Using my social capital

Earlier this week, the Shorenstein Center on The Press, Politics and Public Policy and the Nieman Journalism Lab introduced Riptide, dubbed an "oral history of the epic collision between journalism and digital technology". Grab a chair and some popcorn, right?

Maybe not quite yet. First, the authors are the same folks who concluded that the decline of newspapers was "not our fault", a plea for collective absolution that I hopefully debunked last month.

As Andrea Peterson points out in The Washington Post, the oral history is largely provided by the white men who led newsrooms over the past three decades. They may offer a  perspective on one side of the story, but … it's only one side of the story. One man's disruption is a blogger's first chance at cracking a glass ceiling. Peterson notes:

The project would have been stronger if it had done a better job of incorporating the perspective of female and minority voices. For example, one of the ways the digital age disrupted the journalism field was making it easier for marginalized voices to find audiences. With the rise of the Internet, no longer did media require the approval of elite gatekeepers to become accessible to the masses. And you don’t have to look very far to find good examples of this — just think about the rise of the feminist blogosphere.

The absence of diversity shapes our thinking in ways that a majority culture would call normal. "Of course we talked mostly to white men," we reason. "They were there. Who else would have a perspective on what happened?"

I made a similar point earlier this summer in considering the impact of unpaid internships on newsroom diversity. Responding to a series of insensitive and wrong-headed reports related to the crash of a Korean airliner, I wrote:

If you want to build a business case for diversity, start with the idea that it is important to publish accurate information that engages the communities you want to serve. Ask yourself if a newsroom in which nearly 90% of the voices are from a single culture is the best way to do that.

Majority cultures are known to turn a blind eye. Business Insider recently hired (and more recently fired) a chief technical officer, Pax Dickinson, whose tweets are considered racist, homophobic and mysogynistic by many, including me. In fact, Business Insider's chief correspondent had blocked Dickinson's Twitter feed to avoid crossing paths with him on the social media site. At BetaBeat, a blog that covers the tech industry, Jessica Roy argues

This is an executive-level leader at a well-known, venture-backed publication who has become so comfortable and secure in his white dudeness that he fears no retribution whatsoever in tweeting stuff like this… This is a man who had hiring power at a major tech publication yet felt comfortable tweeting about his distaste for women and minorities, whose behavior has been implicitly condoned by the organization he represents.

I wish I could offer hope that this kind of majority-culture boorishness is short-lived, but a front-page article in last Sunday's New York Times illustrates how far we have to go. In an extensive article about efforts by Harvard Business School to "foster female success" in the class of 2013, Jodi Kantor tells the story of a small group of administrators working to improve the environment for both students and faculty.

At one point in the class's first year, a female student reported being groped by another, male student. Responding, the school scheduled mandatory discussions about sexual harassment. Although at least one of the conversations proved useful, for the most part people listened and moved on. Kantor documented how a member of the class explained his silence:

"I'd like to be candid, but I paid half a million dollars to come here," another man said in an interview, counting his lost wages. "I could blow up my network with one wrong comment." The men were not insensitive, they said; they just considered the discussion a poor investment of their carefully hoarded social capital.

This perspective comes from the now-graduates of a business school whose alumni currently run General Electic, JP Morgan Chase and (through an election) New York City, to give a short list. It speaks volumes about how hard it is to break an entrenched culture. You can imagine the conversation out of earshot: "It's a shame that a classmate was harassed and groped, but let's not make a big deal of this. I'm in for a half million here."

I'm glad that the school's leadership is trying to tackle this issue head-on. I can't imagine that the work is easy. We'd best be trying to change now, though, before the grey comes and grabs a hold.

A bit of disclosure: I graduated from Harvard Business School in 1983. I have contributed to its annual fundraising efforts, typically without restrictions. I'm currently serving as a volunteer to help plan a section dinner for the upcoming 30th reunion.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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