On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In 1961, Dorothy Butler Gilliam walked into the newsroom of the Washington Post as the newspaper’s first black woman reporter. As a reporter, editor and columnist, she paved the way for other journalists of color and worked to diversify newsrooms as the president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Gilliam chronicles her career in her new memoir, “Trailblazer.”
Now, nearly six decades later, what is the landscape of black reporters covering local news? A number of media organizations, including the Washington Post, have recently come under fire for their lack of black reporters, as well as their insensitivity or ignorance of people of color. What has changed since the start of Gilliam’s career? And how can newsrooms better reflect the communities they cover?
Kojo sits down with Gilliam to talk about her memoir, and with local journalist Christina Sturdivant Stani to discuss her recent reporting on diversity in local media.
Produced by Ruth Tam
- Dorothy Butler Gilliam Author, "Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist's Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America"; @DorothyBGilliam
- Christina Sturdivant Sani Journalist, "The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local D.C. News" (Washington City Paper)
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. In 1961, Dorothy Butler-Gilliam walked into the newsroom of the Washington Post as the newspaper's first black woman reporter. In that role, and later as an editor and columnist, she paved the way for other journalists of color and worked to diversify newsrooms beyond the Washington Post. She writes about all of this in her new memoir, "Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist's Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America." Dorothy Gilliam joins me now. Thank you so much for being here.
DOROTHY BUTLER GILLIAMThank you, Kojo. It's a pleasure to join you.
NNAMDIWhen you first started at the Post, were you Dorothy Gilliam yet, or were you still Dorothy Butler?
GILLIAMI was Dorothy Butler.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought. You didn't get married to Sam Gilliam until later.
NNAMDIYou also attended Columbia University and one of your professors told you, you've got so many handicaps you'll probably make it. What did you think he meant by that? Did it hurt you? Did it motivate you?
GILLIAMIt both hurt and motivated me, because handicaps are -- how can a physical being be a handicap? But he knew enough about America and about, you know, the white supremacist system. And as a young black woman trying to go into daily journalism, he knew the issues I would face.
NNAMDIAnd so, clearly, it also motivated you. He was right. You made it (laugh).
GILLIAMYes, yes. I persevered.
NNAMDIDorothy, earlier on you were a general assignment reporter. You were self conscious about being a black reporter who covered black stories. Why did you want to avoid that?
GILLIAMI think it was the early sixties and Martin Luther King and all of the leaders were telling young black people like me -- I was 24 years old -- to go into these white corporations and make a difference. And I naively thought, you know, to focus on black stories was going to stereotype me. And, you know, I changed that very quickly.
NNAMDIYeah, we'll talk about that, too, because at the same time, you write that you wanted to bring a black female perspective that was missing from daily newspapers. What was coverage missing at the time? Where did you think it fell short?
GILLIAMIn the early 1960s, there was almost nothing in newspapers about black people. There would be stories about, you know, poverty or welfare. And there were good writers, but there were not the deeper look at black people who were in all kinds of jobs, all kind of occupations, people who had contributed so much to America. And it was that push that really followed me much of my life.
NNAMDIThe people you had been seeing around you your entire life not being reflected in the newspapers.
NNAMDISo, how did your approach to writing quote-unquote "black stories" change over time?
GILLIAMWell, fortunately, I had an opportunity to return to the Post, not as a reporter, but as an editor. And I became an assistant editor of the style section. And one of the things I did, in a very forceful way, was to try to find good reporters who could go out and write these stories. I stole Jackie Trescott from the Washington Star.
GILLIAMKaren DeWitt, Joel Dreyfuss. We got him from New York. But people we knew who would bring a depth of knowledge. Howie (sounds like) West was already there.
NNAMDIOne of my favorites.
GILLIAMYes. And he was writing marvelous stories about intellectuals, about musicians. And so we were very consciously trying to show to a white public that it had almost no knowledge and no deep information. I think, you know, so much of what they knew about African Americans and black people were stereotypes. And so we were trying to help, you know, turn things around.
NNAMDIAnd it seems to me that, as I read the book, at one point you overheard, I think, an editor make a disparaging comment about what the style section was beginning to look like as a result of your and other's efforts.
GILLIAMYes. I heard an editor say, the style section was beginning to look like the Afro-American. And I thought that was pretty good, but that was not shared. And, you know, even back in the 1960s, I overhead an old editor who said, we don't write about black deaths. They're just cheap murders. And, you know, those are things that just pierce your heart. And they really -- you want to make a difference, and I think we were able to help do that.
NNAMDIRacism got in the way of you being able to do basic things on the job when you first were a reporter. Tell us a little bit about how you experienced prejudice while on assignment.
GILLIAMFirst of all, Washington, DC was a very, very segregated city in 1961. And there were not many black people who were really working downtown. I would have to go out and catch a cab, go to my assignment, come back. And time was of the essence, because it was going to be in the paper the next day, most of the time. Trying to get a cab was so difficult. They would kind of pull over because I would be standing at the corner near the Post, and they'd see my brown face and, you know, hit the accelerator. And I just -- it was so frustrating. But I knew that I couldn't stop.
GILLIAMOne of the things that helped me was that when I went to an undergraduate school, a Catholic women's college for a couple of years, I learned something called Gregg shorthand. So, I would -- after I got my story and time was racing, I would stand there hailing a cab and writing my story in shorthand, so that when I got to the office, I could hopefully product that on time.
NNAMDIBecause it took a long time to hail that cab, and went on for decades, because I remember the 1980s, the late former DC Council Chairman John Wilson telling me that he started wearing suits and ties so he could catch cabs in the District of Columbia.
GILLIAMAnd, you know, even today, I think many African American men, in particular, have to wear ties if they're going to get a taxicab in cities like New York.
NNAMDIBut you never mentioned these troubles to your editor or to your colleagues. Why not?
GILLIAMBecause I knew that it would be more difficult for the next black woman to be hired. It would have -- I could almost hear the words that, we can't hire them because the cabs won't pick them up. It's not our fault because we stepped forward and we hired them, but, you know, we don't control the taxicabs. We don't control, you know, the restaurants that don't -- won't serve her. And so it just -- and I just think that in our growing up and our families and all of that, they gave us so many internal resources. And, you know, it was kind of in our DNA to persevere.
NNAMDIEarly in your book, you bring up the subject of objectivity, which has been hotly debated regarding today's recent media landscape. And you cover something like racism. People argue there are two sides to the issue. How did you view objectivity during your time at the post? How did you cover injustice, and at the same time, not tell your readers what you thought about it?
GILLIAMWell, Columbia University worked very hard to instill in us the importance of what I call neutrality. That is -- I don't think anybody can every be totally objective. Somewhere, you know, you have a heart, as well as a mind. But to tell both sides of the story, to work hard to get individuals from all perspectives and to reflect those individual perceptions in the story, to me, that is the most important thing about racial diversity and about why media always need racial diversity.
NNAMDIIn 1967 a government advisory board called Kerner Commission said that media outlets needed to expand their coverage of Black Americans and race. In what ways do you think the industry has done that, and you write that at a time when the nation is more diverse than ever, the media overall is sliding backward, where diversity is concerned.
GILLIAMYes. The Kerner Commission report occurred after the rebellions in the cities, after what many people called the riot. And they made the newspaper industry, you know, complicit in the fact that the rioting occurred because they said, you don't have enough black reporters, you don't have enough black editors. You are letting your readers see the world only through white eyes. So, my concern after that was, you know, how do we turn this around? How do we change this? And we took action, black reporters. We sued just as women reporters sued.
NNAMDIIt was the Metro Seven at the Washington Post, and it started as the Metro Eight in 1968, right?
GILLIAMThat's correct. And we also organized the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. There were eight of us, a small interracial band. And we trained young people to go into small newspapers around the country. So, I think when I look today and I see that not only are the numbers sliding down, we don't have as much racial representation -- especially in the legacy media, the newspapers -- that is very problematic to me.
GILLIAMAnd then when you add to that equation, you know, the very negative thing of a president who talks about fake news, who calls the news media the enemy of the people, you know, these are things that are really troubling, but more than that, they weaken democracy. And they weaken democracy not only in America, but internationally, because, you know, America has always been this bastion of democracy. We know that democracy has served some groups more than others, but we know still the value of freedom of the press. We know the value of, you know, what this nation stands for. And I am deeply troubled right now.
NNAMDIDorothy Gilliam. She's the author of "Trailblazer." She was the first black woman reporter at the Washington Post. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, you'll meet a local black reporter who is navigating that trail that Dorothy Gilliam (laugh) helped to blaze many years ago. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're still talking with Dorothy Butler-Gilliam, author of "Trailblazer." She was the first black woman reporter at the Washington Post. Joining us in studio now is Christina Sturdivant Sani. She is a local journalist. She wrote a Washington City Paper article titled "The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local DC News." Christina, welcome. Thank you for joining us.
CHRISTINA STURDIVANT SANIThank you for having me.
NNAMDIIn your piece for the City Paper, you wrote that you're proud to report on local news, and, at the same time, frustrated by your industry. Why?
SANIWell, I've always wanted to be a journalist. All I could do was write when I was younger. I wasn't good at anything else, so I'm happy to be in a career field that I've always wanted to be in. And as a DC native, I've got an opportunity to write about my community. And I feel like I've become, like, the voice of my community, of where I grew up in River Terrace in Ward 7 in DC. So, it means a lot to me writing about DC local news. But at the same time, I feel like there aren't enough black journalists like myself writing about local news in a city that's 47 percent black. Even though the black population is declining, we're still the majority, and I feel like there should be more black journalists reporting stories about natives and about the black community that often get overlooked.
NNAMDIIn many ways, working as a journalist of color has improved since Dorothy first started at the Post. But what challenges have you faced as a black reporter in white newsrooms?
SANIWell, my experience being a black reporter in a white newsroom was when I was at DCist for two years, we had a small team. It was just three of us, myself and my two white colleagues. And that was the first time I was in an office space as a minority. And, I don't know, like, I was hired to report the news, obviously, but sometimes I would just fill the -- maybe I was given, you know, the black story because of my race, and then also feeling like I should be responsible for telling those stories, because I'm black. Because maybe -- my coworkers were truly capable and they were great reporters, but maybe I can add something to it that, you know, they couldn't add to it.
SANIAnd at the same time, there was a period when I was working there where it seemed like every week, there were, like, nooses hung around the city, and then there was about police brutality, and I was writing about that. And I just had nobody to turn to, like talk to about it. And it was just really frustrating.
NNAMDIWe should note that DCist is a website that was bought by WAMU in 2018, and is just down the hall from where I sit (laugh) at this point.
NNAMDIAnd they spend way too much time coming to ask me about stories. No, but we do consult quite a bit. I do consult quite a bit with the reporters on DCist about stories in the city, of all kinds. In my case it's because I've been around a long time, and so they think that I have a certain institutional knowledge, like Dorothy Gilliam would have. But, Dorothy, how do you find Christina's issues comparing with the ones you had, going back to 1961?
GILLIAMWell, they sound very familiar, except that I was a lone black woman in an ocean of white men, and not even that many women, because even at that point, there was a separate women's section of the newspaper. I worked for the City Desk. But it is very, very important to write more about African Americans, and to have more people doing that. I think, for example, the number of black deaths in certain neighborhoods, we need to know more about that. We need to know about, you know, the grieving families that are left behind.
GILLIAMIt basically sends a very negative message to the black population that, you know, you're not important enough to write about. And I think that has been -- that perception of African Americans as being giving very involved and contributing to the society is something we are trying to change. And you can't do that if you're not really reflecting what's going on in all communities and trying to cover them deeply. I think -- do you find sometimes that the white reporters are fearful? What do you see is their reason for not wanting to cover some of the stories?
SANII don't think they're fearful. I hope that they're not fearful, although a lot of people in DC, in general, are fearful to go east of the Anacostia River. But I think maybe they just aren't as aware, like they don't have an understanding of the black community. They don't know the nuances, and so there are certain parts of the story that they just might miss.
NNAMDIYou make it clear in your piece that the way you felt at DCist is not unique of that outlet. You write about how a number of editorial staffs covering local Washington could stand to include more black reporters and reflect the communities they cover. In your experience, explain how that makes coverage better.
SANII just feel like the more representation that we have of all groups of people, the more solid the coverage would be. Even, for example, we talk a lot about -- like I write a lot about food deserts, whether it's, like, restaurants or grocery stores, because I grew up in that community when there were no grocery stores, no restaurants and things like that. And it's important to tell those stories. But also, when I was at the Afro American newspaper as a reporter, I had a black-owned business column, and so I was able to tell -- like highlight black-owned businesses that otherwise, you know, their stories wouldn't be told.
SANISo, the more of us out there, not only can we talk about the shootings and the killings and things like that, but we can talk about, you know, the positive stories that happen in our community that also don't get heard.
GILLIAMYeah. I think another reason that's so important is that we must learn more about each other, you know, and we must have those stories told. There's so many misconceptions on the part of whites about blacks, or there are misconceptions and lack of knowledge of blacks in terms of whites. So, it really contributes -- we're in a very polarized society now, a very racially polarized society. And I think there is a very important -- it is a very important time when African Americans can make such a difference. And we do need to communicate. We need to understand each other. So, to me, it's a crucial time for that to happen.
NNAMDIDorothy, correct me if I'm wrong, but it is my recollection that when you became president of the National Association of Black Journalists, there was a unity convention over which you provided, that included the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and the National Association of Native American Journalists. Is that correct?
GILLIAMThat is correct. In 1994, the National Association of Black Journalists, Asian American Journalists, Native American Journalists and Hispanic Journalists, we came together and had this great unity convention. But I think one of the things -- as one of the people who was helping to put this convention on, one of the things that struck me was the fact that there was so little knowledge of some black people of the Latino community. So, there were stereotypes that they held.
GILLIAMAnd one of the things that I was grateful that I was able to do was to get a grant and to bring a facilitator in to work with all the leaders of these organizations, so that some of the hostilities, etcetera, that they were feeling could be worked out, and they could be overseen by somebody who could help them get to the real issues. I think the issue is: what do you have in common? You know, there's so many thing that you'll never understand about other people, but you work from what you have in common. And the more we're able to share that in the newspaper, and all of this, the more we're able to accomplish.
NNAMDIChristina, what kind of feedback did you get after publishing your piece?
SANIIf social media's any indication of, you know, feedback, there were a lot of shares, there were a lot of retweets and things like that. And a lot of journalists from across the country, not just DC, reached out to me and said that, you know, they could relate. One local journalist told me she cried when she read the story, which, like, really touched me. But I think the most impactful thing was a sixth grade all-girls journalism teacher at a middle school in DC reached out to me. And she had her students read my very long article over the course of two days. And...
NNAMDIFor sixth graders, anyway, yes.
SANIYeah, for sixth graders. And so they read my article. They had to answer some questions. They dissected it, and then I was able to come into the classroom and, like, talk to them about journalism and answer a bunch of questions that they had. And, also, a high school teacher reached out to me, and I'll be speaking there later. So, I think just the opportunity they give back and, you know, talk about journalism to younger students is really the most impactful thing.
NNAMDIYour piece focused largely on hiring, but what happens once black reporters are brought on staff, like Dorothy was? Things were not easy for her, and you did have some difficulty yourself. What's the difference between being hired and actually feeling included, supported and valued? This question is for both of you.
SANII feel like so when Ms. Gilliam, like back in that time period, there was a lot of just overt racism, right. But today, it might not be as overt, and so we have in our minds that, you know -- and I really, really like my coworkers. We were, like, genuine friends, but there were also some things that I was still uncomfortable about. But because it wasn't overt racism like in the office, we didn't talk about race at all, like, amongst ourselves. And so I feel like we have to be more comfortable, as humans, to have these conversations, even though they might be difficult. Because if we would've had a conversation when I was at the publication about how I may have felt how they felt, then I think it would've been, you know, a better situation for everyone.
GILLIAMYou know, I understand exactly what she's saying. I think what needs to happen more is, you know, again, to find things that you and your co-workers have in common, and find ways that you can also take action to turn some of the issues around, you know. I think it's -- even today, as I've been on this book tour with "Trailblazers," I've had young people call me, and they said, you know, they're having the same problems that you've described. And I say to them, you know, you've got to be able to find ways to not only mute your voice, but also find a way to amplify your voice. So, it's more difficult, but it is possible, and we have to just push and insist on it. We have to keep on fighting.
NNAMDIWe got a Tweet from G.W. alum Patrick, who says, one of the more interesting things I did at G.W. was a history graphical analysis on the depiction of slave life at Mount Vernon. Dorothy Gilliam's focus and reporting for the Post was critical in pushing Mount Vernon Ladies Association to finally begin recognizing and telling that story, representation matters. And Dorothy, we don't have a great deal of time left, but that representation is what you brought when you finally were able to do a column at the Washington Post. Tell us about your focus there.
GILLIAMOne of the things -- the great things about a column was that I didn't have to go through my editors (laugh) and get approval for what I was writing. And sometimes, I would write a column and I would leave after it was over, because sometimes people wouldn't speak to you. They definitely talked about you. (laugh) One time, an editor, who shall go unnamed, came over there and he said, I like your people column, he said, but those opinion pieces, whoa, you know (laugh). And so, you know, I would have to run sometimes. After I write the column that went through, and I'd get myself armed for the next day.
NNAMDIBecause you should know Dorothy has always presented herself in this genteel manner. But when you see the columns that she wrote, you understand the fire that existed in her belly. And I guess that made just a few people uncomfortable. That's about all the time we have. Dorothy Butler-Gilliam is the author of "Trailblazer," and was the first black woman reporter at the Washington Post. I'll tell you a little bit more about what she's doing tonight, but, Dorothy Butler-Gilliam, thank you so much for joining us.
GILLIAMIt's been a pleasure.
NNAMDIIt's been a pleasure knowing you. Christina Sturdivant-Sani is a local journalist. She wrote a Washington City Paper article titled "The Reality of Being a Black Journalist Covering Local DC News." Christina, thank you so much for joining us. Good luck to you.
NNAMDIDorothy Butler-Gilliam will be presenting her book at the National Press Club tonight. You can find a link to her event at our website, KojoShow.org. Our conversation on black journalists covering local Washington was produced by Ruth Tam. Our show on the meaning of meat was produced by Monna Kashfi. Coming up tomorrow on the Politics Hour, Arlington County Board Member Eric Gutshall will join us to talk about the county's budget shortfall. Then former Virginia Republican Party Chairman John Whitbeck will discuss the Commonwealth's new redistricting plan. And Marylander Jerome Segal joins us to discuss the state's newest officially recognized party. It's called the Bread and Roses party. Jerome is its founder. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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