Kaepernick saga raises questions about the media
Locker rooms are full of black athletes, while black journalists are scarce
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers Friday, he called attention to some of the most divisive issues roiling America: race, protest, policing, patriotism. The controversy, which is ongoing, promises to be dramatic theater.
Less obvious are some of the more nuanced questions the Kaepernick story raises.
Those questions center around NFL Network reporter and analyst Steve Wyche, who broke the story. They are questions about diversity in the media. About invisibility and hiring. About how Wyche, an African-American reporter, was the only journalist to ask Kaepernick why he was sitting out the anthem, and one of the few reporters in the country with the experience to contextualize the story as part of one of the nation’s most important conversations (as opposed to a bratty, ungrateful publicity stunt). And about why there are so few other people of color in a position to do the same.
They’re questions about why the country is more brown than ever but mainstream journalism is so white, and all the stories we might be missing because of it.
Wyche was in the press box Friday night when he said a colleague, Mike Garafolo, called him to say Kaepernick wasn’t standing for the national anthem, and it wasn’t the first time. “This summer I had heard some things about Kaep getting very involved with the Black Lives Movement and how he had really started to find his public voice with some of the things that had happened to unarmed black men,” Wyche recalled. He’d also read Kaepernick’s Twitter feed where he’d been outspoken about his feelings on race and justice. “I immediately thought, OK, this could be a protest moment. He could be doing more than just taking a seat here.”
After the game, Wyche pulled Kaepernick into a hallway to ask what was going on. “That’s when he started by saying he’s not going to stand and honor a flag that represents a country he feels oppresses black people and other minorities,” said Wyche. For 10 minutes, he interviewed Kaepernick about the politics behind the protest. For another five, they talked about how Kaepernick was feeling and what he could be facing in the aftermath. The next day, Wyche published his story.
Other media outlets scrambled to catch up.
His reporting skills are why he got the story, Wyche said, but being an African-American helped him see layers of intersection. “I can’t tell you how many locker rooms I go into or how many press boxes I sit in and I’m the only black person, or one of two or three,” said Wyche, referring to the press corps. “And when I go into locker rooms, players will sometimes say, ‘Man, there are some things we want to say. But we don’t know if we can say them honestly to people who might not be able to tell the story through our prism.’ ”
This is from a report in The Atlantic on the lack of Asian American, black, Native American and Latino journalists: “In 2014, all minority groups accounted for 22.4 percent of television journalists, 13 percent of radio journalists, and 13.34 percent of journalists at daily newspapers. Pretty pathetic, considering the fact that minorities make up 37.4 percent of the U.S. population.”
According to the 2014 Associated Press Sports Editors Racial and Gender Report Card, black men make up 6.8 percent of the sports reporters at more than 100 newspapers and websites surveyed, while black women totaled about 1 percent. By contrast, a Harvard analysis finds that between 70 and 75 percent of players in the NFL, the NBA, and the WNBA are black.
At the press conference following swimmer Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal performance at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Jesse Washington, senior writer for The Undefeated, asked the 100-meter freestyle gold medalist how she felt about fielding all of those questions about being the first black female swimmer to win an individual medal.
“I think it shows the importance of having diversity among the people covering the event,” Washington told me. “Then I looked around the room.” Of the roughly 100 journalists and 30 television cameramen, “I said, ‘Wow, I think I’m the only black reporter here.’ ” He posted a video of the room on Twitter: “At Olympic press conference for only black woman to win individual swimming medal, I’m the only black journalist.” It was retweeted 3,000 times.
Wyche, who has 27 years of experience covering sports, including as a writer for the Miami Herald and the Washington Post, grew up in a white St. Louis suburb and said he can often relate to the things black players, coaches and team officials have to deal with. That’s part of the reason that he thinks Kaepernick felt comfortable opening up to him.
“I’m not saying he would not have said it to a white, Asian or Latino reporter, but I’ve known Kaep since he was a rookie,” Wyche said. “I think that comfort level that we had just by being decent to one another, but I think it’s also him knowing I could probably understand where he’s coming from. I’ve got three sons close to his age who I fear for every time they leave the house at night, so there’s a lot of things he talked about that are very, very sincere and rooted concerns that I have.”
The Wyche example belies the notion that diverse newsrooms are a luxury. In 2004, the National Association of Black Journalists met with NBC executives to question their commitment to inclusion after comments by Brian Williams, then the incoming Nightly News anchor, caused a flap. “We have bigger problems,” Williams told United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine when asked about concerns over media diversity. “Nevertheless, I am constantly interested to hear of examples in our coverage where viewers think we got it wrong in one way or another because of a skewed viewpoint.”
I’ve got examples and cautionary tales. The Kaepernick story reminded of myriad other times the mostly white media had failed to connect dots, which are black.
In 2002 at Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party, incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) lamented that the former segregationist Dixiecrat hadn’t won the presidency in 1948. My former employer, the Washington Post, was among the many prominent news organizations that initially failed to report Lott’s comments, which, when they came to light, forced his resignation. I thought a black reporter, someone with a different lens on America, likely would have seen Lott’s comments as newsworthy, and that the Post wouldn’t have gotten scooped.
When I was a young Post reporter, a black female editor assigned me a story on a young State Department official, someone she predicted was a comer. I hung out with the diplomat as she breast-fed her child, cussed, recalled a story using the N-word. That diplomat was National Security Advisor Susan Rice.
That story doesn’t happen if a high-ranking editor, someone with the power to authorize, didn’t see Rice when she was still young enough to be open and unscripted. And didn’t have a young reporter Rice might vibe with to cover her.
It’s not that race is dispositive, but it is part of a range of diverse experiences, perspectives and voices that media outlets need to have if they’re going to cover the world. (Similarly, if more newsrooms featured white editors and reporters who grew up working-class, they might not have been so flat-footed when it came to predicting how the candidacy of Donald Trump would resonate with many in white America.)
It’s the point that journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas made earlier this year when he tweeted #JournalismSoWhite, repurposing the hashtag started by April Reign to protest the lack of Hollywood diversity, to critique the newsrooms covering Hollywood – and by extension the election. And most certainly the world of sports.
It’s something Wyche thinks about a lot. “The people making decisions will hire black former players” to report on the NFL, Wyche said. “But you don’t see trained black journalists at any network hired like you see trained white journalists.” Turn on your television, and if they’re not former players, “there are very few nonwhite reporters at any network covering the NFL in a league that is more than 70 percent black.”
He said he feels fortunate to have been able to report the Kaepernick story fairly, giving the quarterback the chance to fully air his position, “and not have somebody say ‘Well, why are you reporting it this way, it’s offensive what he did.’ ” It’s the kind of authority that comes with the time and experience that young black reporters often don’t get. It’s why Wyche says he feels so much pressure to be exemplary.
“I want my employers to say, ‘You know what? Steve Wyche is pretty good. Maybe we can hire another kid from Howard’ ” or Hampton University. “It’s so much on my head all the time now because I don’t see many people like me, especially young people getting opportunities, so I’m trying to constantly prove that we can do it.”
That may be the most underreported part of the Kaepernick story.
Researcher Martenzie Johnson contributed to this report.