important issue,” according to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who became publisher in January 1992. The Times has made a priority of hiring and promoting minority reporters and editors. In December 1990, Gerald Boyd, the first black manager in the Times’s Washington bureau, was made editor of the Metro section; he expanded coverage of the outer boroughs, which the paper had previously given short shrift. In addition, the Times has formed a diversity steering committee composed of top editors, and black and Latino reporters have had unprecedented access to top management for airing their grievances and presenting their ideas.
But the diversity agenda has created dissension in the newsroom. A recent Esquire article on the Times described a staff polarized along racial lines. While black reporters complained that management wasn’t moving quickly enough in its diversity efforts, some white reporters grumbled about being told certain stories were reserved for minorities, about editors tailoring stories to suit their political tastes, and about constant harping on the “white, male point of view.”
There is trouble up the ladder too. In December 1992, Sulzberger stunned a conference sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America when he confessed that members of his top-level editorial steering committee on diversity had “been at each other’s throats” and had to go on a threeday retreat with professional mediators “to get them talking again.” The cultural change demanded by diversity, Sulzberger sighed, is “hard, brutal stuff.”
The movement for diversity has unquestionably had some beneficial results. No longer are newsrooms nearly all-white bastions, concentrating their attention on all-white precincts of power. But the diversity agenda has evolved into something more than a drive to expand minority hiring and coverage of minority communities. It also aims to give that coverage a distinct perspective-a goal that raises disturbing implications for the way the news is reported. The journalistic tradition that aspires to unbiased reporting of facts is now said to embody a “white, male point of view” that must be balanced by other viewpoints. Accordingly, the Times is studded with stories about minority issues and themes, written by minority reporters who have been encouraged to write expressively.
What effect has this new journalistic approach had on the way citizens are informed about their government? With racial and ethnic relations playing an important role in public policy, and occasionally exploding into violent confrontation, this is a crucial question for both the press and society. New York City, with its often fractious ethnic politics, is a particularly good place to look for the answer.
In 1989, the city elected a mayor whose model of governance is strikingly similar to the press’s diversity agenda. David Dinkins’s vision of the city as a “gorgeous mosaic” represents a subtle repudiation of both the “melting pot” and the integrationist ideal. Dinkins and the press implicitly share the premise that a diverse population is best served by affirming the distinctive cultural identities and political interests of various groups, even at the expense of common standards and reference points.
When Dinkins was elected, the press celebrated the promise of racial peace that the “gorgeous mosaic” seemed to hold out. In its primary election endorsement, Newsday called him “the healer this city dearly requires.” Even at the New York Post, the only major New York paper not to endorse Dinkins in the general election, columnist Pete Hamill said Dinkins’s election brought a sense that “history had just begun-the history of New York in the twenty-first century.”
But the promise of racial peace proved difficult for the new mayor to deliver. Dinkins has faced a series of explosive racial incidents, the most serious of which were the Washington Heights disturbances of July 1992, the 1990 boycott of a Korean grocery store in Flatbush, and the Crown Heights riots of August 1991. In each of these cases, Dinkins has been credibly accused of allowing the rule of law to take a back seat to racial politics. And in each case, as we shall see, the diversity agenda seems to have encouraged the press to follow a preconceived script-one that turned out to be at odds with the facts and out of touch with the realities of a fractious, multiethnic New York.
William Hilliard, editor of the Oregonian and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, asks a rhetorical question that sums up the diversity agenda’s rationale: “Can newspapers provide comprehensive, responsible, and fair coverage to America’s multicultural society without adequate representation of people of color in staff and management?”
A look at the Times and Newsday’s coverage of Washington Heights, Flatbush, and Crown Heights raises other, difficult questions: Can the press’s new mission of affirming distinctive minority viewpoints be reconciled with the goal of objective reporting and analysis? Can newspapers that are themselves riven by diversity-consumed with battles over hiring, promotion, and assignment policies and arguments over the biases of the “dominant culture”-report objectively on incidents of ethnic turmoil in the rest of society? Can the press fulfill its traditional “adversarial” role when it has officially embraced controversial assumptions about racial and ethnic relations that mirror those that are guiding government policy?
On July 3, 1992, Michael O’Keefe, a plainclothes police officer, shot and killed 24-year-old Jose “Kiko” Garcia on West 162nd Street in Washington Heights. The way the Times and Newsday told the story, it seemed to be a vivid demonstration of the pervasive racism, corruption, and brutality of the New York police. A white cop, very likely involved in drug activity, had beaten Garcia, a bodega clerk with no criminal record, to the floor of an apartment lobby, then shot him point-blank.
The story helped provoke three nights of rioting that left one man dead, 53 police officers in the hospital, and a neighborhood gutted by fire. But, as a grand jury reported in September, the story was false in nearly every detail.
“Cop Shooting Victim: He Was Shot in the Back,” screamed Newsday’s front-page headline on July 7, 1992. The previous day’s paper had described the scene in the building where Garcia died: lobby walls still stained with blood, Garcia’s sisters wailing and fainting in front of reporters, and angry young men screaming “assassin” at nearby police. The Times’s accounts quoted “people on the street” describing O’Keefe brutally beating Garcia with his police radio before shooting him; Garcia’s mother told the Times her son “died like a chicken on the floor.” Both papers quoted Garcia’s friends and relatives as denying the police report that he had been armed when he was shot.
Both the Times and Newsday reported the account of Juana Madera, a resident of the building, who, along with her sister Anna Rodriguez, claimed to have witnessed Garcia’s killing. “[O’Keefe] just kept kicking him and kicking him, and Garcia pleaded with him to stop,” Madera told a Newsday reporter. “Then he pulled the gun and pointed down and I heard three shots.” Newsday’s Jim Dwyer devoted an entire column to Madera’s story.
But evidence quickly emerged that Garcia was not the innocent victim local residents made him out to be. On Tuesday, July 7, the New York Post reported that Garcia was an illegal immigrant who had pled guilty in 1989 after being caught with a packet of cocaine, then violated his probation, giving a phony address to authorities before dropping out of sight. In a Times op-ed piece published several weeks later, Deputy Mayor Fritz Alexander noted that Garcia’s criminal record had been made public on July 5. Yet these facts made their way only slowly into the Times and Newsday’s coverage.
In contrast with the lack of emphasis on Garcia’s criminal background, reporters leapt to impugn O’Keefe, mainly through rumor and hearsay. A July 8 Times report cited “rumors voiced by elected officials and residents alike that Officer O’Keefe may have been involved in illegal activity.” The same day, Scott Ladd of Newsday, in a piece headlined “It’s Not First Time Cop Is Criticized,” reported on a 1990 drug case in which O’Keefe was admonished by a judge for pursuing a suspect without probable cause. State Supreme Court Justice Angela Mazzarelli found that O’Keefe had no “credible reason for pursuing . . . and forcibly seizing and arresting” the suspect. (This is not to say the suspect was innocent. In another part of the decision, not quoted by Newsday, Mazzarelli wrote: “The officer acted on a ’hunch’ which was vague and unparticularlized. That his hunch turned out to be correct cannot . . . justify the search.”)
On July 10, the Times carried a dispatch from San Francisco de Macoris, Garcia’s hometown in the Dominican Republic, that further reinforced the image of Garcia as a martyr. The story highlighted the “simple funeral” attended by grieving relatives. Garcia’s sister was described “pointing to [her] bedroom’s naked cement walls” and asking: “If we were involved with drugs, do you think we would be living like this?”
The most egregious example of the press’s martyrizing of Garcia and demonizing of O’Keefe was a front-page New York Times piece by David Gonzalez with Jane Fritsch, published on Sunday, July 12, more than a week after the killing. The piece did note Garcia’s illegal status and his criminal record, but dismissed “speculation” about Garcia’s continuing involvement with drug dealing.
The article quoted friends and relatives of Garcia who described him as “timid,” a “grown-up kid” who “didn’t have it in him” to deal drugs. The reporters themselves asserted that Garcia “apparently eked out a living peddling clothing on the street.” The piece quoted an acquaintance of Garcia asking, “Why would he have endured that beating if he was armed?” It did not mention, however, that the medical examiner’s office had declared there was no forensic evidence for the claim that O’Keefe had beaten Garcia with his radio.
On the other hand, the story quoted unsubstantiated allegations by a “former drug dealer,” Andy Hernandez, who accused O’Keefe of shaking him down for $2,000 in cash and $3,000 worth of cocaine. The reporters also interviewed Iver Goldart, supervisor of the Legal Aid Society, which has represented numerous defendants arrested by O’Keefe. “He is a cop who was basically thinking he was in the Wild West, and he was making his own rules,” Goldart said.
The attack on O’Keefe was part of a larger media script in which the riots were seen “in context” as a tortured cry for justice from a community enraged over a pattern of mistreatment by a police force that was corrupt, brutal, and culturally alienated. One Times article, for example, examined the link between community resentment and a lack of ethnic diversity in the Police Department, under the headline “Suburban Presence in Uniform.”
Discussions of the “context,” however, avoided certain uncomfortable facts. Washington Heights has a huge population of illegal aliens, about 100,000. Police estimate that half of all crimes in the 34th Precinct, most of them drug-related, are committed by illegals-abetted, no doubt, by the official laxity that allowed Garcia to receive probation rather than deportation. Drug gangs very likely encouraged the rioting, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that followed Garcia’s death.
One notable exception to this reportage was a piece written by Newsday’s Raymond Sanchez which explored the world of the “Dominicanyorks”-young toughs recruited in poor Dominican villages and brought to the United States as cannon fodder in the drug wars. Another exception was a pair of pieces in the Wall Street Journal written by Jose de Cordoba. Describing “an ant army of dealers” from the Dominican Republic who have made cocaine dealing into “a cottage industry” in upper Manhattan, de Cordoba told of a Washington Heights dealer who had entered the United States illegally and later brought his six sisters into the country, also illegally. A would-be Domincanyork told de Cordoba: “If you are ignorant like me, you can go to New York, sell drugs, get two million pesos, come back home, and be somebody.”
But it was the mayor’s role in the drama that reporters approached most gingerly. Three days after the shooting, Dinkins paid a personal visit to Garcia’s family in Washington Heights and invited them the next day to Gracie Mansion. “Justice we will have, but peace I beg you for,” Dinkins told an audience at a Washington Heights school on July 7, hoping his assurance would restore public order on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. He also arranged to have the city pay for Garcia’s burial in the Dominican Republic.
The mayor’s critics contended that by taking Garcia’s side despite his criminal record, Dinkins helped justify, and thus encourage, the rioting. Rudolph Giuliani, Dinkins’s likely opponent in an election in which the Latino vote will be crucial, wrote in an August Times op-ed that the mayor had “rushed to Washington Heights . . . to pose with Mr. Garcia’s relatives and perpetuate characterizations of Mr. Garcia as an innocent bodega worker victimized by the police.” The response Deputy Mayor Alexander offered in his Times op-ed was revealing. He quoted Michael Tomasky of the Village Voice, who wrote that Dinkins “issued no such portrayal of a ’pitiable, angelic’ young man; the press did that.”
The Times and Newsday cast Dinkins’s actions in an almost entirely approving light. A July 9 Times piece credited the mayor with an “aggressive strategy to restore peace through broad symbolic acts and small administrative gestures.” A Newsday editorial in August defended the mayor’s decision to pay for Garcia’s funeral by arguing that Dinkins “knew that a kind gesture to the family could help end the strife that had plagued Washington Heights since the shooting.”
In September, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. released a report outlining the findings of the grand jury investigating Garcia’s killing. All the evidence corroborated O’Keefe’s story that he had shot Garcia in self-defense after Garcia pulled a gun. Physical evidence showed that Garcia had been standing when he was shot, had not been beaten, and had been shot only twice. The report further said that O’Keefe’s hysterical radio call for help after the shooting was “hardly the behavior of a cop shooting an innocent man in cold blood.”
Moreover, the grand jury found that Juana Madera and Anna Rodriguez, the two sisters whose eyewitness accounts had played such a crucial role in the early reporting of the case, could not possibly have seen the killing from where they claimed to have been standing. And, according to the grand jury, Garcia was a chronic cocaine user who worked for a drug ring that was headed by Jose Rodriguez, Anna Rodriguez’s son, and that used Madera’s apartment as a “safe house” for its operations. In March 1992, police had raided the apartment and seized a videotape showing Jose Rodriguez holding bags of cocaine and gloating, “It’s legal here.” Garcia also appeared on the tape.
Reporters know that eyewitnesses at crime scenes often hype their stories to get their names in print and their faces on TV-or, if they are family members, to lay the base for profitable lawsuits.
And politicians often exploit police-community tensions in such cases to attract publicity and advance their political agendas. Yet in Washington Heights, reportorial skepticism had been abandoned. Bogus eyewitness accounts passed into the media, almost totally unfiltered and unchallenged.
After the grand jury report was made public, the Times published an editorial entitled “The Lesson of Washington Heights.” The events, the Times concluded, teach “the importance of caution and restraint when the next such incident occurs.” But the paper of record offered no explanation for why its own reporting had been so wide of the mark.
The Flatbush Boycott
It’s not clear exactly what happened when a Haitian woman named Giselaine Felissaint went shopping at the Family Red Apple Market in Flatbush on January 18, 1990. The store’s manager, Bong Ok Jang, said Felissaint began throwing vegetables after refusing to pay the full bill for her groceries; Felissaint offered several different accounts in which she was beaten by store employees, either without provocation or after being accused of stealing. (Assault charges against the manager were eventually dropped.)
Whatever the facts of that incident, it set off a racially charged boycott of Family Red Apple and a nearby produce store that had supposedly given refuge to Felissaint’s alleged assailants. Protesters marched outside the stores, calling the Korean owners “yellow monkeys.” They passed out leaflets calling on blacks to “boycott all Korean stores” and avoid shopping with “people who do not look like us.” Among the boycott’s leaders was Sonny Carson, a convicted kidnapper and extortionist who had been dismissed the year before from the Dinkins campaign for proclaiming himself “antiwhite.”
It was a bit of a “man bites dog” story; in the usual understanding of racism in America, after all, blacks are the victims rather than the perpetrators. But for more than three months, the boycott got almost no attention. The Post editorially denounced the boycotters; Newsday published a few stories, buried deep in the news pages. The Times was silent.
Then, on April 26, the Post’s Eric Breindel denounced this media indifference in a column called “Flatbush Boycott: An Untold Story.” Breindel detected a double standard at work: “If this was a long-term boycott of a black-owned store by a band of Ku Klux Klan, it would have long ago been a national story. Why should the rules change when the victims are Korean?”
On April 30, Mayor Dinkins set up a panel to study the boycott and black-Korean relations, headed by Laura Blackburne, then president of the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution. On May 2, the Korean merchants obtained a temporary restraining order barring protests within fifty feet of their stores. But it was not until May 7 that the Times broke its silence. An article written by veteran reporter M. A. Farber appeared in the Metro section under the headline “Black-Korean Who-Pushed-Whom Festers.” It went into great detail about the ambiguity of the original confrontation at the store. But, though the story quoted Sonny Carson as threatening, “In the future, there’ll be funerals, not boycotts,” it said virtually nothing about the racist conduct of the demonstrators.
A Times editorial the next day did acknowledge that “the boycott rides on a tide of ugly, unmistakably racist rhetoric.” But news coverage continued to play down the reality of black racism. Instead, stories painted the boycott as a symptom of a wider black-Korean “culture clash.” That way both sides could be assigned responsibility, though it was clearly the boycotters who were racially motivated.
As in Washington Heights, the press was less than rigorous in evaluating the actions of public officials. Although Dinkins initially said the court order barring protests within fifty feet of the stores should be enforced, he refused to order police to do so, accepting the questionable justification that since the judge’s order came in a civil, not a criminal, action, the police could not make any arrests.
The Times and Newsday continued to publish supportive editorials. On May 10, Newsday asserted that “Dinkins deserves just a little more time” to resolve the conflict. When Dinkins declared in a May 11 speech that he would never allow anyone to use violence or the threat of violence, “no matter how legitimate their anger or frustration may be,” a Times editorial declared that he was “talking like a leader.” A week later, according to Newsday, Dinkins “urged the organizers of the boycott to simply ’declare victory and get out.’”
The press failed to ask the tough political question: Did Dinkins’s soft line on the boycott reflect a fear of alienating militant blacks and eroding his electoral base? Reporters also went easy on the Human Rights Commission, the mayoral agency that led the city’s disastrous efforts to negotiate a settlement. A May 27 Newsday article described “a new sense of optimism” at “a city agency that had been described by critics as a place where time stood still during the dozen years that Edward I. Koch had been mayor.” Some commission employees expressed sympathy for the boycotters: “There is a lot of integrity on the part of the demonstrators,” Charles Jenkins, director of one of the commission’s Brooklyn offices, told the Times in July.
As the boycott dragged on into August, the Blackburne commission released its report, which praised the mayor’s efforts, denied that the boycott was “race-based,” and laid the blame for the boycott on Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes for not responding more quickly to Felissaint’s accusation. Newspaper editorials and columns derided the report. A Times editorial called it “a cowardly document”; Newsday’s Murray Kempton wrote of Blackburne’s “orbitings in the outer spaces of nonsense.” But reporters again ignored the underlying political questions, most notably Blackburne’s behind-the-scenes campaign for the job of Housing Authority chairman. (Blackburne is best known to New Yorkers for her February 1992 ouster from that position after it was revealed that she had spent $3,000 in city funds on a pink leather sofa for her office.)
With its credibility threatened, the Dinkins administration decided not to appeal a higher court’s order to enforce the fifty-foot ban on demonstrations (though it, too, had come in a civil action). On September 21, eight months after the boycott began, Dinkins went shopping at the boycotted markets. “Whatever may have happened here in January to touch off this boycott,” the mayor declared, “forcing these shopkeepers out of business amounts to cruet and unusual punishment.” Though this acknowledgment was long overdue, the Times editorial page credited Dinkins with “leaving no doubt that when he wants to be the healer and conciliator that so many New Yorkers had hoped for, he knows how to play that role.”
The Crown Heights riots began with a tragic accident. On August 19, 1991, Yosef Lifsh ran a red light, swerved to avoid hitting another vehicle, and jumped the curb, hitting two children. Seven-year-old Gavin Cato was pronounced dead at the scene.
Gavin Cato was black; Yosef Lifsh was a Hasidic Jew. The accident set off a fury of anti-Semitic disturbances. As the Times reported on August 20, “More than 250 neighborhood residents, mostly black teenagers shouting ’Jews! Jews! Jews!’ jeered the driver of the car . . . and then turned their anger on the police.” That night, a Hasidic scholar from Australia, Yankel Rosenbaum, was stabbed in Crown Heights; he later died at Mugs County Hospital. Meanwhile, rioting continued for four nights.
The news coverage left little doubt that the basic story of Crown Heights was one of black mobs attacking Jews in retaliation for Gavin Cato’s death. Both the Times and Newsday noted that the vast majority of people arrested during the riots were black. The Times of August 23 described a group of black youths chanting “Heil Hitler!” in front of the Lubavitcher headquarters on Eastern Parkway.
Still, news analyses and columns searched for the “context” of the riots, in an apparent effort to make the events conform to what writer Phillip Gourevitch calls the “conventional understanding of race in America.” In this view, Gourevitch writes in Commentary, riots are the result of “some terrible racist incident” that causes “a battered minority to explode with rage.”
Thus, Times columnist Anna Quindlen, after visiting a grim housing project in Crown Heights, asked: “What must you feel if your whole life is a slur, if you read the handwriting on the wall of your existence and the graffiti seem to say, ’Who cares?”’ Newsday’s Jimmy Breslin declared: “I am having a lot of trouble believing that all the fury . . . was between blacks and Jews.” And a Times news analysis was headlined: “For Young Blacks, Alienation and a Growing Despair Turn into Rage.”
The treatment columnists and editorialists gave Rosenbaum’s killing stood in stark contrast with their response to the racially motivated murder of Yusef Hawkins, a black teenager, in Bensonhurst two years earlier. This double standard was best illustrated by the Times editorial page, which published an editorial entitled “Racism, Accomplice to Murder” six days after Hawkins was killed. It was not until 14 months after Rosenbaum’s murder, when suspect Lemrick Nelson was acquitted, that the Times got around to expressing “shame and alarm over anti-Semitic violence that recalled the pogroms of czarist Russia and Eastern Europe.”
In Crown Heights, as in Flatbush, reporters analyzed the events as a culture clash, a long-running feud between two groups equally at fault. A Times headline, for example, declared, “The Bitterness Flows in Two Directions.” The story explained that “the Hasidim are often the focus of the anger because of the widespread belief that they receive special treatment from the police and other city institutions and get help that blacks sorely need in a time of dwindling resources.” Two weeks after the riots, a Newsday article by Michael Powell and Jennifer Preston reported the results of their extensive investigation: little evidence existed to support the charges of preferential treatment.
The focus on allegations of favoritism obscured the raw anti-Semitism that fueled the riots. At the funeral of Gavin Cato, banners commemorating the accident victim shared space with others that said things like “Hitler did not do the job,” while Al Sharpton caricatured Jews as “diamond dealers.”
The Times and Newsday soft-pedaled the opportunism, demagoguery, and race-baiting of some of the black activists who responded to Cato’s death, though the papers dutifully reported on such publicity stunts as Sharpton’s September trip to Israel, where he tried to serve a summons on Lifsh. The Times reported Sharpton’s “diamond dealers” slur, but it ignored his other incendiary remarks at the funeral, where he compared Gavin Cato to slain civil rights leaders and drew parallels between the Hasidim and supporters of apartheid. According to the Long Island edition of Newsday, Sharpton “seemed to scoff . . . at labeling Gavin’s death an accident.” This observation, however, was excised from the same story in the tabloid’s New York City edition.
Another militant leader whom reporters treated with kid gloves was the Reverend Herbert Daughtry. According to an August 24 Newsday article, “Daughtry said he did not view it as his role to help calm the situation because he shares the pain and understands the frustration of the young people.” The story was a flattering profile of Daughtry, headlined “A Voice in the Wilderness.” Two days later, Daughtry accused Hasidic Jews of “abusing their power” and likened them to the Ku Klux Klan.
Hasidic leaders have charged that Mayor Dinkins and Police Commissioner Lee Brown ordered the police to hold back during the first three days of rioting. Whether or not there was such an order, police unquestionably did hold back. John Kifner of the Times reported on August 23 that officers at the 71st Precinct “complained about having to dodge rocks and bottles-or get hit by them-without being allowed to fight back.” Kifner added: “Before yesterday’s promise of a tougher police response, Commissioner Brown’s public statements had mainly called on officers to understand community feelings, and officers in Crown Heights had generally held back. Some had even been heard asking when they could make arrests.” In early 1993, three rabbis filed affidavits in a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming they attended a community meeting in Crown Heights on August 20, 1991, where top mayoral aides gave a sympathetic hearing to blacks expressing anti-Semitic sentiments. (The meeting was closed to the press.) According to Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, some of those in attendance declared that it was time to “get even with the Jews.” “Mr. Lynch’s response to these diatribes against Jews were such statements as ’I understand you, brother,’ and ’I’m with you, brother.’”
The press failed to ask tough questions of the mayor and his police commissioner: Had Dinkins left police commanders confused about their role in racial conflicts when he failed to order enforcement of the restraining order in Flatbush the year before? Were police afraid to act lest they be accused of brutality in the wake of the Rodney King beating in March 1991? Was the slow response motivated by fears that a crackdown would have adverse political repercussions for Dinkins in the black community?
Whatever the answers to these questions, the mayor and his police commissioner were guilty of a grave miscalculation at the very least. As Newsday reported on August 23, “Street violence-handled by police with procedures used for demonstrations-had turned into a riot.” Yet the press seemed to absolve Dinkins of any responsibility for the way the disturbances were handled. An editorial in the Times on August 23 reminded readers that he was “the mayor, not a magician.” A September 1 news analysis by Felicia Lee in the Week in Review section concluded, “In the end, Mr. Dinkins appeared to come off well. Four days after the rioting, the streets were quiet and he was warmly received at the Cato funeral.” And in a January 1992 editorial reviewing the first two years of Dinkins’s mayoralty, the Times faulted him for his slow action in Flatbush, adding: “But he has learned. When Crown Heights erupted . . . Mr. Dinkins was at his peace-making best.”
The Trouble with Diversity
Is there a connection between the diversity agenda and the kind of consistently flawed reporting that characterized the coverage of Washington Heights, Flatbush, and Crown Heights? Most city editors scoff at such a linkage. Don Forst of Newsday attributes any shortcomings of his paper’s coverage to deadline pressures. Gerald Boyd, the Times Metro editor, insists that my close examination of the paper’s coverage is “unhealthy and unhelpful.”
But the consistency with which their papers have gotten the story wrong makes these answers difficult to accept. It seems clear, as a senior Times Metro reporter told Esquire, that the diversity agenda has created an atmosphere inside newsrooms in which editors are “terrified to offend any of the victimized [minority] groups.” As a result, the press is less, not more, able to provide thorough, accurate coverage of the issues of the day.
While it may have originated with honorable aims, today’s diversity agenda distorts the news by imposing a simple-minded, outdated view of race relations, one based on the assumption that blacks and Latinos are always victims and whites are always oppressors. This rigid preconception leaves reporters unprepared to deal with tensions involving other groups. This is why, in Flatbush and Crown Heights, reporters felt obliged to make stories of black-Korean or black-Jewish tensions fit the familiar black-white model.
Politically correct reporting makes it difficult to conduct a much-needed debate on a variety of social issues that disproportionately affect minority communities: illegal immigration, violent crime, the deterioration of the schools due in part to racial and ethnic politics, and the relationship between the welfare system, family dissolution, and poverty. It also obscures the troubling aspects of a fragmented society-one in which, as in Flatbush, the lack of common language, customs, and values can inflate a minor argument into an ethnic war.
Most alarmingly, inaccurate reporting can actually fan the flames of racial violence, as seems to have happened in Washington Heights. “The tales ... go straight out onto the airways and into newspaper type,” wrote Mike McAlary in the Post. “As night falls, newspaper headlines turn into gas canisters. By the time someone gets around to screaming ’calm down,’ it is already too late.”
Diversity-driven reporting has created a pattern of intellectual dishonesty and double standards that can only poison the well of public trust that true tolerance, as opposed to enforced diversity, requires to flourish. Civility and social justice can be maintained in a city as staggeringly diverse as New York only by upholding common standards of behavior and by maintaining the sovereignty of law over ethnic and racial partisanship. Journalists must provide the accurate, unbiased information citizens need in order to hold their government accountable. The city-and the country-are ill served by a press committed to an agenda, however well-intended, that causes it to lose sight of its purpose.