To Fix Media's Lack of Diversity, Follow ASME

Part 2: Recap of the American Magazine Conference

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Jonathon Feit Jonathon Feit
At the American Magazine Conference a few weeks ago, I walked into the annual cocktail hour hosted by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It's always great food, folks, and fun. But this time, for the first time -- perhaps because I knew I had a column to file -- I really took a look around the room.

There was ASME president Cyndi Leive, of Glamour, a petite white woman who is always smiling (as I recently pointed out to her). There was ASME Executive Director Marlene Kahan, a svelte white woman "with the industry in her palm" -- palm that tremors on occasion, since Marlene has Parkinson's Disease. There was Charles Whitaker, a black professor of journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School, who may likely have been the tallest man at the conference bar none. Charles is not related to Mark Whitaker, the black former president of ASME, former editor of Newsweek, who is now senior VP of news (2nd-in-command) at NBC.

Steven Yee, the new Asian president of Scientific American, was elsewhere; he isn't an editor, but his presence at AMC was noteworthy nonetheless. Hugh Delehanty of AARP -- an older gentleman -- showed up, as did Arianna Huffington, whose accent belies the fact that she's a now de facto icon of American media entrepreneurship. Then there was I: a twenty-something white entrepreneur, writer, and so forth, with Tourette's Syndrome.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber wrote in "I and Thou" (in my humble opinion, the most profound philosophical tract ever penned) that to have optimally meaningful relationships, we cannot ignore the physical, for to do so would be impossible. Connections of substance, however, go beyond the physical, harnessing it to establish the relation itself, eradicating degrees of difference on the basis of genuine interest in the Other.

So it was at the ASME cocktail hour: The fact that Professor Whitaker is about 150% of my height, and his dermis is several shades darker, never mattered. Why should it? The man is an accomplished educator, scholar, and gentleman. More importantly given the setting, he is an editor—that's all that matters.

Downstairs at the same event, I spoke with two friends, esteemed media colleagues, and fellow equality crusaders -- Shaunice Hawkins, the MPA's racially-mixed VP in charge of diversity and Raymond Roker, the black and Jewish founder of URB Magazine. For all their modernity, both Hawkins and Roker seemed convinced that race establishes an insurmountable boundary that, even if it can be traversed, can never be fully ignored.

That's a self-fulfilling persecution complex doomed to failure. Nothing more.

Why, after all, is it wrong that race is noticeable? Does my identification of Mark and Charles Whitaker as both being black, or Cyndi and Arianna as women, or Marlene and myself as plighted with neurological conditions, do anything to affect -- even one iota -- my respect for there individuals personally, professionally, or otherwise?

Of course not, and if you think it does, you're an idiot who is completely missing the point.

My uncanny ability to identify another's skin color, nation of origin, disability, sexual orientation, religion, gender, or any other inconsequential descriptor simply means that I am gifted in the art of taking in the information around me and processing it to build pictures in my head. (I'd imagine we probably share the same skill.)

What brought together all these individuals -- and more I haven't mentioned by name -- is that we are purveyors of content in a dynamic media world. Our interests are different, ranging from fashion to politics to diversity and everything in between. But we are editors -- and good at what we do; that's what counts.

Charles asked how I would propose to fix the industry's diversity problem (given this blog, what a dangerous question to ask!). I failed to realize at the time that the answer literally stared us in the face: ASME is, at base, a prototype and paragon of diversity in media.

Why? Because at ASME, no one needs to point out races, religions, sexual orientations, disabilities, nations of origin, or any other inconsequential criterion. No one cares about them. They're there, of course, but don't matter, for as editors one and all, our gift is our bond -- and that is how diversity is achieved.

The media's hiring metrics are broken; as soon as we fix them, the industry will diversify itself, naturally. Seeking journalism degrees, for instance, narrows the pool of potentials, since J-schools recruit and attract a particular applicant. (Shaunice has rightly made this argument for years.) Must women work at women's magazines and men at men's magazines, or older folks at AARP, blacks at Black Enterprise, Hispanics at Latina, gays at The Advocate, or Jews at HEEB?

Cross-pollination, which opens wide new markets for the content we hold so dear, can be a beautiful -- and profitable -- thing. Its incentives are built in; the key is to laser-focus on the denominators that really matter.
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