I’m in Chicago this week for the UNITY Journalists of Color Convention – the largest gathering of journalists in the United States. Highlights include a variety of panels, exclusive addresses from Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade and US Presidential hopeful Barack Obama fresh back from Iraq and Europe (John McCain declined, thanks), industry gossip, open bar parties, and a massive career fair and media expo featuring representatives from independent to corporate media outlets. And although the big popularity buzz centers around Obama’s visit Sunday, the overarching thread of this conference (besides hangovers) is the fact that this industry is facing an utter crisis: out of the hundreds of people I’ve spoken with, I would estimate that about half of them are out of a job – many of them have just recently been fired, as newsrooms around the country continue to squeeze journalists left and right.
All week, I’ve witnessed journalists of all ages pacing the career fair halls and handing over resumes with quivering, manicured hands. I’ve also witnessed many of my colleagues exchange long conversations with this man:
Craig P (not his real name, I would guess) works the Central intelligence Agency booth at UNITY. As I cruised the halls the first day looking for old and new faces earlier this week, I was a bit puzzled to find that the CIA had a recruitment booth. At a journalism conference. It took me a couple of days to muster up the courage to approach Craig P – in the meantime, I filled me head with ideas of what the hell the CIA was actually up to attempting to recruit journalists of color. Perhaps extraordinary renditions and increasingly deviant forms of torture (which amount to nothing in terms of so-called national security) just don’t cut it anymore. I began wondering if the CIA wasn’t searching for a nicer, softer interrogator: the journalist of color. After all, we can do our research, ask questions, do more research and come back and ask even more questions…
“We don’t have journalist positions at the CIA,” Craig P tells me with a wide smile, “but we do hire people that have journalism backgrounds as analysts…. And what do analysts do at the CIA? Well, they read. A lot. They read everything we give them, and make sense of it.” He asks me where I’m from, and we exchange small talk about perceptions about the West Coast and East Coast. While we’re on the topic of perceptions, I mutter something about waterboarding, but Craig P either ignores me or the comment flies right over his head. He is still smiling. He asks if I’m looking for a job – to which I also smile, and explain that I’m fine where I’m at (and I hold my tongue about the fact that I would never, in a million years, work for an agency whose work has resulted in the wrongful imprisonment, torture, rape and death of millions of people around the planet). He hands me some swag, including some CIA sticky notes which I plan to use to mess with my friends with next week. I walk away a little more confused than when I walked in.
With just two more days to go, I gotta say that I appreciate UNITY. I’ve re-connected with some great folks in the industry, and have met some new ones. In speaking to people all week, I have been reminded of the fact that increased media consolidation has created overwhelming instability – I would have to admit that for some people, the situation is bordering on desperate. That said, I am shocked that an agency which has played an important role in suppressing freedom of the press in the United States and abroad is here to recruit us.