What #JournalismSoWhite can learn from Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson posing in his Dodgers uniform in 1954. (Photo by Bob Sandberg and reprinted under a Creative Commons License)
Jackie Robinson posing in his Dodgers uniform in 1954. (Photo by Bob Sandberg and reprinted under a Creative Commons License)

“Jackie Robinson,” the latest Ken Burns documentary, informs a new generation about this great American hero. Still, after 70 years of media coverage, the journalism industry has neglected to absorb the strategic lessons Robinson gives us in plain sight to build a more just playing field. 

According to data from the American Society of News Editors and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, of the 32,900 people employed in American newsrooms, 87 percent are whiteJournalism has such an embarrassing diversity profile today it has generated the twitter hashtags #MediaDiversity and #JournalismSoWhite.

The public cannot expect journalism to report well on all of society when the percent of people of color in the whole population is twice the percent employed in the field. While some legacy newsrooms are doing better than others, others aren’t acting fast enough.

How many studies do we have to read to see that newsrooms are dismal places for people of color? The evidence is clear enough and further “study” is a delaying tactic. Journalism simply must raise its game.

Keen political strategy from a Major League Baseball legend

Without waiting, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association followed Robinson’s and Major League Baseball’s (MLB’s) lead, and desegregated their teams in the 1950s. Nothing is stopping journalism from doing the same.

To simplify, the Robinson-inspired strategy is to lead from the highest levels of the organization; frame the change in newsroom culture as a benefit for the diversity of sources and coverage; be prepared to discuss with persistent dissenters their “career options”; and direct any problems with diversity to those in leadership roles.

How did this strategy evolve in Robinson’s case? When Jackie Robinson, wearing number 42, stepped onto the Brooklyn Dodgers’ baseball diamond, he shattered the verbal “gentleman’s agreement” white owners made in 1887 to keep Negroes out of MLB.

On April 15, 1997, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Robinson’s first day of play, Major League Baseball gave his memory the unique honor of permanently retiring “42.” That number will forever belong to Jackie Robinson.

MLB honors and celebrates Jackie now, but that is completely opposite to the reception Robinson faced at the time. He was jeered and taunted not only by many white fans but — incredibly — by many white managers and players on the other teams.

As he was prepared to do, Robinson kept cool and focused on playing baseball. And play he did! He was the 1947 Rookie of the Year and the National League batting champion in 1949.

How did Robinson maintain his stoicism in the face of such vile behavior? Robinson was on two teams as he tore up the racist “gentleman’s agreement”: the Brooklyn Dodgers on the field and a strategy and support team off the field. Branch Rickey, the president and general manager of the Dodgers, led this other team. Besides Rickey and Robinson, the team included Branch’s son, Branch Rickey, Jr.; journalist Arthur Mann who headed up the team’s public relations efforts; and southerner Red Barber, the radio announcer, or “voice,” of the Dodgers.

Top 3 lessons from Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson that apply to newsroom executives today

Lesson One: Honor values and keep leaders accountable

Newsroom executives should search their own souls to determine if a more diverse newsroom aligns with their own personal values, the ideals of journalism, and their organization’s mission and vision.

According to the Washington Post, at an April 15th meeting (by coincidence the same day celebrated in MLB as Jackie Robinson Day), New York Times Chief Executive Mark Thompson told managers in the business and news sides of the paper to increase their success rates with recruiting, hiring, and promoting people of color. If Times managers didn’t do this, they would face being asked to leave or even being fired.

Branch Rickey, as co-owner, president, and general manager of the Dodgers first understood MLB needed to include black players to legitimize baseball’s claim to being the “national pastime.” That was his personal value. The goal of each MLB team is to win the World Series. You get that chance by winning games. He pitched to the other Dodger owners that bringing Robinson onto the Dodger’s minor league team and then later onto the Dodgers team itself would help those teams win games. Winning games also matched the motives of white players and fans.

Lesson Two: Always have a playbook response to racist attacks

Assemble a strategy team that prepares itself to respond to the major audiences affected by the change. Robinson would never have succeeded without his. More than cheerleaders and witnesses to history in the making,  they raised questions about industry assumptions, decency and professional conduct.

Under Rickey’s leadership, they had a “playbook” and worked out a response to every major reaction that Robinson faced. This was especially important those first years as Robinson was a strong defender of his equal treatment — while serving in the Army he had refused to change his seat in a segregated bus. Though he was tried by a court marshal, he was acquitted and left the Army with an honorable discharge.

They were ready with a play when the Philadelphia Phillies were scheduled to play Brooklyn in 1947.  Philadelphia said they would not play if Robinson was there. Rickey fired back that he would be happy to take the forfeit (Brooklyn gets a win, Philadelphia a loss), explaining his players could use a rest.

So they came. Philadelphia seemed to have arrived in Brooklyn more intent on hectoring Robinson than playing baseball. The entire stadium witnessed the Phillies, led by their coach Ben Chapman, peppering Robinson with racist remarks. Robinson said it’s the closest he came to breaking his three-year commitment to Rickey to not retaliate when taunted.

He should not have worried. Immediately after the game his other team sprung into action. Rickey asked Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler, to make it clear that he would not tolerate that behavior from teams in MLB. Editorials were placed in papers by Arthur Mann and Rickey fired off a demand to Chapman and the Phillies for an apology.

The incident was used to leverage general support to give Robinson a fair chance. Radio announcer Red Barber reminded the public — white and black — that Philadelphia had crossed the line of decency. The Commissioner then established rules to punish teams that harassed players. Plus, finally, 60 years later, Philadelphia apologized.

current example in journalism is an exchange during a conference at Boston University between the white writer Gay Talese and Nikole Hannah-Jones, a black investigative journalist at The New York Times. Talese criticized The Times for hiring Hannah-Jones, and The Times’s first black executive editor, Dean Baquet, publicly supported Hannah-Jones and women in journalism. He apologized for not getting the original story right by not giving space in the story for her response to Talese. Of course, as a leader Baquet should back up any employee, but it becomes especially important when someone who is white publicly attacks a reporter who is a journalist of color.

Lesson three: Put teams to the test and challenge group norms

Pick an assumption the current non-diverse organization’s culture runs on and put it to a test. For Rickey and Robinson the test was to see if Robinson played well enough on an all-white team … in Montreal. The Dodgers had a farm team there. When Robinson’s playing helped Montreal win the minor league World Series, Rickey used that to promote him to the big league.

Being recruited onto the Dodgers tested his fellow players’ camaraderie, character and love of the game. This is how desegregation started, and today, legacy newsrooms need the same level of cultural shift to make a workplace hospitable towards diversity.

Baquet, after apologizing for an error in a New York Times story and standing up for Hannah-Jones summed up it up in a blog post: “We have made strides in our coverage and culture, but the best solution is to continue building a more diverse, inclusive newsroom.”

The Seattle Globalist’s mission is to be such a newsroom.  And as Jackie Robinson’s story attests, there are more lessons to come.

Watch the new Ken Burns documentary for how it handles the incident with the Phillies. You’ll see one of the more obvious and pertinent lessons Rickey and Robinson offered up 70 years ago is still relevant and powerful today. 

A phrase in this story has been changed to better reflect the writer’s original intention of describing Robinson’s colleagues off the field: Branch Rickey, Branch Rickey, Jr. and journalist Arthur Mann. In the original story, they were described as “allies ready to put up a fight.”  The editor changed this phrase to more precisely describe Rickey, Rickey, Jr. and Mann as leaders that “raised questions about industry assumptions, decency and professional conduct.”