As part of Black History Month, Adweek is celebrating some of the most important figures of color in the media and marketing industries. For this story, we spoke to several African-American TV news personalities, each of whom had important stories to tell about working in overwhelmingly white TV newsrooms.
Here are excerpts from our interviews with CNN Tonight anchor Don Lemon, ABC News’ Nightline co-anchor Byron Pitts, Fox News Channel Outnumbered Overtime anchor Harris Faulkner, PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor, MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee, CBS News’ CBS This Morning: Saturday co-anchor Michelle Miller and NBC News correspondent Morgan Radford. They all told us that while there has indeed been progress in how the African-American experience is leveraged in newsrooms, there is still much work to be done.
Adweek: Tell us about some of the challenges you’ve encountered as a person of color in this business.
Bryon Pitts: Sometimes I’ve been on the wrong side of low expectations. People call it “the talking dog phenomenon.” I had a vice president tell me once years ago that one of the things they liked most about me was that I was so articulate. I was an award-winning journalist who had done some substantial work at that point in my career, and that was No. 1 on their list.
Harris Faulkner: The biggest challenge in those early years was just for people to see me as the same way as they saw everyone in their market. It’s great to be first or be among very few, but it comes with a challenge of people always having that be the first thing they say about you. I really wanted to walk away from some of those early [local TV] markets with a merit-based future, and so that was my challenge. You hear the old adage of, “They sent the woman to the zoo stories.” I would get assigned the stories that dealt with people of color. I was proud to do all of it, but it just needed to be expanded out. Those early conversations were difficult to have in newsrooms, but I’m really glad I did because if I’m covering it and it’s a big story, that should be the end of it, no matter who’s involved in it.
Is there one specific experience you’ve encountered that really stands out to you?
Don Lemon: I think that many times, people of color are not believed. It’s like women being “mansplained” when the woman comes up with something in the meeting, and the guy says something that’s almost the same but a little different and is told, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” That happens a lot with people of color and with people in the news business.
I do know that there was a general concern when I was coming up through the ranks that white people wouldn’t watch a black person deliver the news or be in a prime-time position on the news. Maybe locally that would happen, but nationally, they were concerned about it happening. We’re living in a time where we’ve realized that that’s not true. You’ve got [NBC Nightly News anchor] Lester Holt; you’ve got me. Then in the mornings you have several prominent people, but it took a long time for that to change. You know who doesn’t get enough credit for that? [Former Today co-anchor] Bryant Gumbel. He made excellence the thing that everyone aspired to, no matter your ethnicity. He brought the Today show to No. 1, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
Yamiche Alcindor: I can remember one time when a boss called my hair, which I wear in its naturally curly state, “wacky.” The comment stung and made me feel very self-conscious. But I powered through that moment and later realized that person was out of line and that I should be comfortable embracing my natural hair.
Have you heard about specific challenges other journalists of color have faced and continue to face?
Trymaine Lee: Yes, and that’s true when you talk to black women especially. I’ve had a full beard for a few years now, and it didn’t matter where I was going to be, no institution was going to dictate how I was going to present myself to the world. But when I talk to black women in broadcast journalism about their hair, I’ve heard stories about news directors telling them that they can’t wear their hair a certain way or that they have to straighten their hair. The idea that the way your hair grows out of your head is not good enough for the market or viewers or a newsroom, that’s despicable.
Michelle Miller: My grandmother grew up during the Jim Crow era, my father grew up in segregation, and I was born after the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. My generation had some level of expectation that life was finally fair for black people. The law made it so. Segregation was legally over. But everywhere, I questioned the inequities. Why were the same supermarkets so much better in the white part of town? Why were their schools better equipped? Had racism truly ended? It didn’t appear that way. While a lot of progress has been made, race still plays a role in daily life—sometimes subtle and sometimes more apparent.
Today, I often encounter young journalists of color second-guessing their choices in how they cover stories, how they handle themselves in the office. Many of them come to me with questions about why they may sometimes feel voiceless in the newsroom or that their attempts to advance aren’t going anywhere. I tell them to work hard, be kind, stay tenacious, select your battles. Ask for help when you need it and keep moving forward. It is collective advice that successful people live by.
Do you have any advice to offer other journalists of color who might just now be starting a career in TV news?
Morgan Radford: Whenever I give advice to younger journalists, I encourage them to embrace their standard deviation from the norm, whatever that norm may be. But I also caution younger journalists of color against viewing their experiences in terms of minority status, because in reality, all of us have majority and minority identities based on time and context. For me, the key is to embrace our experience as people of color to widen the boundaries of acceptance and understanding of all people. In fact, what I love most about my heritage is its inclusivity. It allows me to understand other people through the prism of acceptance because my experience in this country—and of the movements that allowed for me to enjoy the fruits of it—were built upon the basic tenet that we are all created equally.
Lemon: I talk to journalists coming out of school, and I tell them not to look at themselves as “other.” Let people like me, who have been here a long time, worry about that and fight those battles. The only thing they have to worry about is being excellent. As long as you’re excellent, you will rise to the top, and you will achieve what you want.
Alcindor: My advice is to get experience actually reporting and writing, find mentors who care about you and will support you and work as hard as you possibly can to seize any opportunity you get. People have to make the most out of the cards they are dealt, and finding a village of people to help you along the way is key. Also, working hard doesn’t mean completely abandoning your social life. But it does mean you may have to make some sacrifices, like moving frequently, to get to achieve your goals.
Lee: If you view yourself in the eyes of others, you’re going to slow your progress. You have to be yourself, you have to value yourself. When I was a small child, every single day—and it sounds like something you’d read in a history book—my mother would kneel down in front of me and say, “I am,” and I’d respond by saying, “Somebody.” We’d do that a couple times. I learned to view the world feeling like I am somebody. And unfortunately, there are teenagers, young adults and professionals moving in these very white spaces who feel like they’re not good enough, like they have to be something else. But you are somebody. You are valuable. Your insight into the black experience of America, which is truly an American experience, makes you valuable. There is no one way to be. Be yourself and be confident in that. No one can outdo you like you.
Faulkner: Be the best listener that you know how to be. Make sure you’re taking it all in. My tell for people who are not ready for prime time is they talk when others are speaking. And as a journalist, if we don’t get the story, who else is going to get it for us when we get back to that newsroom? We have to get there. And just in terms of being a person of color, as the only female black anchor Monday through Friday in all of cable, I can tell you don’t be discouraged by what others say and express.
Miller: “Be you! Do you, trust yourself, and you’ll be fine!” Journalist Harry Smith left me with those words on his last day at CBS. He is one of those quintessential reporters with a style all his own. He never conformed to the typical news anchor style, and he was both white and male. Ed Bradley, Gayle King and countless others never conformed to a mold either. No one should. No one does you better than you. Why copy someone else?
Pitts: For any young journalist of color, despite what you might see on your television or in the executive end of news operations, know that there’s a place for you if you have the right stuff. If you are a good writer, you are a good communicator, you are a team player, and you have clear goals in mind.
Our profession has come a great distance in the 30-plus years I’ve been in this business. One of the things I really appreciate being at ABC News is that when the organization lists its public values, “diversity” is included in that. That’s one of the reasons why I work there; that is a core value to the organization. For the longest time in America, and perhaps in journalism, the mantra was: “Let’s be color blind.” I think we now live in a time now where the mantra is: “Let’s be color brave.” And there is a difference.