The Politics of Fighting Media Exclusion

At an NAACP event, Philly Mag's October cover was criticized, and strategies for taking on media outlets were discussed.

Left to right: Elmer Smith, Barbara Grant, Cherri Gregg and Mustafa Rashed. | Photos courtesy of Felicia Harris.

Left to right: Elmer Smith, Barbara Grant, Cherri Gregg and Mustafa Rashed. | Photos courtesy of Felicia Harris.

The much-criticized October cover of Philadelphia magazine — which features a photo of seven city public schoolchildren, none of whom are African-American — was the jumping-off point Wednesday night for a wide-ranging political strategy roundtable on the lack of diversity in mainstream newsrooms and how best to pressure and influence news organizations so that they more accurately reflect the communities they cover.

Front and center was Philly Mag, and that October cover.

Roundtable moderator Marshall Paul Mitchell, pastor of the Salem Baptist Church of Jenkintown, opened the discussion in part by saying: “If you think there’s an educational problem for white students in Philadelphia, you should see what the problems look like for African-American and Latino and Asian students.”

Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath apologized for the cover three weeks ago, shortly after it hit newsstands. McGrath’s apology read, in part, “To include not even one African-American child on the cover fails to reflect not just the diversity that exists at the Greenfield School (where the photo was taken), but also that within the city of Philadelphia.” Metro Corp, which owns Philadelphia magazine, has also released a new diversity policy.

Panelist Cherri Gregg, a KYW Newsradio reporter and president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists (PABJ), recalled that Philly Mag made similar (though less detailed) public statements following the publication of the controversial article “Being White in Philly,” in the March 2013 issue of the magazine.

And yet, she and other panelists said, the magazine has failed in the time since to either diversify its newsroom or to devote meaningful coverage to people of color.

“Every cover they do is what it’s like to be white in Philadelphia,” said Barbara Grant, owner of Cardenas-Grant Communications.

Said Gregg: “I feel like we have to stand up and say, ‘You can’t ignore us. We are here and we do matter.'”

PABJ has requested the resignation of McGrath, and called on the “entire Philadelphia community to use its economic influence to show Philadelphia magazine and other publications that producing racially insensitive material is unacceptable.”

McGrath has said he has no plans to resign, and intends to “stay and make the changes” the magazine has committed to.

When asked by Mitchell if she thought the magazine was serious about those commitments, Gregg replied: “I do believe they’re nervous … I feel like part of the changes are coming in response to the community pressure, and I commend the community for being outraged.”

Former Daily News columnist Elmer Smith stressed the journalistic need for media outlets to employ more people of color, an industry-wide problem that is particularly acute at Philly Mag.

“The enterprise is not complete, the paper cannot serve the public properly, unless the staff represents the city you’re writing for,” Smith said.

Panelist Mustafa Rashed, the CEO of Bellevue Strategies (and a contributing columnist for Citified), attributed the October cover to an institutional “blind spot.”

“And I would say yes, if two years ago we hadn’t raised holy hell,” replied Grant, referring to the reaction to “Being White in Philly.”

“The internal process hasn’t changed,” Rashed said, nodding.

“That’s a problem for me,” Grant said. Philly Mag, she said, “had been tapped soundly on the noggin for it 24 months ago — there’s no excuse.”

Questions from audience members touched on the possibility of forming a Black-owned city magazine, the potential effectiveness of boycotting Philly Mag, developing broader coalitions to pressure news outlets into diversifying their editorial content and staffs, and the broader question of generational baton-passing among African-American leaders in the city.

Organizers said 32 people attended the session, which was co-hosted by the Influencing Action Movement and the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP as part of the State of Young Philly conference, an annual event series put on by Young Involved Philadelphia.

Thursday evening, another panel is meeting at Greenfield Elementary to discuss race and education in the city.