Seeds of Trouble, Part II
When the New York-based Hearst Corp. mobilized its various newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, to form "diversity committees" last spring and send representatives to a "Total Community Coverage" conference, little did it know that the most conspicuous result in Houston would be an embittered staff and the resignation of one of the paper's two black copy editors.
Diversity -- a corporate buzzword for several years now -- means retooling your work force and product to mirror the audience or community you serve. What started as a good-faith effort to address the Chronicle's historical lack of minority coverage and staff members has, at least in the short term, resulted in less employee diversity and plenty of bad vibes.
Seattle-based Barbara Deane, who publishes the Cultural Diversity at Work newsletter, says the Chronicle experience is typical of what she calls "opening the box." When management encourages staff to discuss explosive issues like racial representation, says Deane, "they have to know that by opening the box they are immediately raising expectations, and they need to know that from the get-go."
When the Chronicle opened its box, out popped 39-year-old copy editor Wayne Metz, a Jamaica-born, New York City-raised veteran of the late Dallas Times Herald, with a harsh criticism of the paper's recent special section on juvenile crime, "Seeds of Trouble." A slim, intense man who sports wire-rim glasses and an Afro, Metz worked under assistant managing editor Fernando Dovalina, the highest ranking minority in the Chronicle hierarchy. Metz was incensed by what he viewed as the section's shoddy journalism, racial insensitivity and stereotyping, particularly in the depiction of black family life.
"I don't think you can say black parents neglect their kids, even a certain segment of these poor black mothers, and then not talk to any of them to find out what is preventing them from caring for their children," says Metz, as he prepared to head back to New York after quitting the Chronicle. "Let's get some context and balance here." Metz also criticized the fact that black elected officials and local educators were not interviewed for the series.
One white staffer at the paper concurs in Metz's criticism. "All this does is wring our hands over how terrible the problem is but we don't come to any conclusions, try to approach any solutions, or anything. Metz was making that point, and I think he was right."
The lead writer on "Seeds of Trouble," Mike Tolson (from whom we'll hear more later), believes the section was both sensitive and fair and says Metz was pursuing a political agenda, not a journalistic one, in his attacks.
Chronicle editor Jack Loftis, in a written response to the Press, declined comment on Metz' resignation. He called "Seeds of Trouble" a "good piece of work" but conceded that some of the questions Metz and others raised about the section are "valid" and "are being addressed through discussions with staff."
Metz had been outspoken about the paper's coverage before, once protesting a story by reporter and columnist Lori Rodriguez that compared Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Rodriguez, a Hispanic who is designated as the paper's minority-affairs columnist, says the story was fair and balanced (although some staffers said Metz's eyeballing of her story kept a facile generalization about blacks from appearing in the paper). He and fellow black copy editor Weta Payne also criticized the paper's coverage of last spring's South African elections. Both found the repeated use of pictures of Africans wearing tribal clothing and carrying spears and the lack of photos of South African blacks in business suits objectionable and complained to management. Metz claims their complaints fell on deaf ears.
Payne declined to comment for this story, except to say Metz has support from both white and minority staffers. "This is not a white-black issue," she says. "Please don't make it that way."
The events that led to Metz's resignation began after he crafted a cover letter to a number of sociologists and journalists around the country asking them to analyze "Seeds of Trouble." The letter denigrated stories written or edited by some staff members and included the line, "This is an example of what happens when black copy editors don't work on this type of project." A newsroom snoop fished the cover letter out of a computer print file, publicly posted it on a bulletin board, and the diversity war was on. Metz says someone then went into his computer basket and killed the mailing list he had compiled of recipients for the letter and the special section. That provoked Metz to post a three-page letter aimed at the unknown computer invaders and laced with sarcasm and humor.
"I said to Pederson, 'You had 14 pages and you had six months. Do you think it's good journalism to blame this crime on these two communities, Third Ward and Fifth Ward, and [say] its crime infested, hopeless and the people there neglect their kids? They didn't talk to elected officials or black mothers.' That's when I prepared the 15-pager, because I realized he didn't get what I was saying." Pederson and numerous other Chronicle and Hearst officials did not return phone calls for comment on Metz' resignation.
Metz then bulletin boarded an almost line-by-line deconstruction of several of the section stories to back his claim the journalism was negligent and insulting to blacks. He boldly dismissed Pederson's defense of the section, writing that "it illustrated to me that he knows less about journalism than he would like to let on -- and that he knows absolutely nothing about 'minorities.'"
A sample of Metz's criticism: "The 'Seeds of Trouble' project offered no insights into the issue of juvenile crime. It was more like picking at a scab. (A better title would have been "Violent, Hopeless, Black Teens") Some of the writing was very good. But I kept looking for certain things and not seeing them."
Metz then drafted a mass resignation letter to Chronicle personnel honcho Ann Turnbach that falsely indicated the paper's entire minority staff was prepared to resign, and left it in his computer, correctly anticipating it would also be copied and circulated. The following day, he tendered his own resignation with two-weeks notice, convinced it would not be accepted. "I expected ... they would say 'Oh, no Wayne, it's not at that point. You don't need to go that far. We don't want to lose you.' But that's not what happened."
Metz says he gave the letter to Dovalina, who deadpanned: "Why don't we make this immediate?" The copy editor says he was planning to quit, but not right away. "People have said to me, 'Wayne, you shouldn't have quit. When you quit, they win.' I said, 'Even if I stay, with them putting out this kind of sloppy journalism and nobody cares enough to say anything about it, sitting in meetings where even if you say something it's ignored, even if I stay they win.' The best thing for me to do is get out of Dodge."
Mike Tolson, an awarding-winning reporter who came to the Chronicle after the Hearst Corp. closed its San Antonio Light and who is considered one of the paper's best writers, authored the piece in "Seeds of Trouble" that drew most of Metz's wrath. He doesn't recall having ever spoken to Metz, so "I didn't know him and I was kinda surprised at some of his reactions." The story in question, "Where Hope Dies Young," examines the shooting death of 18-year-old Neiman Jenkins, and paints a grim, dead-end world for the black youth of Houston's Fifth Ward. Tolson defends the journalism in the section and finds Metz's criticism loaded with a political agenda "that predates the appearance of this project."
"His comments in their entirety, along with the contents of the letter, pretty much speak for themselves," says Tolson. "He has a point of view that may, in some context, deserve to be aired in different ways in newspaper and television reports. I think he goes far beyond the bounds of what we intended to write about. If you took all his comments to heart and wanted to do something with each of his suggestions, you'd end up writing a book."
As to Metz's contention that the project should have had a black copy editor, Tolson points out that one reporter on the series, Robbie Morganfield, is black, and the photographer, Ben DeSoto, is Hispanic. Morganfield did not return a phone call from the Press and DeSoto simply says he had no creative input into the series.
Tolson finds the idea of racial formulas for processing stories objectionable.
"As far as copy editors, I think its totally inappropriate to start talking about quotas and start talking about having a black or Asian or Hispanic or any particular ethnicity or race have to be involved with a story that dealt with his or her particular race or ethnicity," says the reporter. "You can carry that to some pretty ludicrous extremes, and I don't think anybody wants to."
Tolson points to the Gannett chain as an example of a shop that imposes coverage guidelines based on race and gender (even requiring a certain percentage of pictures that appear on its papers' front pages to be of minorities or women).
"I think the failures of any paper, this or any others, are not always racial in origin. My biggest point is that a lot of times if you fail to properly cover a community, it's the fault of your own imagination and your own limitations, and it's not necessarily because you're white or black or Asian or Hispanic or otherwise."
Tolson says diversity audits have value "because they ask us to look at ourselves and look at the content. Now, to go beyond that and say we want 'X' percentage of stories to be about this, that and the other thing, would be imposing a rigidity that nobody wants ... to the contrary, everybody's saying, 'Oh God, no, what a nightmare.'"
As for Metz's use of Tolson's work to solicit criticism from outside, Tolson says "of course it bothered me. Somebody who was a fellow employee being paid by the same employer as you is sending out your work inviting disparaging comments. ... nobody in their right mind would appreciate something like that. I wouldn't do it."
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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