By Jon Funabiki
On Monday morning (3/2), I joined hundreds of family members, friends, journalists and funders in mourning the death of Dori J. Maynard, the president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and an unflinching critic of the news media’s treatment of African Americans and other minority groups. She passed away on Feb. 24 from lung cancer at the age of 56.
Later that night, I conjured Dori’s spirit, values and teachings to help students in my media class at San Francisco State University understand the need to promote diversity in journalism. I presented an impromptu lesson on journalism and diversity as a way to honor Dori’s memory. They rewarded me with a vigorous and engaged discussion.
And so, within the span of less than 12 hours, I soared from feelings of profound sadness to feelings of great optimism about the possibilities for the future. All because of the power of Dori’s big idea: U.S. journalism has a persistent problem with diversity, and we can do something about it.
For 14 years, Dori served as president of the Oakland-based institute, which sponsored programs that were part training, part advocacy and a whole lot of inspiration. They trained new journalists of color and then lobbied editors at newspapers and television stations to hire them. The latter goal sometimes was the hardest part.
In a way that was clear to those who gathered in a chapel in Oakland, Dori also became one symbol of an unprecedented initiative to reform American journalism from the inside out. It paralleled the U.S. civil rights movement.
The organization was founded in 1977 as the Institute for Journalism Education. At the time, newspaper, television and radio news operations had hired scant numbers of African Americans and other minorities. Just nine years earlier, in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Kerner Commission warned that the urban disorders of the 1960s were evidence that the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The blue ribbon commission scored the news media for wildly inaccurate coverage of the riots in Los Angeles, Detroit, Newark and other cities and for failing to hire African Americans as reporters and editors. Most damning was this finding: “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.”
Among the institute’s many co-founders was Dori’s father, Robert C. Maynard, who later would become editor and publisher of the Oakland Tribune, the first general circulation newspaper to be owned by an African American. When he passed away in 1993, the institute was re-named in his honor. Dori, a newspaper reporter and Harvard University Nieman Fellow, joined the board and became president in 2001.
At that time, I directed the Ford Foundation’s funding in journalism, and I supported the institute as part of an initiative to promote diversity in journalism. Other groups, such as Unity: Journalists of Color, also became foot soldiers in the campaign for newsroom diversity. In the beginning, Dori seemed a bit daunted by the responsibility of running a national center, including the challenges of fundraising. But over the years, her voice and confidence as a national thought leader only grew. In trying to win over allies, she could be patient, funny and acerbic as needed.
Tireless, Dori was scheduled to join some board members in a conference call with a potential funder on the day of her death. The Maynard Institute and other like-minded groups have struggled financially, even while problems in the industry persist.
On Monday in the overflowing chapel in Oakland, retired KPIX television anchor Barbara Rogers recalled how Dori could be particularly sharp — and on point — in her appraisal of the news media’s shortcomings. Rogers read one of Dori’s essays, which served both as Father’s Day tribute to Robert Maynard and a critique about the news media’s stereotyping of African American men. “Committed fathers of color are everywhere in my life,” Dori wrote, “but virtually nowhere in the media.”
Novelist and poet Ishmael Reed credited the institute for training “hundreds of word warriors who fight stereotyping.” He retold a story about Dori’s own run-in with ignorance. Once, a staffer at a hotel told her to leave the premises. Her offense? They saw her talking to a white man in the lobby and assumed she was … what, a prostitute?
One of Dori’s accomplishments was to develop a training curriculum for the Fault Lines diversity framework devised earlier by her father. Now in use in many classrooms and newsrooms, it asks journalists to recognize that the U.S. society is divided by many fissures —
race, class, gender, generations and geography. You might think of it as a method of research, interrogation and discovery. Reporters should consider these Fault Lines as they investigate, source and frame their stories to uncover a more comprehensive truth.
So that was the lesson I took to my students on Monday night. I covered some of the history that none in the group are old enough to have personally experienced. I explained the Fault Lines framework and how it enhanced journalistic ethics and values. And then together we applied the Fault Lines to a recent local news story about a clash over the use of a soccer field in San Francisco’s Mission District. It pitted longtime residents, mostly Latino, against newly arrived residents, who are mostly white, tech company workers.
The students came up with questions that should be asked and issues that should be investigated. They are a very diverse group, as diverse as today’s America. They got the Fault Lines concept, proof of the lasting value of Dori’s work. That was enough to buoy my spirits. But then they did one more thing. At the end, a group of students presented me with a greeting card. It’s a mystery to me how they managed to find and sign a greeting card while we were in session. They wanted to convey their deepest sympathies for the loss of Dori. I was touched beyond belief, and it helped me feel even more optimistic about the future of journalism — so long as Dori’s legacy can be kept alive.
(Jon Funabiki is a Professor of Journalism at San Francisco State University and Executive Director of Renaissance Journalism, which organizes social justice media projects. From 1995-2006, he served as a program officer and deputy director at the Ford Foundation.)
Photo credit: Knight Foundation