WASHINGTON — When the first black president of the United States walked into the White House press room to talk about Trayvon Martin and the complexities of race in America last Friday, the people poised to convey his remarks to the world were overwhelmingly of one race — white.
At a time when one of the most contentious subjects in Washington is immigration reform — an issue of great import to many Hispanics — the people questioning the president on a regular basis are unlikely to be Hispanic themselves.
But does that matter?
The mainstream news media have always been disproportionately populated by white journalists. In 2012, according to the American Society of News Editors' most recent annual survey, 12.4 percent of 38,000 newspaper journalists were racial minorities. The figure for TV journalists was 21.5 percent, and for radio it was 11.7 percent, according to the Radio Television Digital News Association. These figures haven't changed much even as the nation's minority population has increased to about 37 percent of the total, the U.S. Census Bureau says. Among the small but influential subset of reporters who cover the White House — arguably the most prestigious beat in American journalism — the numbers are roughly the same.
Of the 53 correspondents who regularly report from the White House, seven are African American or Asian American, according to head counts by a dozen White House correspondents, journalism organizations and other sources (figures on other minorities aren't available). "There are just so few," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University political scientist who has kept detailed tallies on participants in White House news conferences for decades.
The numbers haven't budged over decades, and may in fact have declined over time, according to George Condon, a National Journal reporter who has been researching the history of the White House Correspondents' Association (WHCA), a group that represents reporters in coverage-related issues with the administration. One measure of the group's minimal diversity: Only three African Americans have ever served on the WHCA's board during its 99-year history, Condon said.
Given the symbolic nature of the job, the largely unchanging face of the White House media pool has long been a disappointment to organizations that represent minority journalists. In a somewhat ironic twist, "there was a noticeable drop" in the number of black journalists covering Obama after his first election in 2008, said Gregory Lee, the president of the National Association of Black Journalists. The current situation, he said, "simply does not reflect the America we see changing on a daily basis."
Condon, a journalist in Washington for 31 years, offers a mixed assessment of whether race makes a difference in how the presidency and the issues surrounding it are portrayed: "You don't have to be Protestant to write about a Catholic president or Polish to cover Lech Walesa and Solidarity. People here are awfully good reporters. They cover lots of things that aren't in their backgrounds."
To be sure, reporters of every background haven't been shy about questioning Obama and his administration about every subject under the sun, including those of special interest to minority groups.
But at the same time, Condon acknowledges that a reporter's racial heritage can influence his or her priorities and perspectives and the kinds of questions that get asked at the White House. He notes that April Ryan — an African American who reports for the American Urban Radio Networks — is "often asking questions that someone else would not ask."
A 16-year veteran of the White House beat, Ryan has frequently peppered officials with questions about poverty, race, education and other issues that aren't always at the top of other reporters' agendas. She pressed several administrations, for example, about stalled payments to 90,000 black farmers who had won a $1.2 billion judgment against the Department of Agriculture for discrimination in its farm lending programs. She also scored a rare interview with Obama during his recent trip to Africa.
In an interview outside the White House press room, Ryan said her background, as well as her news organization's primary audience of African Americans, does affect the way she approaches her job. "You are the sum of your experiences," she said. "You might be able to shed more light on things that others ignore as a result of your cultural background."
She adds: "When you look around that [press] room, you don't see an audience that looks like the country. It's changing — there are more women — but white males dominate. It's still not America you see there."
Richard Prince, who writes Journal-isms, a blog about diversity issues in the news media, says the complexion of the White House press corps is important because of the subtle but important role journalists play in shaping the president's agenda. "The White House is quite conscious of which reporters are present, and the president tailors his conduct accordingly," says Prince. "He knows that so-and-so is likely to ask a question about a given topic. [So] having more people of color in the room means more opportunities for the president to be asked about topics of particular concern to those constituents."
Prince points to Obama's revealing interview with the Univision network during the 2012 campaign during which anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas pressed him on his promise to pass immigration reform during his first year in office. The tough questioning eventually yielded a newsworthy admission: "I think that I've learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson I've learned is that you can't change Washington from the inside," Obama said. "You can only change it from the outside."
The relative lack of minority journalists working at the White House may reflect a combination of self-selection and discriminatory hiring and promotion, says Doris Truong, a Washington Post editor who is the acting president of Unity: Journalists for Diversity, an umbrella organization for minority journalism groups. Often, she said, minority journalists don't "put themselves on the trajectory" that leads to the White House beat. But just as often, she said, those making hiring decisions hire people they "identify with." Said Truong: "If you only hire people who look like you, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."
But economics may play a role, too, particularly among news outlets serving minority audiences, said Kumar of Towson University.
During the Carter administration, she said, newspapers aimed at African American readers, such as the Chicago Defender and Amsterdam News, employed regular White House correspondents. But these publications have pulled back. Similarly, "black" news organizations such as BET and Jet, which covered Obama on the campaign trail, haven't made a permanent commitment.
Kumar notes that such a manpower investment might not yield much since new arrivals literally take a back seat in the White House press room and thus rarely have a chance to ask questions during news briefings. In a rigidly hierarchical structure, the reporters who sit in the first two rows of the seven-row room tend to get called on the most by the press secretary or the president. Those seats are reserved for reporters from the biggest and oldest news organizations, primarily the TV networks and major newspapers, including The Washington Post.