Hiring, Firing, Setting the Culture: Black Women at the Top of TV News

“There are still lots of firsts, but not as much has changed as it should have, given that it’s 2021.”

— Ava Thompson Greenwell, the author of “Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News”

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Ava Thompson Greenwell had been writing the final chapter of her book “Ladies Leading: The Black Women Who Control Television News” when news broke of the police killing of George Floyd.

How would television stations handle the cellphone footage of Mr. Floyd’s final moments, she wondered. How often would the video be replayed on air? Who would report the story? And how many of those decisions would be made by Black women?

Less than a year later, she was asking similar questions about who would cover the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer accused of killing Mr. Floyd. And how it would be covered.

Historically, African Americans have been more likely to be studied as subjects of the news, rather than shapers of the news. But Dr. Greenwell’s book and podcast, “Ladies Leading,” change the narrative, shines a light on the experiences and contributions of some of the highest ranking Black women in television news management today.

In anonymous interviews with 40 pioneering women, she pieces together intimate stories of racism, sexism, and misogynoir, or anti-Black misogyny, and spotlights their efforts to achieve more fair and balanced news coverage and better mentoring.

With titles like executive producer and news director, these women greenlight (or block) the stories audiences see on television and online.

They hire, fire and set the culture in their newsrooms. They develop growth strategies, and lead all aspects of journalistic decision-making.

They may not be particularly famous or visible, but the women behind the camera “wield a lot of power,” Dr. Greenwell explained in an interview. They’re arguably more powerful than anchors and on-camera correspondents.

Exactly how many Black women wield this power isn’t known because most industry surveys and reports account for race and gender separately, but Dr. Greenwell estimates it’s about a hundred.

For context, last year, the percentage of African American news directors — the top editorial position in most newsrooms — hit 6.5 percent, which was a new, record high, according to the 2021 Radio Television Digital News Association survey. But, white people still represent four in five news directors, and among TV news general managers, 90 percent are white and 77 percent are men.

Still, Dr. Greenwell says there has been progress, but it’s been slow. In November 2020, CBS named Andrea Parquet-Taylor news director of the jointly-run KCBS-TV Channel 2 and KCAL-TV Channel 9 in Los Angeles. Last March, Adrienne Fairwell became the first Black general manager of Arizona PBS in its 60-year history. The following month, ABC News appointed Kimberly Godwin president, making her the first Black American to lead a major broadcast news division.

“There are still lots of firsts,” Dr. Greenwell said. But “not as much has changed as it should have, given that it’s 2021.”

Prompted, in part, by this slow change, Dr. Greenwell spent nearly a decade tracking down and interviewing current and former managers across the U.S., using her own networks as a professor at Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism and as a former on-air reporter of eight years.

She doesn’t shy away from going deep on Black studies concepts, framing her questions through microaggression theory, double consciousness, respectability politics and intersectionality.

Taken together, the interviews tell a story about the persistent workplace biases and harmful inequities these women experience both despite and because of their high-powered positions. But you also get the sense of how valuable those identities and experiences are when it comes to shaping the news.

One leader, the first Black female manager at her station, recalled her general manager and boss flying “into a rage” when she suggested the station cover a Miss America contestant who was Black.

“Why do we always have to cover Black people?” he said.

In another story, a supervisor recalled how her boss didn’t trust her to oversee and balance the editorial budget.

“Either he would do them himself or he would ask a white man to look at my numbers,” she said. “And the white guy and I were friends and had worked together a lot longer so the white guy would come to me and say: ‘OK, just so you know, he wants me to check all your numbers. All your numbers are right, but he’s asking me to check them.’”

Dr. Greenwell’s own experiences show up in the book too. She was reminded of incidents that she had considered resolved or had suppressed and forgotten. One particular instance that stood out: When she was 28, she landed a hard-to-get interview and a white male manager asked her whom she had slept with for access.

“I can’t believe he just said that,” she remembered thinking. “But then I kept working.”

These kinds of experiences are significant in shaping the perspectives Black women bring to the table.

Through what Dr. Greenwell calls a “second sight,” these leaders spoke of recognizing and disrupting racial profiling and stereotypes; suppressing historical inequities like the domination of white girls and white women in missing people coverage; and prioritizing the perspectives of Black and other marginalized communities to balance out a history of negative stories. This “second sight” doubles as an unpaid education resulting in increased awareness among white colleagues.

When covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005, one news manager prohibited her staff from describing the displaced, most of whom were Black, as “refugees,” explaining that it was unfair.

“We were not going to use that term to describe the taxpaying citizens of the United States of America who were victims of a hurricane,” she said. “And I went on to say that, had that hurricane hit New Hampshire, they would not have thought once to refer to those people as refugees.”

Another news manager challenged a white male colleague’s assumption that a young Black woman declared missing by the local sheriff’s department had probably run away.

“If she’s been missing longer than 24 hours and they think that she’s missing, then who are we to say she’s a runaway?” she said. “We do every other missing woman’s story there is. We’re doing this one.”

Spotting Bias

While working on the book, Dr. Greenwell found patterns in experiences and language that Black women professional leaders encountered consistently.


FOMM, or fear of making a mistake, was one of the biggest stressors in the workplace among the women Dr. Greenwell interviewed. “It manifests when the women are assumed to be incompetent because of their identities, so they go above and beyond to check their work multiple times to avoid being stereotyped as unqualified to lead a newsroom,” Dr. Greenwell wrote.

FOMM, which Dr. Greenwell says differs from the common apprehension of making a mistake at work, boils down to a dread of harsher penalties, fewer second chances and dire consequences for future generations of Black women aspiring to enter the field.

“I still have this obsession with failure on any project,” one interviewee told Dr. Greenwell. “I don’t want it to be, ‘Oh, well see, we put the Black chick in charge and she couldn’t cut it.’ I’ve been in this business almost 20 years and I still have that in me.”

Another interviewee recalled the time a white male colleague publicly insisted that she had only been hired because of her race. “I had to be better than everybody else,” she said. As she worked my way up, she explained, there was this idea that she needed to be better so she could never give them the opportunity to say, I told you so.

Studies have shown how stress, anxiety and other repercussions of this fear can reverberate beyond the workplace, into the personal realm of a Black woman’s life.

“What it does is it causes Black women to work harder than they need to and more than their counterparts do, to excess and oftentimes to the detriment of their physical and mental health, their social lives and their family,” Dr. Greenwell said.

Intellectual Theft Syndrome

“I just said that!” was a recurring refrain in the interviews. Dr. Greenwell describes it as Intellectual Theft Syndrome — when a Black woman’s ideas appear not to be heard and are appropriated by white men or others of a historically higher-status identity, who claim the idea as their own. It was more common for women in the No. 2 or No. 3 position, not in the top job.

“It was almost like a broken record, when you looked at the transcripts,” she said.

One television news manager said, “Sometimes I feel that I can say something three times and everybody would sort of go on with their way. Then you let a white male say it, and then it’s a ‘genius idea.’”

“You say something out loud in a meeting and you’re not heard,” another manager told Dr. Greenwell. “Fifteen minutes later — literally — one of your white male colleagues says the same damn idea and it is embraced as, ‘Oh my goodness.’ I guess by the end there I was so tired and so over it all anyway I’d say, ‘Really? Because you didn’t think it was a great idea 10 minutes ago when I said it.’”

Of course, having a colleague rip off or co-opt another’s idea is not unique to Black women or the world of television news. But Dr. Greenwell says there is a clear connection between well-received story and coverage ideas, and newsroom ratings and ultimate profits.

And it’s “particularly pernicious for Black women television news managers because it can make it appear as if they are not doing their jobs, feeding into stereotypes of Black women being inept or unqualified to lead,” Dr. Greenwell said.

But negative experiences also yielded some positive outcomes.

A significant percentage of the women spoke about mentorship and the importance of helping the next generation of Black TV journalists avoid the racial discrimination and bias they themselves experienced. They spoke of ushering in a more inclusive, diverse workplace and overall industry.

“One of the interventions that Black women TV news managers make is saying: ‘I see you. You’re not invisible. Even though sometimes people make me invisible, I see you and I want to make sure that you’re successful. And I’m going to do what it takes to make sure you’re successful, where it’s possible,’” Dr. Greenwell said.

“Leading Ladies” codifies this labor, which is not usually validated with a promotion or a bonus.

“This is extra work, and this is before they even begin their regular job, so no wonder many of them felt extra stress,” Dr. Greenwell said. “That’s not to say white people aren’t feeling stressed as well because I’m sure they are — it’s news, it’s deadline.”

But think about the extra work that these Black women are doing, she said.

They comprise a small percentage of people in management, “yet they might be contributing much more than other managers.”

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