The CBC: over the whole race thing?

Screen capture from Oct 30, 2012

Notice anything strange?

Okay, you might think this is a cheap shot. Journalists tend to be well-educated, upper-middle class folks. Canada is 80% white. Shake the bingo balls enough times and eventually you’re going to get a dozen “Caucasian” people covering the US election.

And it’s true, their skin colour says nothing about their individual qualifications or performance as a team. I’m hardly suggesting that white people can’t report meaningfully on stories involving race. But there are two reasons why it’s disappointing to me that CBC’s US election team isn’t more diverse. This first is general, the second is personal. To start:

1. Lost opportunity

Race is a huge, if underreported part of this election campaign. To recap: Barack Obama is the first US President to have people trying to assassinate him on the basis of his skin colour. He’s the first US President to have Donald Trump obsessively try to discredit his birth certificate, and now his college records. He’s the first US President to be attacked by Sarah Palin for his “shuck and jive schtick“. And this is the first US election to see such widespread, racially-motivated use of voter suppression tactics. Because in case you hadn’t guessed, polls put Obama ahead of Romney among African-American voters by a score of 94 to zero.

That’s why it’s important to have a Canadian perspective — to put this very American taboo in context and explain how it plays into the campaign. And yes, sometimes we trip over threads of stories because people are more willing to entrust their experiences or fears to a journalist who is also black. Or Black. Or Arab. Or Aboriginal. Or speaks Urdu. As much as being light-skinned apparently makes other parts of life easier, I can confirm that not being white is sometimes helpful in performing journalism.

Which is why I tweeted the above picture and asked Kirstine Stewart, head of English Services and one of the 3 top executives at CBC/Radio-Canada, “Do you notice anything curious about this rich mosaic of talented journalists?”

I followed up with:

This was Stewart’s response:

That’s as far as we got. To be fair, I gather she was busy with the Giller gala. But while acknowledging that it’s only right to have six women on the team, I don’t think Stewart’s response was totally adequate. Here’s why:

2. The anxiety within the CBC itself over diversity

When I was made permanent at the CBC at the tender age of 22, I had already heard some nasty stuff about the guy I replaced, who is also a “viz-min” — and had been fast-tracked for promotion by the network. All that talk happened behind his back. I didn’t expect people to tell me the same things to my face. But they did.

The thing is, the math seems pretty sound. TV networks, in particular, feel the need to look diverse  — while journalism schools, like police academies, disproportionately turn out people who are not. Therefore, if you’re in the right place at the right time, having an “exotic” name and some melanin can’t hurt. For the record, I don’t actually believe that’s what drove my career at the CBC, or CTV for that matter. But I can forgive some bitter colleagues for pointing out the obvious.

I want to be right about this. I don’t want equal opportunity lip service from the corporation. I want to trust that my former boss (who’s married to Zaib Shaikh, for goodness’ sake) believes diversity makes the CBC’s news coverage stronger. And next time there’s a mixed-race person vying to be the most powerful political leader on the planet, it would be cool if Canada’s national public broadcaster sent a team that better reflects the makeup of this continent.

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