One of the great friends and mentors of my life is Charles Pittman, the highest-ranked Black newspaper officer of our generation.
I’ve gone to him for advice many times, and recently I asked him to help me understand race relations in this country, and specifically in the news industry.
Before Charles retired and moved to Florida, he worked for the daily newspaper in Erie, Pennsylvania, Knight-Ridder in Charlotte, and was a publisher and group vice president for Lee Enterprises before becoming senior vice president of publishing for Schurz Communications.
He is one of the few Blacks to ever serve on the board of The Associated Press, and he is the only Black executive to serve as president and chairman of the Inland Press Association.
In 2008, he was the recipient of the Robert G. McGruder Award for Diversity Leadership presented by the Associated Press Managing Editors association.
He’s a winner
Charles was an All-American running back at Penn State University where he was a member of Coach Joe Paterno’s first recruiting class. In his junior and senior years at Penn State, the Nittany Lions went 22-0. Charlie Pittman (as he was known there) never lost a football game that he started in high school or college. He still holds the record for most rushing yards at the Orange Bowl, where he is a member of the Hall of Fame.
He was drafted as the 58th overall selection in the 1970 NFL draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. He played for the Cardinals and his hometown Baltimore Colts in a brief pro career. (Blacks made up 30 percent of the league’s players in 1970. Today Blacks comprise more than two-thirds of the league’s players.)
“In 1970, Blacks weren’t considered smart enough to play quarterback, or middle linebacker or center,” Charles told me. “But the NFL learned its lessons and grew both its talent base and its audience, as did major league baseball and the NBA—a lesson in the need for diversity the newspaper industry unfortunately didn’t learn.”
While Blacks comprise 13.4 percent of America’s population today, they filled just 7 percent of salaried leadership positions in America’s newspapers in 2019, according to a survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Whites held 78 percent of those jobs, Hispanics 7 percent and Asians 5 percent.)
For years, he added, Schurz—under his leadership—was the only newspaper company actively financing minority outreach programs thru the Diversity Institute—recruiting, hiring and training people of color to enter the news industry.
Charles regrets that newspaper industry leaders didn’t listen to his oft-repeated pleas to diversify newsrooms and newspaper management teams – especially as the number of persons of color grew in the United States.
“My pleas to the industry fell on deaf ears, and now the industry is paying the price for not expanding its audience and its understanding of society,” Charles said. “The time to act was when newspapers had 30, 40 and 50 percent margins, but the industry leadership didn’t recognize that its old business model was dying on the vine. When I talked about diversity, for the most part no one listened.”
Charles noted that racism was accentuated at the highest levels of the news industry, including The Associated Press.
“They had pictures of all their past chairmen—all old white men— and that’s nothing to be proud of,” he said, noting that his old boss at Lee Enterprises, CEO Mary Junck, later broke the gender barrier by becoming AP’s first female chairwoman.
Charles stresses that “I’m not angry or bitter, just disappointed that the newspaper industry has fallen on such bad times—a problem that might have been lessened had the industry been more inclusive of people of color.”
The lack of newsroom diversity caused some to be caught off guard by the severity of the reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. His death caused widespread demonstrations and riots in many cities. The Black Lives Matter movement gained national momentum, including efforts to take down statutes, especially those that honor Confederate War leaders.
“A riot is the language of the unheard,” is a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King that Charles circulated to a mailing list of friends scattered across the country.
Without diversity, newsrooms and newspaper executives are less likely to hear the voices of the discontented.
Many people, Charles said, don’t understand the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”
“Too many answer, ‘all lives matter,’” Charles said. “They miss the point. If there are two houses and one is on fire, you send the fire trucks to the house on fire. You don’t say ‘both houses matter.’ If we don’t put out the house that’s on fire, the fire is likely to spread to all houses.”
Charles, now 72, lives in retirement in Florida.
“I am one of only a few people of color in my neighborhood,” he said. “If I forget to walk down and get my mail in the daytime, and walk down to the mail box at night I worry that the police may stop me and think I’m a burglar or thief—and God knows what will happen to me. I truly worry about it, and that shouldn’t be that way because my white neighbors do not have this concern.”
Charles agrees that many racial issues have improved in many ways since he grew up in inner city Baltimore in the 1950s and 1960s.
“But some changes—such as having a Black president and Black sports heroes—have caused whites to fear their losing their supremacy, and that’s causing a whole new set of problems.”
Improving diversity in newsrooms is one of the best ways to help society understand racial issues—and possibly help revive the newspaper industry.
“I hope it’s not too late,” Charles said. “Although I’ve been critical, I’ve always been the newspaper industry’s friend.”
My talk with Charles reminded me of lyrics from the song “Vincent”:
…And how you suffered for your sanity And how you tried to set them free They would not listen, they did not know how. Perhaps they’ll listen now