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The New York Times and National Geographic Are Reckoning With Their Sexist and Racist Pasts in Very Different Ways

March 15, 2018 in Blogs

By Mehreen Kasana, AlterNet

NatGeo admits its flaws, while the Times dodges.

In the past few weeks, legacy media groups have started engaging in introspective conversations on the complicated—and at times conflicted—nature of their own dispatches. Both the New York Times and National Geographic magazine have issued editorials grappling with their problematic pasts. In the case of the Times, the issue centered on its failure to write obituaries for women and its focus on white men. With National Geographic, race took center stage. But if you juxtapose both statements—that is, National Geographic on race and the New York Times on gender—it is clear that NatGeo is much more willing to admit its flaws than the Times.

The statements have launched a cultural conversation. Social media users instantly noticed the glaring difference in tone and honesty between the publications and shared their thoughts on the matter. Wikimedia executive director Katherine Maher compared New York Times obituary editor William McDonald's thoughts with National Geographic editor-in-chief's Susan Goldberg's words on the magazine's racially prejudiced past, and tweeted, “Striking difference in tone as two journalistic institutions examine their history. The @nytimes’s recent excluded [obituary] project gets an editorial shruggie: 'Bias? Maybe!' versus @NatGeo, which does the work and concludes, 'Yes, we were pretty racist.'”

In his editorial, “From the Death Desk: Why Most Obituaries Are Still of White Men,” McDonald attempts to explain the context behind sparse obituary coverage of women in the newspaper, especially women of color. Not once does he use the word “sexist” or “racist” to explain the absence of coverage. Instead, McDonald said, “Conscious or unconscious bias? Could be. Perhaps my predecessors and I were never informed of the deaths. Maybe those who knew the deceased did not think we’d be interested. Maybe an editor passed for lack of interest, or maybe considered an obit but did not have a reporter available to write it. (A practical reality that bedevils us today.)”

NatGeo's Goldberg, on the other hand, minced no words in criticizing her magazine's institutional failure to write about race with nuance and complexity, particularly while covering conflicts and nations in Africa, Asia …read more


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