Pamela Newkirk teaches journalism at New York University and writes frequently on diversity issues in the U.S. media. In 2000 her nonfiction book Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media explored this topic in detail. Newkirk had spent the first decade of her career writing for daily newspapers, where she "often found myself swimming against a tide that rewarded those eager to write stories that conformed to a set and stereotypical view of African-American life," she wrote in an essay that appeared in Editor & Publisher.
Born in 1957 in New York City, Newkirk earned her undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University in 1983. Her search to find a full-time job after graduation was arduous, and only after sending out more than two dozen queries did she finally land a position with the Knickerbocker News, a daily afternoon paper that served the Albany, New York, community. In 1998 she penned an article for the Nation that discussed the lack of diversity among newspaper reporters and editors: "I immediately encountered the prevailing perception that the road into the newsroom was somehow easier for black journalists. My white colleagues suggested this even as I remained, for four years, the only black journalist in the newsroom, and as many minority journalism school graduates—discouraged by the gloomy forecasts and mounting rejection letters—settled for jobs in public relations and government."
The Knickerbocker News folded in 1988, and Newkirk went on to the Gannett News Service as a correspondent on Capitol Hill. A year later she was hired at the New York Post as a reporter, and in 1991 she began a two-year stint at New York Newsday, a daily that serves the Long Island and New York City area. In August of 1991 Newkirk was one of a team of reporters who covered the deadly subway-train derailment on the Lexington Avenue express line near Manhattan's Union Square just after midnight. Five people died, the train operator fled the scene but was later convicted of being intoxicated on the job, and Newkirk and her colleagues shared the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for spot-news reporting for covering the breaking story.
"Despite my success," Newkirk reflected in her Editor & Publisher article, "I had often felt constricted by the narrow scope of the news media that largely marginalized African Americans. Their history, attitudes, and daily trials and tribulations were often eclipsed by the news media's appetite for African-American crime, entertainment, and dysfunction." She had already started teaching journalism at her alma mater, New York University, and she became an assistant professor there in 1993 after leaving the newspaper business. In 2000 she was made associate professor, and a year later she earned her master's degree from Columbia University.
Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media was Newkirk's first book and was published by New York University Press in 2000. The starting point for its discussion on bias in the newsroom was the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also called the Kerner Commission, which had been commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson after racially tinged rioting erupted in Newark, New Jersey; Los Angeles, California; and Detroit, Michigan, in the mid-1960s. The 1968 Kerner Commission Report cautioned that the United States was becoming a "separate and unequal" society and that racism toward African Americans was a root cause. It offered a list of recommendations, which included eradicating bias from news coverage of stories involving the black community. In Within the Veil Newkirk gave scores of examples of that lingering bias from coverage of events as recent as the Million Man March on Washington, DC, in 1995. Contemporary African-American journalists she interviewed recounted their experiences in trying to convince editors to run more balanced stories, such as why many African Americans pay attention to the sometimes-inflammatory speeches of the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, though many do not belong to Farrakhan's church or agree with all of his views. One major national news weekly did publish a more nuanced explanation of Farrakhan's influence and why some of his ideas resonated with blacks by a staff journalist, but the headlines and captions nevertheless included the words "rage" and "vile." Within the Veil won Newkirk a National Press Club Prize Award in the media criticism category.
Her next book also had a link back to personal experience, but of a far more personal nature. As a youngster, Newkirk used to love to read a collection of old love letters her mother had kept, and as an adult she realized what a glimpse into another part of her mother's life they offered. Newkirk set about researching similar letters from well-known African Americans throughout history and then convinced the writer, the recipient, or his or her heirs to grant permission to reprint. The result was the 2003 volume A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters. When asked why she chose such a subject, Newkirk replied that "love is packaged in this country's media as a luxury, something only the rich have the time or resources to indulge in," she told Emily Bernard in Black Issues Book Review. She hoped to demonstrate that romance is not just the province of the wealthy and privileged.
Many of the letters that Newkirk collected were the eloquent work of famous writers, such as James Weldon Johnson and the poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen. Others were from more recent couples, such as the actors Tim Reid and Daphne Maxwell Reid. Yet, as Newkirk wrote in her first chapter's introduction, "of all the letters in this volume, the most bittersweet are those written by slaves to the partners from whom they've been separated. These letters concretely demonstrate the persistence of African Americans in maintaining some semblance of family despite the unnatural constrictions imposed by slavery." She also noted that some of the missives were from the period following Reconstruction in the southern states, when freed slaves faced an entirely new set of difficulties, but "few of these letters bear traces of the hardships African Americans endured during those turbulent times. Instead, many poetically express the ecstasy and yearning of love." Reviewing it for Black Issues Book Review, Bernard called Newkirk's work "a provocative glimpse into the intimate corners of African American lives over a 150-year period…. Whether the authors were slaves, scientists, celebrities, or soldiers, the letters show us that our intimate ties are what make it possible to face the dangers the larger world has in store for us."
At a Glance …
Born on November 13, 1957, in New York, NY; daughter of Louis and Gloria Newkirk; married Michael Nairne, November 5, 1983; children: Marjani, Mykel. Education: New York University, BA, 1983; Columbia University, MS, 2001.
Career: Knickerbocker News, reporter, 1984-88; Gannett News Service, Capitol Hill correspondent, 1988-89; New York Post, reporter, 1989-90; New York Newsday, reporter, 1991-93; New York University, adjunct professor of journalism, 1991-93, director of undergraduate studies, 1994-96, assistant professor, 1993-2000, associate professor, 2000—.
Memberships: National Association of Black Journalists.
Awards: Corecipient, Pulitzer Prize for spot news, Columbia University, 1992; Golden Dozen Award for Excellence in Teaching, New York University, 1994; Scholar-in-Residence, Spelman College, 1996; National Press Club Prize Award for Media Criticism, 2000.
Addresses: Office—New York University, Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arthur C. Carter Hall, 10 Washington Pl., New York, NY 10003.
Newkirk lives in Greenwich Village with her husband, Michael Nairne, and their two daughters. In 2000 she was interviewed for an article by Felicia R. Lee in the New York Times on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and how African-American households with young children experienced it. "It's the hardest thing black people have to teach their children," Newkirk told Lee, echoing sentiments of other parents interviewed who grappled with how to explain to kindergarten-age children the concept of slavery. "It cuts so deep. You have this innocent child who has no context for understanding this."
Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media, New York University Press, 2000.
(Editor) A Love No Less: More Than Two Centuries of African American Love Letters, Doubleday, 2003.
"Whitewash in the Newsroom: Thirty Years after Kerner, the Media Still Reflect the Biases of White America," Nation, March 16, 1998, p. 21.
"So Much for Newsroom Diversity," Nation, July 6, 1998, p. 12.
"Shoptalk," Editor & Publisher, October 16, 2000, p. 36.
Black Issues Book Review, January-February 2003; May-June 2003.
New York Times, January 16, 2000.
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