Seeds of Trouble, Part II

Chronicle management asked its staff to critique the paper for "diversity." It got a whole lot more than that.

The entire episode -- which, Tolson concludes, is "sad and unfortunate" -- has left a bad aftertaste with other staff members who had earlier supported the dialogue on how to open up the paper to excluded communities.

"I hate the word 'diversity,'" says one minority staffer who participated in the process and now wonders about the motives of editors. "We want to know where management's coming from. Do you really want to hear other voices, really want to hear other people's opinions, or are you just giving lip service? Let us know now, so we know where we are."

And other reporters and editors dislike the diversity program techniques, if not its idealistic goals, for very different reasons. They -- and most are white -- believe "diversity" equals "political correctness" equals rewriting reality to suit a particular agenda.

The paper's "Diversity Audit" is at the core of some of their criticism. Teams of staff members reviewed a selection of each of the paper's sections, toting up how many times women, blacks, Hispanics, gays, Native Americans, etc. were mentioned and deciding whether the portrayals and characterizations were positive or negative. The audits produced some rather blunt criticism that offended some editors while demonstrating both the valid and semi-absurd applications of using race and gender as yardsticks to measure daily newspaper content.

"The most striking absence of racial and ethnic diversity was found in society coverage," wrote a team of editors who reviewed the paper's features section. "The relentless march of white faces and Anglo-Saxon names across society stories and photographs gave the impression that there is no such thing as African-American, Latino or Asian 'society' or that its contributions to 'causes' are too slight to merit attention. River Oaks may be 'high society,' but we need to recognize the contributions of other groups, too." The team also tweaked gossip doyenne Maxine Messinger for referring to a "gay lover" and "a lesbian" in the category of "other such unappetizing things."

The paper's business section also took a serious pan from another squadron of diversity auditors, who wrote: "Reading these 14 sections was 'an eye-opening experience at best,' observed one member of our team who is not a regular reader of the section. 'While there was some good, there was a lot of bad and the overall picture was almost ugly.'"

On the silly side, the teams nitpicked a piece entitled "Let Tipper Sub for Hillary" as "sexist pure and simple"; criticized a fashion story for repeatedly using Oscar De La Renta's first name ("Does the writer personally know Oscar? Does Oscar deserve less respect than other designers?") and took umbrage at a reference to Julia Roberts as "Mrs. Lovett" ("... the intent was to be cute, but many women find such labels insulting"). A story on the arrest of a gypsy fortuneteller drew a call for "even a small qualifier that not all gypsies are itinerant musicians, fortunetellers and entertainers," and use of the term "ladies' purses" was rebuked with the observation that "evidently mere women do not qualify to carry them."

Diversity specialist Deane says such audits reveal basic and sometimes unspoken conceptions and misconceptions about society. "We're really digging at what I call the roots of our culture," she says. "And now we're taking big pitchforks and we are undoing those roots. And that is not a pleasant experience ... when we start uprooting them, people get uncomfortable, and the people who are in charge of these efforts need to understand that's going to happen ... the group as a whole has to work that out."

If the first brush with diversity has left some Chronicle staffers looking for flack jackets, Deane says they are not alone. This latest trendy branch of corporate consulting, with some 5,000 practitioners nationwide, is rethinking its strategy for dealing with the potent forces its trainers unleash.

"Many people who have done the first wave of diversity training, now they're coming back and saying 'we need to do conflict resolution,'" she chuckles. "I think negotiation skill in this whole area is very important. And that's why I'm teaming up with a skill negotiation trainer, and we're offering a negotiation seminar for diver-sity specialists."

There just might be some takers for that offer over at the Chronicle newsroom on Texas Avenue, where, according to one black staffer, the mood among minority reporters and editors is "more intense than Wedowee, Alabama, but not quite South Central [L.A.] yet.

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