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American Journalism Review
The Whitest Beat in Town?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   August/September 2004

The Whitest Beat in Town?   

By Christopher Callahan
Christopher Callahan is associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland and a senior editor of AJR.     

Ruth Gmeiner broke a gender barrier when she became the first female reporter to cover the U.S. Supreme Court. She started on the beat more than 60 years ago.

Stephen Henderson broke a similar barrier: He is believed to be the first minority reporter to cover the Supreme Court for a general circulation newspaper. He started on the beat last year.

"It's sort of unbelievable," says John Walcott, Knight Ridder's Washington bureau chief and the man who hired Henderson to cover the high court for the 31-daily newspaper chain. "So much of the civil rights movement was fought in the court system. It was, after all, a legal battle. The fact that African Americans were not represented in covering that battle is mind-boggling."

Henderson, however, does not share his boss's shock. "I don't know that I'd say it's surprising because, as a journalist in Washington, you just don't see that many African Americans in the press corps," says the 33-year-old Detroit native, who was born three years after Thurgood Marshall became the nation's first minority Supreme Court justice.

Despite the overall dearth of minorities among Washington journalists, the Supreme Court's reporters historically have stood out for their lack of racial diversity. Veteran Supreme Court correspondents such as former Associated Press reporter Dick Carelli, who was on the beat for nearly 25 years, can count the minority reporters who regularly covered the court on the fingers of one hand and none worked for a newspaper. Neither Kathleen Arberg, the court's longtime spokeswoman, nor Barrett McGurn, the court's first public information director in the 1970s and early 1980s, could recall a minority court correspondent for a newspaper.

Henderson's appointment in January 2003 made headlines on Richard Prince's "Journal-isms" Web site, published by the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, and Prince listed the hiring as one of the top 10 stories affecting newsroom diversity last year. Ernest Sotomayor, president of Unity: Journalists of Color Inc., criticized the lack of diversity in the high court's press room. "A diverse press corps is a must if we are to ensure there is fair and accurate coverage" of the Supreme Court, Sotomayor wrote following Henderson's appointment.

But how relevant is a reporter's ethnicity when covering a beat such as the Supreme Court?

"In 75 percent or more of the cases that come through the court every year, there is great unanimity on what is news, what's important [and] what's a dog case that [the reporters] don't want the court to [hear] because they don't want to write it," Carelli says.

But Carelli and others say a reporter's ethnicity can play a role in certain stories, just as "a justice's race and the life experience tied in with that" is relevant in some cases.

Henderson agrees. "Ninety percent of the time I don't think it has much to do with how you cover the stories, [but] I do think I'm more attuned when race comes up," he says.

Henderson points to his coverage of the University of Michigan's affirmative action cases. Following oral arguments, Henderson wrote a sidebar about the lack of diversity within the Supreme Court itself, calling the high court "one of America's least integrated public forums."

"The one thing I was struck by was when you sit in that courtroom every day is how white it is. On many, many days there is me and Clarence Thomas and that's all," Henderson says. "The place is very old-time Washington in terms of how segregated it is. There are black faces all over the building, but most of them work in the cafeteria and in security and in support jobs."

Henderson's editor offers another example of the impact of his reporter's race on Knight Ridder's coverage. Henderson traveled to Mississippi to explore the record of Charles W. Pickering Sr., a federal district judge nominated by President Bush for a seat on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Pickering was under attack by Democrats for his civil rights record.

Walcott says Henderson "found Pickering's record was nowhere near as bad as his critics made it out to be, nor was he the racist that some of his critics accused him of being. And I think because Steve is African American, his reporting on that subject carried some weight... Because of who Steve is and the kind of reporter he is, he was able to do that, whereas [if] a white reporter had done that [story], it probably would have been subject to a great deal of criticism and skepticism."

Henderson, who worked for Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun before coming to Washington, says he's enjoying the beat and his colleagues, whom he describes as "the smartest group of reporters I've ever been around."

He adds, however, that the court's press corps is more insular and "clubby" than most, and has an unusual "coziness" with the institution it covers. Tony Mauro, the longtime USA Today Supreme Court correspondent now at Legal Times, says he saw the unusually protective relationship up close in 1998 when he revealed the high court's lack of diversity in the hiring of its law clerks. "There were some [reporters] who felt..that it was not a proper story about the Supreme Court," Mauro says. "The Supreme Court press corps is pretty deferential, pretty reverential, of the justices."

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