Ava Thompson Greenwell: ‘Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News’

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Professor, Ava Thompson Greenwell. Photo by Alex Galasinao.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes Ava Thompson Greenwell, professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Greenwell is also the author of the book “Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News.” A former TV news reporter, Greenwell tells The Treatment that the microaggressions that Black women face in journalism can feel like a physical burden to carry, something a woman she interviewed called a “heavy backpack.” She says that “intellectual theft syndrome” where one’s ideas are co-opted by colleagues without credit, is an unfortunately common phenomenon in newsrooms as well. However, she says the recent hiring of two Black women in top positions at ABC News and MSNBC is a hopeful sign for the industry.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today learned about microaggressions the way that most of us do who experienced them: the hard way, through living them. Ava Thompson Greenwell teaches reporting at the Medill School of Journalism, but she got her start as an on-air reporter and learned where the real power was in TV, which is to say, the people who run the newsrooms, the news directors. Her book, "Ladies Leading” is a look at the history of journalism for people of color, specifically, on the way women of color have to inhabit and navigate the world news and ascend to the position of news director. How long was this book bubbling in your mind?

Ava Thompson Greenwell: I had always wanted to be a news manager, actually, instead of being in front of the camera. But every news manager typically that I encountered, at least the ones who really had the most power, were white males, and they operated in a way that just wasn't me, and so I discovered very early on in my career, that I couldn't be a news manager if I had to be like them. That was also the impetus of all of this, thinking back to who were the women of color who I encountered, what were they like, compared to the white men I encountered? 

And then this book forced me to go deep about some of the microaggressions that I had really repressed for decades, and hadn't even thought about, but as the women kept telling me their stories, I began to think, Oh, yeah, I remember that experience I had with that photographer back in Minneapolis. I was just starting out, but also not having the language at that time to really know what to call it and not to also be sure what to do about it. And I think that's the place where lots of people find themselves today is that we know the term microaggression. We've heard of it before; we sort of know what it is, but we're not really sure how to respond to a microaggression. 

KCRW: That idea of trying to figure out who you are, because it really comes down to the loneliness of being the talented tenth.

Greenwell: Being the only one, you are representing your entire group. And in the case of Black women, it's intersectional. I'm not only representing African Americans, but I'm also representing women. And as you can imagine--one woman calls that a backpack--it's a heavy backpack to have to carry all the time.  I think one of the things that people forget is that even somebody who's large and in charge, somebody who is the head boss still can experience these kinds of microaggressions. 

KCRW: I was thinking, reading the book, given how liberal most newsrooms think they are, how deep seated that kind of inertia of institutional racism is.

Greenwell: One of the things that I think we have to come to grips with is: news organizations cannot cover these topics of race and racism, and all the “isms” that are out there without really turning the mirror on themselves and taking a look at what are we doing on the inside? Because once news organizations do that, I would bet that they would become better at actually covering those topics. What we know is that these topics tend to rear themselves over and over again. Fifteen years later, 20 years later, we haven't dealt with some of these things and suddenly they come back to haunt us. 

KCRW: Places where you got your start, like Tampa and Minneapolis, and Evansville, a lot of people get their starts in those kinds of markets, that feel so criminally alone and having to explain Black culture, and then the worst of it is these anecdotes about the well meaning microaggressions. 

Greenwell: It is extra work, that backpack, that burden, before they even begin to do the job requirement of being a manager. That's the thing that I want to leave people with: it takes its toll psychologically; it can take its toll physically. One woman in the book talks about: I've got to get a massage every weekend, because my back is out, literally. She's burdened by some of these issues that she's having to face in the newsroom. Often we don't really think about that extra burden that people are carrying. And often the burden is not because they're doing anything; it's because all the people around them, the cumulative effect of this over time can really be difficult. 

Some of the women chose to leave the industry permanently; some chose to leave it temporarily so that they could really get a break and then come back, and some chose to stick it out. I know that this group, in many ways, is just a microcosm of what's happening in other industries. So I say in the book that even though this is about journalism, this could really be about any industry.

KCRW: I read the book once and then went back and underlined the number of times your interviewees use quotes of somebody saying to them, "I don't understand why." Because what that gets to is how many times we end up having to explain ourselves to power structures. 

Greenwell: The one thing that really stood out for me, and the concept that I developed in the book is this "intellectual theft syndrome," because that was something that really kept coming up over and over. And, when I go back and code what are the phrases that keep coming up over and over, the one phrase was: “I just said that.” And so these women would be in meetings, and they would throw out an idea, and nobody would say anything, crickets. And then all of a sudden, somebody else of a higher rank would say the same thing. And all of a sudden, it would be a brilliant idea. 

This kind of story was repetitive. It was like a broken record, they could tell him this over and over and over again. And I thought, Okay, I have to write about this, and I have to give it some prominence. And so that's why I decided to call it intellectual theft syndrome, because it's a syndrome that keeps happening over and over again. And it's the theft of these women's ideas, and the reappropriation of those ideas as someone else's, and no acknowledgement for the women often. And that too, can be very degrading. It's very dismissive. And it also is a type of micro aggression that really renders them invisible, even though they're managers. 

KCRW: You got your start working at a lot of the smaller market stations where you would be the only one, and a lot of these little stations are owned by conglomerates and make a lot of money, so they're really important. Starting in a place like that, you end up having to do a lot more. I'm sure in your early days, you were writing and editing, and basically producing your own pieces. But the idea of having to do that and constantly explain yourself is an incredible thing to me.

Greenwell: In smaller markets, I worked mostly in front of the camera, so there were no others who looked like me in management, and especially in a place like Evansville. Of course, when you get into markets like Minneapolis and Tampa, the top 20 markets, you obviously have more people in the newsroom, and traditionally, you might have more people of color. But usually I was the only Black female. It's almost like we can only have one working in front of the camera. The Black women that I did encounter in Tampa worked the weekend. They worked the shift that was least desirable, so it really showed the value that you were placing on your employees back then. 

I would love to go back to those stations and really see how much has changed, but unfortunately, I'm not super excited because I just look in the markets where I live now, like in the Chicago market and also wonder: are the managers who are there, do they represent the population in a large city like Chicago? And my guess--again, I haven't visited every newsroom here--is that the answer would be no.

KCRW: I remember when Muhammad Ali died a few years ago, and it was on a weekend and you think about how he was castigated in the news media, and all these white people in power, who even refused to call him Muhammed Ali for a long time. So when he passed away, you think about all the white people who gave short shrift, and the people who were doing these eulogies were all white people! And you think, wait, what? Have we got to the point now where Ali can be celebrated in the media, and there's still no Black person there to talk about it?

Greenwell: This is why it's also important, again, to have people behind the scenes, being involved in the narrative, who look like the people who are being covered. There's been this long standing issue where people of color, African Americans in particular, have been studied as subjects in the news, but very seldom studied as shapers of the news. And that's why it was so important for me to say, well, who are the gatekeepers? Even though the numbers may be small, it matters. 

One of the things that was really important was to establish this archive so that the next researchers, the next generations will have something to look at. But more importantly, what I was really hoping to argue for is that these Black women make a difference in how this news is shaped. When that one manager was questioned about well, why do you want to lead with apartheid falling in South Africa? Why is that so important? The fact that this person couldn't understand why that was important, because Black people globally impact Black people everywhere. Black people in South Africa impact people everywhere. 

One of the other areas that I look at is “missing white woman syndrome” and the one Black woman manager who had a file on the assignment desk of a young Black woman who had been missing. And the white male anchor said, I don't think we need to worry about that. She's probably just a runaway. So he had diminished this young Black girl. The Black woman manager said, No, we're going to cover this story, just like we cover every other missing woman's story. 

KCRW: You start off by detailing a pioneer in so many ways, the kind of person who had she been a white woman, would have been lionized, you started by talking about the way that person had been ignored in the newspaper of record in this country. And that person, of course, is Ida B. Wells. 

Greenwell: Ida B. Wells is known as the anti-lynching crusader, but she's not known as much for her work in journalism, how bold it was. So when her friends in Memphis were essentially lynched because they had a Black-owned grocery store that was competing with the white owned grocery store, she wrote about it. But she also encouraged Blacks in Memphis to leave. She said, Just just leave the area, if you're not getting the treatment that you need. 

The other thing that she did that a lot of people don't really recognize is that, besides actually being an investigative reporter, she was the co-owner of her own publication. And so the fact that she was a co-owner means she could write about the things that she wanted to write about. But more importantly, we should note that she also elevated this idea that not just Black men were being lynched for quote, unquote, liaisons, some of which didn't even exist with white women. But that white men were also raping Black women with impunity. And she wrote about those kinds of things. 

KCRW: We can't have this conversation without going over what happened to Robin Roberts at ABC.

Greenwell: There was a boss at ABC News, Barbara Ferdida, who made some disparaging comments, but then other people started coming forward and saying, well, she made some disparaging comments, as well, about me or about my situation. So, again, it just goes to show that the people in front of the camera are really not the ones who get to have the final say. It's the people behind the scenes that actually are making decisions that impact the people who are in front of the camera in many, many ways. 

KCRW: Even in a place like The New York Times, again, this idea for me that you lay out so beautifully in subtextual terms, that these bastions of liberal thought, and progressive ideals are places that were just as enmeshed in institutional racism as anyplace else.

Greenwell: It goes back to that irony of we have institutions covering institutional racism, that themselves have institutional racism all in the corners, so to speak, of their respective buildings. And so really, there has to be a cleaning of house over time if we're going to get better coverage, but also if we're going to get better stories, because the reality is, the more people of color we bring to the newsroom, we're gonna get a variety of ideas and stories. Diversity is not just for race, right? It's gender; it's sexual orientation; it's gender identity; it's socioeconomic background; it's ethnicity; it's ableism. It's all these things that make up a person's identity that we have to consider. 

The other thing that I want to add is this idea of anonymity. I remember sharing the book with a friend of mine, and she said, This is great, but it'd be really good if you could name the women, because if you could name them, then that would really make a better story. And, I would agree, it probably would. But the reality is, I knew that a lot of these women would not agree to be named, and so their stories would be lost. But I also knew that they still are in a tenuous position and that if they wanted to move up higher, they had to be careful what they would say.

KCRW: You spotlight in the book, something I think that could have really deep seated implications, which is the way that women of color reporters were treated during the Trump administration, and my fear is that those kinds of aspersions that were cast and that kind of dismissal by the most powerful man in the world, as much as we're talking about wanting to have examples that will inspire, examples like that also set us back, don't they?

Greenwell: Oh, for sure, they set us back because this is a national audience, right? And we know as partisan as the country is, that there are a lot of people who really believe that everything Trump said was the gospel. And so the way he talked to them, to me, was just unacceptable. In particular, he seemed to be singling out these Black women who are in front of the camera and on a national stage. It was just very degrading, and very upsetting for me as a Black woman, to see something like that happen on national television. And so I felt like it was important for me to spotlight that in the book, and that even though these women were in front of the camera, it was almost like open season on them. 

KCRW: It feels like on maybe on the national level, we're starting to see some kind of change, but I can't help but think about what it was like a year ago, when everything was happening in Minneapolis, and you would turn on news anywhere, be it local news or CNN or MSNBC, and seeing the story filtered through a perspective that wasn't close to what's happening on the ground. And I wonder if these changes that are happening at higher levels give you hope.

Greenwell: They do give me hope. Kimberly Godwin at ABC News and Rashida Jones at MSNBC are two very prominent high ranking, the highest ranking, at those particular networks. That's the first time that's happened. But what's really important is that they be allowed to flourish. And that it's not the last time because sometimes what we see happening, if you look at the numbers: we take two steps forward, one step backward. And so my hope is that now that they are in those roles, that they will be able to do well, but that they will also be able to do some things differently than their predecessors, that they won't feel as though they have to follow the status quo of what's always been done. And the truth is, we won't know until their tenure has been established for a while, whether they will be able to do that to the fullest. And so it's a hopeful time, but I would say cautious hopefulness.

KCRW: I'm sure you and I have a similar fear: we both know these places are driven by ratings, and if there's a slippage in ratings, or anything happens on these women's watch, it certainly won't be writ large, but there will be some kind of blame to be laid out.

Greenwell: Absolutely, and that's really what FOMM (fear of making mistakes) is about. These women know often they're the first, and they don't want to be the last. One woman said, my biggest fear every day when I walk in is if I make a mistake, because I know if I'm making a mistake, they'll say, well, the Black chick couldn't cut it. And it'll be another 10 years before they hire somebody else who looks like me. That's a serious amount of pressure that I would hope we begin to recognize, but also how can we disrupt it? I think that's really what we want to think about for the future is these women, and the women who are coming behind them shouldn't have to operate under that heavy backpack that one of the women talked about. We need to lighten that load for them.



Rebecca Mooney