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Wednesday, July 7, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Airing Differences Kept Minority Journalists On Track To Unity '99

Seattle Times Staff Reporters

A convention opening today that's being billed as the largest gathering of journalists in history almost never made it to Seattle.

A year ago, the anti-affirmative-action movement in Washington state sent ripples of discord through the membership of the group known as Unity, a coalition representing journalists from different ethnic groups.

The heated debate that led up to this week's convention of 5,000 journalists highlighted both the differences and the commonalities shared by four groups belonging to Unity: associations of African-American, Hispanic-American, Asian-American and Native American journalists.

These groups discovered - sometimes painfully - that simply being minority doesn't always mean seeing eye to eye.

Some African-American journalists, deeply committed to affirmative action, said the conference should move from Seattle. Members of other groups, on the other hand, expressed doubts about the value of affirmative action. And some Native Americans said breaking the agreement to come to Seattle could be the same thing as a broken treaty.

Differences became bitter enough that some Unity members chose to stay home.

But in the end, honesty and openness led to respect, say leaders, who predict Unity will survive to meet again in five years. The affirmative-action debate, they believe, provided a valuable lesson - perhaps a model - for the nation's diverse democracy, as people with dramatically different interests worked to find common ground.

Sharp disagreements

Common ground is exactly where Unity began a decade ago. It's a coalition organized by journalists of color committed to promoting more diversity in newsrooms and more and better media coverage of minority communities and their members.

Gathering for the group's first convention in 1994, Unity members were intent on ridding the media of what they saw as an overuse of labels such as "illegal alien" and coverage of minorities in negative ways, primarily as perpetrators or victims of crime.

Once together, however, they found they disagreed sharply about some of the most important issues facing minority communities.

Affirmative action was one. How to deal with a state that voted it down was another. Like the rest of society, members of Unity have had their own disagreements: Should the Makah Indian Tribe be allowed to hunt whales? Could a white gay person claim to have been subjected to the same discrimination as a person of color?

Underlying some of these discussions has been an uncomfortable weighing of oppression: Which group has suffered most?

"When it got down to it, all the talk of brotherhood and being one and the `Kumbaya' stuff was wonderful, but the reality of it is we as different minority organizations have different agendas and different needs," said Al Hunter Jr., president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and an entertainment writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Members of the groups say tension still lingers from the debate on whether to hold the Unity '99 convention in Seattle.

Some black members, such as Hunter, have stuck to their pledge to boycott the gathering. And now, renewed requests to Unity for recognition from a gay and lesbian journalists' group is adding a new layer of stress as leaders work through a different sort of civil-rights debate.

Those who have watched Unity closely say such divisions are not surprising.

"It's illogical to expect such an incredibly disparate group of people to come together without differences," said Keith Woods, a director for the Poynter Institute's Ethics and Diversity Program.

The Ford Foundation, with a $500,000 grant invested in Unity, watched the debate carefully. But Jon Funabiki, a program officer who made the recommendation to fund the organization, said he was impressed that Unity members, even while arguing with one another, always kept one eye focused on keeping the coalition together.

Critical challenge

Preserving the coalition was critical because of the challenge they face, many minority journalists believe.

Today, 40 percent of newspapers don't have any nonwhites on staff.

Overall, nonwhites make up 11.5 percent of newspaper staffs, and 20 percent of the television-news industry. In most newsrooms, people of color make up a smaller percentage than they do in the nation at large, where they total 26 percent of the population. (In The Seattle Times newsroom, nonwhites make up about 23 percent of the professional staff.)

And even this issue can be divisive, Woods said.

"I believe that the fear among many people of color is that the industry and individual organizations regard them as interchangeable parts: `If I have a Latino, I have my diversity covered,' and a black person or Asian person is sitting over there saying, `What about me?' "

The goal is not simply adding numbers, Woods said. "It's about trying to get more of the truth told, more neighborhoods covered, more issues analyzed more thoroughly. In the end, it's about pushing journalists to produce more honest, fair and more truthful journalism."

Sidetracked by debate

That lofty goal was temporarily sidetracked in the heat of last year's affirmative-action debate.

It began when several black journalists argued to move the convention from Washington, where voters last fall passed Initiative 200, abolishing government race and gender preferences.

The disagreement soon became cultural.

Blacks argued with Native Americans, later backed by Hispanics, who said they didn't want the organization to pay penalties for wriggling out of a pricey hotel contract.

Native Americans also argued that breaking an agreement was a sensitive issue for a people who have faced a history of broken treaties and promises.

And members of several groups questioned whether journalists, who strive for objectivity, should be voicing opinions on affirmative action at all.

The disagreement was familiar: When Unity convened for the first time in Atlanta, in 1994, Native Americans were leery of meeting in a region with a baseball mascot they find offensive and a history of brutality against their people. They went anyway, but some Native Americans are still smarting from one incident, when members of other groups talked about going to an Atlanta Braves game during the '94 convention.

Paul DeMain, managing editor of News from Indian Country, a privately owned national publication in Hayward, Wis., said cultural styles determined the course of action in both cases. Native Americans tend to confront opponents directly, he said, while blacks are more inclined to organize in a broader protest such as a boycott.

"We wanted to go to Seattle because that's where the battle is," said DeMain, who represents the Native American group on the Unity board.

Boosted by election figures in November that showed King County voters had rejected the state measure to roll back affirmative action, the groups eventually voted to go forward with plans for this week's convention.

Varied agenda

Unity members will wrestle with affirmative action, pitting pro against con in panels such as "Balance or Bias: Affirmative Action in the News Media." They will also discuss studies on the media's negative representation of minorities, and related issues.

Scheduled speakers for the event include Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley, who are both presidential candidates; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of PUSH/Rainbow Coalition; and Gov. Gary Locke.

In addition, the convention is a massive job fair drawing as many as 300 recruiters from large and small media outlets. Some are sponsoring elaborate receptions - The New York Times has rented the Grand Atrium in the Washington Mutual building for a private affair. The Unity convention is also a huge social event with poetry readings and musical performances, one pairing Asian and Hispanic groups for a karaoke and salsa dance.

Unity members plan to circulate 100,000 or more $2 bills as a "sign of visible impact in support of affirmative action and sensitivity to other cultures," one organizer said.

A learning experience

Most of the journalists now describe the affirmative-action debate as a learning experience, a growth process. It was, one said, a "gut-level," reality-based meeting of the minds that forced them to recognize and accept one another's differences.

The members of minority groups have learned that in addition to differing opinions and methods of handling issues that affect minorities, they also have unique goals and cultural issues.

-- Black journalists, the largest group represented by Unity, are focused on retaining and promoting African Americans in the media industries. Their goal is to have a voice in key decisions such as hiring and in determining the content of the front page or top news broadcast.

"We want to make sure stories aren't inaccurate, stereotypical, biased and simplistic in terms of covering our community," said Vanessa Williams, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, who is also a government reporter for The Washington Post.

-- Hispanic journalists worry their community isn't being represented in the media because of language barriers. Immigration, citizenship, school-dropout rates and other stories affecting the Hispanic community often go uncovered, said Gilbert Bailon, a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists who represents the group on the Unity board.

"I believe that to cover the community, you have to have someone who has a knowledge of the community and can speak the language," said Bailon, also the executive editor of The Dallas Morning News.

-- Asian journalists struggle with being the "invisible minority," said Catalina Camia, president of the Asian American Journalists Association and Unity president.

"When people talk about diversity, they sometimes frame the debate in black and white or in the black-white-Hispanic paradigm," said Camia, a Washington correspondent for The Dallas Morning News. Asian Americans, one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in this country, are underrepresented in newsrooms and lack management positions, she said.

-- Native American journalists, on the other hand, are facing censorship issues. Many work in tribal media operations controlled by tribal governments that don't like negative news. In some cases, editors who want to keep their jobs might censor themselves and jeopardize the telling of the truth. Also, Native American media members are concerned about tribal rights, said Kara Briggs, president of the Native American Journalists Association and Unity secretary.

"The status of our tribes is fundamental to us in the way that affirmative action is fundamental to people of color and white women and people with disabilities," said Briggs, who covers immigrant and religious communities for The Oregonian in Portland.

While each group has unique interests, all say they face similar issues of discrimination and stereotyping - sometimes from members of other minority groups.

"People of color can also be racist homophobes, small-minded about people who are different from us," said Rose Marie Arce, a board member of both the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Lesbian Gay Journalists Association and a CNN producer from New York.

Working together gets results, Arce believes. For example, when a New York newspaper recently ran editorial cartoons that Asians found insulting, other ethnic groups jumped in to complain as well.

"That wouldn't have happened years ago," Arce said. "We understand now that it's happening to all of us."

Gays felt left out

In some ways, though, that shared spirit makes it even harder for gay journalists, who wonder why Unity won't officially recognize their struggles.

In 1994 the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association sought to ally with the four Unity groups but was rejected. Members of the gay group were "taken aback," said the group's founder, Roy Aarons, a visiting professor at the University of Southern California, but have come to understand that Unity's mission is to represent journalists of color.

Aarons is troubled that the coalition has changed its formal name to "Unity: Journalists of Color Inc." He has prepared material to pass out at the convention questioning whether this "sends a signal that might discourage hopes of there ever being a merger."

But at least for now, Aarons and other gay journalists have backed down from trying to align with the four Unity groups. Instead, they are asking Unity officials to create a partnership with them to boost the fight against discrimination.

Camia, the Unity president, says the board plans to take up the issue at its September meeting.

A "painful" journey

In her column on the Unity Web site, Camia alludes to the "painful" journey taken by this unique coalition.

She and others point out that despite the cultural differences and disagreements Unity has faced, the organization didn't stall out. It got to Seattle, more or less intact, holding firm to its values of respect for differing voices and its goal of changing the way news organizations cover and depict minority communities.

"I think how we worked through it all is a real working model for the nation," said Briggs, of the Native American journalists group. "The nation is looking for a salve to its racial divisions, a rousing chorus of `We Are the World,' but in fact, we're very different people."

Unity successfully got them all sitting down and talking openly about why they were thinking the way they were, Briggs said.

"We forced ourselves to examine our values at a real gut level. We came to respect each other more because we were able to share."

And that's not to be underestimated, Briggs believes:

"We're a working model for how communities will work together in the future, sharing power, talking through differences and making strides for community."

Dionne Searcey's phone message number is 360-236-8268. Her e-mail address is dsearcey@seattletimes.com

Carol M. Ostrom's phone message number is 206-464-2249. Her e-mail address is costrom@seattletimes.com

------------------ Five days of Unity ------------------

The Unity '99 convention will include five days of meetings and panels on civil rights in the media industry, professional training, and minority hiring. Most sessions are open only to those registered for the convention.

Information is available on Unity's Web site: www.unity99.org.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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