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SOLOMON: Diversity Fatigue

A new term for an old problem has just emerged in the national press. We're now told that much of the media industry has come down with "diversity fatigue."Before this malady, the story goes, the American Society of Newspaper Editors was committed to racial diversity. Back in 1978, the group set a goal of "achieving minority employment at daily newspapers that matches minority representation in the general U.S. population by the year 2000, or sooner."Twenty years ago, when the editors did a nationwide survey, they found that only 4 percent of staffers were black, Latino, Asian or Native American. Today, the numbers look better -- 11.4 percent -- but hardly impressive. After all, fully one-quarter of the American public is composed of racial minorities.Never swift, the progress stalled during the 1990s. At this rate, the editors' group will miss its announced deadline by about a century.Of course, the American Society of Newspaper Editors could choose to redouble its efforts. Instead, ASNE has proposed dumping the goal in favor of less ambitious targets. Daunted by its own inertia, the newspaper industry is pleading exhaustion.Media outlets, whether daily papers or broadcast networks, face many challenges. When it comes to battling for market share, there's no sign of fatigue. When it's a matter of struggling for a big profit margin, their eyes are always on the prize. But somehow, when racial equity is at stake, weariness is too overwhelming.In 1998, the media establishment continues to summon a great deal of energy for boosting the bottom line. But the top honchos are oh so tired of the quest for racial equity.Let's give credit where due: A lot of media managers can be innovative and tenacious. The colorful arrival of USA Today in the 1980s, for instance, spurred hundreds of daily papers to bring color to their newsprint with eye-pleasing design makeovers. Frequently, presses were junked or modernized at a cost of many millions of dollars.But diversifying the color of people in the newsrooms rarely got that kind of priority. Some sincere editors and managers, as well as reporters, pushed to bolster minority hiring. Yet perhaps the burden has worn out its welcome.If the nation's top editors were as committed to profitability as they've been to racial balance, most media companies would have gone bankrupt a long time ago.Ironically, the retreating sounds from the American Society of Newspaper Editors came just after the 30th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report on the causes of urban riots.The 1968 commission didn't simply call for integrating the ranks of newspaper reporters, who were almost all white at the time. The panel stressed the need for minorities in decision-making positions: "Newspaper and television policies are, generally speaking, not set by reporters. Editorial decisions about which stories to cover and which to use are made by editors."These days, so-called diversity fatigue seems to be widespread. After many years of bashing from pundits and politicians, affirmative action is on the ropes. One result: In California, state university campuses are now seeing a sharp drop in applications and admissions of black and Latino students.Whether in the media business, colleges or other institutions, whites often embrace the illusion that people can transcend racism by ignoring it. But this "colorblind" approach has a way of being blind to the power of racism in the present day.From the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal to the gloss of liberal Mother Jones magazine, many editors seem notably patient about racism, while patience with measures like affirmative action has disappeared."Diversity fatigue" is a rather euphemistic way to describe the process. If you peer through the foggy evasions, you might catch a glimpse of white supremacy: more subtle than decades ago but still very powerful. No wonder so many Americans, in their hearts, are suffering from racism fatigue.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His most recent books are "Wizards of Media Oz" (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) and "The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh."

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