The worst fate of all may be to make a terrible mistake and then learn the wrong lessons from the experience.
That’s the thought I had reading a heartfelt column about the Boston Herald‘s unfortunate decision to publish a cartoon featuring a White House gate-crasher asking the nation’s first black president if he had “tried the new watermelon flavored toothpaste.”
After a two-week silence, Rachelle Cohen, the Herald‘s editor of editorial pages, offered a humble, thoughtful essay on the experience, calling her decision to approve the cartoon “dumb.” She highlighted some of the negative reactions sparked by the cartoon; including Deval Patrick, the state’s first black governor, who “snapped” at a Herald reporter asking a question involving race.
Once again, Cohen noted that neither she nor cartoonist Jerry Holbert were aware of the racial stereotypes they inadvertently invoked with the image (black people have long been stereotyped as simpletons with a fondness for watermelon; plug the terms “Obama” and “watermelon” into Google’s Image Search to see a wide array of racist pictures featuring those two items).
And she explained how a mistake in Herald procedure resulted in no other senior editors seeing the image until it was published.
It was an important, if belated, mea culpa.
But it also kinda missed much of the point.
Here’s my list of the biggest lessons the Herald should learn from Cartoongate.
Lesson #1: Staff Diversity Brings Better Journalism
The Herald didn’t participate in the most recent diversity survey implemented by the American Society of News Editors; years ago, the Knight Foundation reported 5.5 percent of the newspaper’s staff was non-white in 2003, a time when about 20 percent of the population in its circulation area was non-white.
The Herald‘s vice president of promotion and marketing didn’t respond to a phone call and emails, so I don’t know what the newspaper’s staff diversity levels are like now.
But if its past numbers haven’t changed, the Herald still has a lot of work to do. No one knows whether a black or Latino editor might have flagged the cartoon, but this incident seems to have exposed a huge blind spot in its op-ed department.
In journalism, staff diversity isn’t just about soothing hurt feelings or avoiding embarrassment; it’s a journalistic value. Few quality newspapers would shrug off conditions where they published 10 factual errors a day. So its time to realize diversity is an important a tool for delivering accuracy and context to all kinds of coverage.
Yes, the media economy is terrible. Yes, it’s tough to diversify staff anywhere, especially in a city like Boston with such a contentious history on racial issues. And it’s likely the Herald, like most other media outlets, doesn’t have the staffing it had 10 or 15 years ago.
Lesson #2: In Race and Media, History Matters
It’s not just about knowing enough American history to catch a problematic image; media outlets build reputations with their communities through their own history of coverage and focus. If a newspaper develops a track record of covering racial issues well and thoughtfully, then an occasional mistake can be seen in the proper context. But a history of missteps can work the other way.
The Herald, for example, drew protests from national organizations representing black and Hispanic journalists in 2010 when it published a cover on immigration issues featuring “NO WELFARE” stamped on a black woman’s forehead, “NO TUITION” stamped on a person who looked Latino, and “NO MEDICAID” stamped on the forehead of an Asian man. No white person was pictured on the cover.
Critics of the watermelon cartoon had a tough time believing Cohen and Holbert weren’t intentionally referencing racial stereotypes. But a past record of accurate, sensitive coverage could have earned them the benefit of the doubt.
Lesson #3: Racial Miscues Are Big News
In the past, there’s often been a pattern to race-related media controversies: a few days of outrage, a non-committal apology from a news outlet, and a collective shrug as everyone moves on.
But that didn’t happen in this case. Thanks to social media and growing concern about how big institutions treat people of color, stories about such lapses can become major news, dissected on Twitter feeds and plastered across Facebook pages around the globe by people who refuse to shrug and move on.
Holbert admitted that the syndicate that distributes his cartoons across the country flagged the issue and asked him to change the toothpaste flavor, which he eventually did for them. But he didn’t tell the Herald about the change because he didn’t think it was an issue.
Now he knows differently.
It feels similar to what we’ve seen in Ferguson, MO, where the death of a young black man in a questionable police shooting sparked protests and national media coverage within days. Other media outlets seem more willing to feature such stories now — especially if they come with compelling video — and the public is more willing to challenge institutions which once got the benefit of the doubt.
One more thing: In her column, Cohen notes the governor treated a Herald reporter harshly because of his anger over the column. Once upon a time, fury over issues like this would simply simmer in communities of color; now, people of color occupy the highest offices in the land and there is a bigger price to pay for such mistakes.
That’s how the march of diversity creates new demands on news outlets and draws new boundaries for what is important and what is not.
A spokeswoman for Boston’s NAACP chapter said the group is arranging a public meeting with officials from the Herald to talk about diversity issues, likely in early November. Perhaps this incident has taught the newspaper that it needs to do more than talk.
Because, as important as heartfelt apologies are, they don’t matter much if behavior doesn’t change.