Though the largest regular gathering of journalists in the nation included LGBT members for the first time, the coalition for minority journalists known as UNITY may be heading toward demise.
As first reported by the Maynard Institute, UNITY executive director Onica Makwakwa says the conference attracted 2,000 attendees this year, far below the 7,550 journalists who saw then Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama address the Chicago gathering. According to the Maynard Institute, Unity attracted 2,385 attendees. Much of that decline can be attributed to the absence of founding organization, the National Association of Black Journalists, which pulled out of the coalition after 18 years in 2011 citing disputes over the division of finances, and held its own New Orleans conference attracting 2,386 in June.
Though NLGJA was only invited to the coalition after the NABJ departure, a ‘black vs. gay’ narrative has been explored in some of the most recent coverage of the split. After NLGJA was invited into UNITY late last year, the organization successfully lobbied the coalition to change its name from UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc. to solely UNITY Journalists, generating criticism from some NABJ members, including the organization’s president Gregory Lee, according to the Village Voice.
According to the Voice, NABJ has long been accused of opposing NLGJA’s membership in the coalition, which has been voted on several times by the UNITY board over the past decade and a half. However, Lee flatly denies the accusation of homophobia driving the split — citing his group’s LGBT task force, a first among minority journalist groups — and tells the Voice’s Steven Thrasher that after being forced to lay off staff, the coalition’s largest member — contributing more than half of the attendees in 2008 — was opposed to the financial split that saw NABJ receive a mere 35 percent return on profits.
However, Lee accuses NLGJA of lacking diversity in its leadership, which NLGJA leaders claim is a driving factor behind the organization’s desire to be part of the UNITY coalition. Attract black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American LGBT journalists to the organization, as well as share in the common experience of being part of an underrepresented community in the newsroom, can benefit all attendees of the quadrennial conference, according to NLGJA members.
“I know the perception among some folks of color is that NLGJA is an organization run by a bunch of white guys,” Michelle Johnson of Boston University, and a member of both NABJ and NLGJA told the New York Times. “There are white guys that are in the organization who have also faced discrimination in the newsroom.”
Ken Miguel — segment producer at ABC affiliate KGO-TV in San Francisco and a National Board member of NLGJA — could not speak to the Blade officially for the Board, but said personally he was disappointed with what he perceived as a missed opportunity for the National Association of Black Journalists to meet and get to know LGBT journalists at the Unity Conference.
“If they wanted to show this was not about homophobia and race then they should have made an effort to be at [the NLGJA] events, and to get face time, and to shake hands with NLGJA journalists and let us know this is not about us,” Miguel said, saying that while Lee, and many other NABJ leaders were in attendance August 1 – 4 in Las Vegas, he felt they stayed away from LGBT-related panels and events. “I was on some panels where it was absolutely fantastic where [Native American Journalist Association] and [Asian American Journalist Association] and [National Association of Hispanic Journalists] members who were not gay were asking the right questions about what should they be covering.”
In the conference’s opening session hosted by CNN Worldwide executive vice president and managing editor, Mark Whittaker, ESPN writer and NABJ, NLGJA member LZ Granderson continued to take NABJ to task regarding its reluctance to rejoin the UNITY coalition following the name change.
“Homophobia has played a role in this tension, race has certainly played a role in this tension, money has played a role in this tension,” Granderson said. “And ALL of those things need to be talked about and hashed and on the table, not just the ones that are P.C.”
“You want to talk historically is there homophobia within [NABJ]? Yes,” KGO-TV’s Miguel told the Blade. “But do you want to say NABJ was the only group that voted that way? I know people who were members of the board then who told me, when we were discussing whether or not we should join Unity, that they were not the only ones that voted that way.”
Other longstanding members of NLGJA that attended the conference were skeptical about the need for the LGBT journalist group to continue to partner with UNITY.
“In the end, it seemed like being part of the Unity convention was more about what was good for NLGJA as an organization and less about its members,” lamented former NLGJA conference co-chair Fred Kuhr, who now edits the LGBT media trade publication, Press Pass Q, and says that the lack of programming integration between the four associations was disappointing.
The UNITY board was not the only entity to face pressures over inclusion in its name at this year’s conference. During a Thursday members meeting, several NLGJA members expressed disappointment the organization’s name excludes bisexual and trans members. Outgoing board president, David Steinberg and NLGJA executive director Michael Tune both assured the members gathered that concerns would be taken seriously and that the organization would consider evaluating the problem. This reporter was one of the members present who spoke out in favor of a name change during that discussion.
During that meeting, NLGJA members were also introduced to the organization’s new board President, Washington D.C. native, Michael Triplett, who is an assistant managing editor at Bloomberg-BNA and has served long on the board. Triplett said few words as he was recovering from laryngitis, but expressed a desire for members to come to him with ideas and concerns.
Though LGBT attendees of the conference disagreed over future participation, most agreed that the conference was an overall positive experience.
“Its no secret that I was the voice of doubt [on the Board] that this was going to work,” said Miguel. “do I think that it’s been beneficial for the organization? Yes, my eyes have been opened. I hope that the other minority journalists that did attend, their eyes were opened too, and I get a sense that that was the case.”
Both NABJ’s Lee and former NABJ President and co-founder of UNITY Will Sutton expressed hope that a reconciliation could occur between the group and UNITY, a sentiment echoed throughout the weekend by leaders from NAJA, NAHJ and AAJA, the other three founding members of the coalition. However, Lee implied that a condition of rejoining would be for members to vote on NLGJA’s continued participation in UNITY, despite the organization’s full participation this year.
“Since NABJ chose to pull out of UNITY, why is it even making a stink and making statements about UNITY now?” Kuhr — who has attended all but one NLGJA national conference since 1994 — told the Blade. “If they want to work to make UNITY better, then rejoin. If not, then stop making trouble from the sidelines. This kind of political back-and-forth is not helpful to UNITY and its other member organizations. If this squabbling can’t be tamped down, then it’s one more reason for NLGJA not to remain in UNITY.”
Phil Reese is a member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association and a member of the local D.C. chapter board.