Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday defended her decision to grant interviews on her two-year anniversary in office only to journalists of color, saying it was intended as an effort to confront the issue of what she described as a mostly white and male City Hall press corps.
But the move, revealed Tuesday by her office, was greeted skeptically by some in the Chicago media and beyond, with questions about whether excluding white reporters is a discriminatory act from a mayor who has had an often contentious relationship with reporters of all backgrounds.
Lightfoot emailed a two-page letter to Chicago journalists on Wednesday saying her choice was a continuation of her campaign’s promise to “break up the status quo.”
“I have been struck since my first day on the campaign trail back in 2018 by the overwhelming whiteness and maleness of Chicago media outlets, editorial boards, the political press corps, and yes, the City Hall press corps specifically,” Lightfoot wrote.
She wrote that there are no women of color assigned to the City Hall beat, saying, “I find this unacceptable and I hope you do too.”
WBEZ disputed the mayor’s observation in a Wednesday story, noting that two of its three City Hall reporters are women, one Hispanic and the other South Asian.
Diversity and inclusion is imperative across all institutions including media. In order to progress we must change.
— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) May 19, 2021
This is exactly why I'm being intentional about prioritizing media requests from POC reporters on the occasion of the two-year anniversary of my inauguration as mayor of this great city.
— Mayor Lori Lightfoot (@chicagosmayor) May 19, 2021
Interviews to mark Lightfoot’s two years in office were set for this week and come as she faces mounting problems over crime, policing, turnover in her office and ongoing battles with the Chicago Teachers Union.
The Tribune declined to participate in an interview with Lightfoot to object to the restrictions.
Charles Whitaker, dean at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, said journalists of color trying to break into the political press corps have faced barriers for decades. But while he applauded Lightfoot’s motivation, he said the one-time interview restrictions felt more like a “stunt” and don’t address the root of an age-old problem.
“I don’t necessarily know that it is the best way,” Whitaker said in a phone interview. “We would never, ever in a million years allow that of a white politician. And so it’s dangerous now to say we are going to allow that of a Black politician simply to make a point about the historic inequities in media.”
Tiffany Walden, editor-in-chief of the digital media outlet The Triibe, which covers Chicago’s Black communities, defended Lightfoot’s action, saying it was a small step toward leveling the playing field after what she described as a long-standing lack of access for Black and Latino journalists.
“A lot of people are outraged by this, but just imagine what it’s like for Black and brown journalists in the city to not ever have this access,” Walden said. “This is literally a daily struggle for Black and brown journalists in Chicago, and I wish that was the conversation instead of people who have access to the mayor every single day complaining about one day that they don’t have access.”
Walden challenged Lightfoot to uphold her promise for supporting diversity in media by prioritizing access for Black and Latino-run media outlets just as much as for legacy media. She said her outlet has struggled to get timely responses from the Lightfoot administration and been excluded from press calls. Wednesday’s interview was the first one-on-one meeting with the mayor for a Triibe staffer, she said.
The editor-in-chief of South Side Weekly, Jacqueline Serrato, tweeted Wednesday afternoon that her outlet did not get Lightfoot’s letter to media and later said the paper had not been granted an interview with the mayor despite requests to her office from two women of color on the staff.
Whitaker said it’s nothing new for politicians to give priority to certain media outlets. He said when he worked at Ebony magazine, the influential Black publication, it was easier to get access to top officials in Washington than to former Mayor Harold Washington, Chicago’s first Black mayor. Whitaker eventually got a one-on-one interview with Washington for a profile in 1987, the year of his death.
“I absolutely felt … Harold Washington’s press corps at that time was favoring local legacy media over a national Black publication,” Whitaker said. “If the mayor (Lightfoot) really wants to effect access, she can make sure that many of those smaller outlets that are owned and operated by publishers and publishing houses of color have equal access to her.”
Joie Chen, a senior adviser for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said that the question isn’t whether Lightfoot’s decision to selectively choose reporters is a new phenomenon — it is not — but whether it serves the public and democracy.
“No matter their race, I think reporters will continue to ask the tough questions,” said Chen, a former member of the Washington press corps. “That’s what they should do, and I think that’s what they will do. And I don’t think anything in the mayor’s decision will affect that.”
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