In avoidable error, CBS takes heat for the lack of black voices on its campaign team
Executives at CBS News hoping to commemorate the newly minted “boots on the ground” team of reporters and producers handpicked to cover the 2020 presidential campaign, instead drew withering attacks over the weekend because none among the announced eight-member team journalists or quartet of producers were black Americans.
A broad array of media observers — including a prominent member of the U.S. House of Representatives — rightfully complained that CBS’s failure to include any African Americans among its core campaign staff didn’t bode well for comprehensive coverage of the racial issues that are almost certain to arise during the 2020 campaign. In particular, it seems likely that there could be a number of black candidates that figure prominently among the large and diverse group seeking the Democratic nomination.
Last week, one white journalist covering Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) — who is expected to join the Democratic presidential primary fray — suffered a humbling moment when her lack of facility with black Greek letter organizations created a firestorm on Twitter, after she referred to the celebrated “skee-wee” call of Harris’ Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. sisters as a “screech.” As The Root’s Michael Harriott opined, the incident was a prime example of why “we need more black journalists.”
Beyond that, such an oversight is all the more glaring because President Donald Trump built his successful 2016 presidential run by appealing to voters with racist themes — a tactic he is widely expected to return to in his reelection bid. What’s more, issues related to suppression of black voters figured prominently in the 2016 campaign and may well reappear in the next presidential voting cycle.
Christopher Isham, CBS News’ Washington bureau chief, said in an news release announcing the appointments that the journalists formed the network’s “boots on the ground for the 2019-2020 election cycle.” The so-called “political embed unit” is a prestigious role among political journalists because they travel with the various candidates, develop deep sources among staffers, and are likely to rise in stature and visibility as various candidates run the cross-country maze of primary and general election campaigns.
While CBS officials said other journalists would be announced later as on-air correspondents for the campaigns, it acknowledged no African-American reporters were among this first set of staffers. Among the eight reporters and four producers, four are persons of color: Musadiq Bidar, a native of Afghanistan, Alex Tin, Jack Turman and Stephanie Ramirez.
CBS’s failure to include any black journalists among this elite corps drew attacks after associate producer Ben Mitchell tweeted his pride over the network’s announcement.
— Ben Mitchell (@bfmitchell) January 11, 2019
Expressing dismay that CBS News didn’t staff its campaign team with an awareness that race would be a big-issue feature of the upcoming political season, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), denounced CBS News in a weekend tweestorm, calling the staffing “Unacceptable in 2019.”
This WH admin has made having a functional understanding of race in America one of the most important core competencies for a political journalist to have, yet @CBSNews hasn’t assigned a *single* black journalist to cover the 2020 election.
Unacceptable in 2019. Try again. https://t.co/h7tmiBr9Fi
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 13, 2019
Due to Ocasio-Cortez’s huge Twitter base — she has more than 2.3 million followers — and the knee-jerk opposition she engenders among right-wingers, the freshman congresswoman’s comments drew immediate responses, which in turn brought greater attention to the CBS decision.
People are dragging CBS for not having enough black people, but has anyone considered the obvious explanation that many black people have no interest in journalism? Cultures are different and value different things. Doesn’t make CBS the KKK.
— Jesse Kelly (@JesseKellyDC) January 13, 2019
Naturally, there was quite a bit of disdain over CBS’s decision from black journalists who have long complained about being shut out of prominent roles in the industry.
This is a disgrace. And you’re proud?
— roxane gay (@rgay) January 13, 2019
To be sure, the campaign for the White House 2020 is just getting started and there’s ample room for the news outlets to gear up properly. And as CBS News noted in an earlier news release, its Washington news desk operations are headed by Lorna Jones, who is African-American. Nevertheless, in terms of getting off to a grand start of a campaign season that will require the perspectives of black journalists to make it fully scrutable, CBS failed to impress or persuade a large bloc of its viewers that it has the chops to recognize — let alone cover — an important part of this national story.