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NABJ Special Commentary: The Case for Diversity at CNN, A Closed One?

Thursday, April 11, 2013  
Posted by: Tiane Johnson
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NABJ Special Commentary

The Case for Diversity at CNN, A Closed One?

                        Joel Dreyfuss
                  NABJ Founding Member


Jeff Zucker’s tenure at CNN will be a test case for diversity – in a negative way. Clearly it’s not a priority for him, at least when it comes to blacks and Hispanics. Can he build a base with an overwhelmingly-white team (and a couple of South Asians), as the faces of CNN? Clearly, he must think so. If he is able to lift ratings without reflecting the America that just re-elected Obama, it will reinforce those who want to believe that diversity is not essential for success.

NABJ and others have spent years making the argument that diversity is a good business strategy but I’ve always doubted that most of the owners of mass media have bought into it. They wanted a diversity of readers/viewers/consumers but they didn’t think that having a diversity of editors, anchors and reporters was necessary; at least their practices speak louder than their pronouncements. We’ve seen a decimation of the number of journalists of color as media organizations cut costs. This reflects a sense that those journalists were not viewed as essential to the pared-down mission, even if it reduced the quality of coverage.

In television, on-air talent, which is primarily what we’ve been talking about, involves a lot of intangibles that have nothing to do with journalism – a sense of authority, likeability to a broad audience and credibility.

Clearly, CNN has not been very good at finding people who meet those criteria, no matter what color. But finding people of color who carry these traits requires an openness to the reality that people of color exist who have those attributes and, again, that they are essential to the mission. It was interesting to read Paul Farhi’s piece in the Washington Post this week that described the complexity of Zucker’s task but never mentioned diversity as an issue. At least you know what the mainstream thinks.

From my perch in Paris these last few months, I’ve only had access to CNN International. There is more diversity on this global version of CNN, but ironically, there is a sameness – almost everybody speaks with a British or Australian accent. Somebody at CNN has decided that a British accent is more authoritative than an American one and CNN often sounds more British than BBC – which also has Irish and Scottish and even straight-up American accents on the air. The only really diverse international news channel is Al Jazeera English, which offers a broad range of colors and accents on the screen – and, by the way, does some outstanding and original reporting day after day. Let’s hope it doesn’t discard that approach in chasing after the American audience.


Joel Dreyfuss is a prominent journalist, editor, and writer. He is a founding member of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), an advocacy group established in 1975 in Washington, D.C. NABJ is the largest organization for journalists of color in the nation, and provides career development as well as educational and other support to its members worldwide. For more information, please visit


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