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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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The value of the work

Keith Woods

Keith Woods

By Keith Woods

My friend Stephen, who once warned me that a man who argues over his humanity has already lost the debate, was among the first to weigh in.

“Are you out of your freaking mind?” he wrote in an email, though he didn’t say, “freaking.”

I’d told him I was leaving my job as dean of faculty at the Poynter Institute and was taking an executive position advocating for diversity at National Public Radio. I was quitting what was arguably the best job I ever had to go back to the front.

Poynter, as the top training institute for journalists anywhere, wasn’t a bad pulpit for pushing my profession to get serious about telling the stories of all people (and hiring more folks who weren’t white). But the pulpit is what it is – you preach your sermon, they leave, and you hope things change when they get back home. Joining NPR meant diving back into the congregation.

Back to the front. Back into the congregation. War and faith. The metaphors must mean something. Mostly, they betray my anxiety. I worry alternately about losing my temper during the fight, or losing my will and, thus, my soul.

I live this work. I don’t suppose that makes me – or the work – so special, but it defines the profundity of my problem. I have come back to do a job that has often left me feeling deflated, hopeless, deeply jaded. I’ve returned to a profession whose apathy and inaction continue to say to whole swaths of people that they aren’t worth the trouble of inclusion.

I’ve come back to work that once left me feeling as though I was standing at the edge of a cliff, murderous wolves behind me and certain death ahead. Jump, and I die on my terms. Turn, and I die fighting. Either way, the story ends badly.

There was a day many years ago when I thought I would quit the fight. It was a bad sequence of ordinary offenses. Removed from context, I’m sure the details of that day would strike most people as insignificant nothings. I don’t remember them myself.

I do remember, though, that something had caused me to retreat to a little room in the back of the library of my hometown newspaper, the Times-Picayune. I was the city editor and I was hiding, lest I have to debate again with another of my white colleagues the common humanity of black people.

I don’t suppose most of them would tell it that way. More likely they’d say we had a robust conversation about whether you should describe a crime suspect as “black” (“At least that narrows the field,” they’d say). Or maybe someone would recall the debate over whether the story about the black 4-year-old, shot dead through his apartment door as he put his backpack on for pre-school, belonged on the front page in place of the Air Show photo (“It’s not the most important story to our mainstream readers,” someone said then.)

Whatever. I was hiding.

Like Ellison’s Invisible Man, I was making the choice to unplug (though the protagonist bootlegged some electricity). I was dropping out of what was clearly a race toward the next disillusionment. I’d found my crawlspace and would content myself to cower there, if only for an afternoon. I’d read the newspaper and ponder the peace of quitting.

Not many people at the Picayune knew the little room existed, which was the point. I could be alone.

Not for long, though. Not in a building filled with people who report for a living.

“I know what you’re doing back here, and you can’t just quit,” my friend James O’Byrne said when he’d tracked me down. He understood what was happening to me. He knew why I cringed at the publisher’s hand on my shoulder when he introduced me to someone as “our conscience in these matters.”

I rolled my eyes at James and turned back to my newspaper.

He shifted his tack.

“You know,” he said, “you’ll get back to it. You can’t help yourself.”

I crumbled the paper and glared at him. I told him about the cliff and the wolves. “Well,” he said over his shoulder as he walked away, “we know how this is going to end.”

He was right. I went back to my desk, pulled up another story, and got back to work. I would find a way to avoid arguing for my humanity even as I pressed the case for why the murder of a black child was as tragic as the death of a white child. I would find a way to live with the realization that some people are content to let others be their “conscience in these matters.”

Now, after teaching it and preaching it, I’ve come back to the work of diversity. Back to the front. Mixing it up with the congregation. Wary of becoming somebody’s Jiminy Cricket. I’ve wondered if it was the right choice and worried that I sometimes can’t tell the cliff from the wolves. But I’ve come back just the same. It’s important work in an important place.

In the fall, NPR was slammed for its paucity of people of color – particularly in its top ranks – and its lack of even one black man among its reporters. A few weeks ago, our ombudsman wrote about how women are underrepresented as sources in NPR’s stories and shows. And as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” debate returned to Washington recently, our top news executive declared in an email to staff that the correct phrase is “sexual orientation,” not “sexual preference.”

I’ve come back to debates I was having more than 15 years ago. That’s why Stephen asked if I was out of my freaking mind. That’s why he didn’t say, “freaking.”

Already, I’ve felt like hiding.

I’ll get back to it, though. I can’t help myself.

Keith Woods’ piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.