More than four decades into a journalism career that has spanned both U.S. coasts, Jim Asendio isn’t going to the newsroom on a daily basis for the first time in a long time. But it’s not because he’s retired – though he did leave his last job over a conscious choice of his own. Or maybe the correct term is “conscience.” As news director for public radio station WAMU in Washington, D.C., Asendio made news of his own when he quit in February, upset over a station fundraising event that involved journalists in his news department appearing at a station-sponsored donor event. The move was not only notable for the ethical stance Asendio took, but for what WAMU lost. Richard Prince, who covers journalism and diversity issues for The Maynard Institute, called Asendio “likely the highest-ranking African-American news director at a top-tier NPR affiliate.” His career, after attending Northwestern University’s Medill School (though he left before graduating), has included stints with Gannett and numerous commercial radio outlets from Pittsburgh to Sacramento to Los Angeles to New York City.
Are you able or willing to share insight on your decision to leave WAMU?
I disagreed with an upper-management decision to have working journalists be intelligence agents for the development department. I objected to that. It had been an ongoing discussion for some time. With public radio being concerned about (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) being defunded, there’s a greater effort to engage donors on the network and local station level. I objected to it. I was told my program director disagreed with me. The general manager sent me an email saying the event would go on as scheduled. I said given my concerns on ethical grounds that I would not be there. She wrote back saying my refusal would be a permanent and irreversible statement on whether I was on her team. Interestingly enough, when they held the event, they changed the format based on my concerns and my resignation.
Do you think the system of public media – or nonprofit news outlets in general – is set up in such a way that these conflicts are more prevalent for the journalists?
The irony is that in my entire commercial career, the money side of the house never even incurred or suggested any influence. It was very clear there is an editorial side and a business side, and never the two shall meet. There is more of an effort to get major donors (in public media). My concern is not that there is any effort on the part of major funders to have influence; I think it’s the perception of people in public broadcasting that major donors want major access. People who fund public broadcasting are supporting something they believe in, not something they want to control (i.e. news coverage). In my meetings with major donors who help fund the news department, not once did anyone say this is how I want you to use my money to go after this person or that person. The journalists never pass on any bias (because of the donor’s money).
There’s this ongoing debate – somewhat academic – about journalism ethics, including the SPJ Code of Ethics. Basically it’s about whether the Code and ethical standards should be updated or rethought to accommodate contemporary journalism, digital and social media, etc. Do you have any thoughts on that?
I totally disagree with that premise (that it needs to be updated). You do need to clarify what you do – if you’re a journalist or a commentator or a pundit. I personally to not agree with the concept of “objectivity.” I believe in being accurate and fair. The rule in my newsroom, whatever one I ran, was verify, verify, verify. I didn’t need to be first. I need to be accurate. You don’t need to redefine your code of ethics. People should assume that you’re telling the truth, and they base that on your history of telling the truth.
What’s your daily news diet or routine like?
I probably have 50 websites that I check on a daily basis. From an environmental standpoint, it’s rare that I will read a printed newspaper, just because of the physical reality of dealing with that many printed products. I read a lot of Twitter accounts. I will TiVo most of the stuff that I watch. I rely on a network of people to refer information to me. I read a lot of nonfiction.
There’s a YouTube video of you speaking to an American University class, and in it you bring up a well-known statistic: The vast majority the public radio audience is white, even in a majority-minority city like Washington, D.C. How, if at all, did you try to change that – to reach a broader, more diverse audience?
I had a two-pronged approach: To diversify the newsroom and then also by expanding what we covered. It’s always been my approach that whether public or commercial, the audience wants good news. It’s always been thought that public radio does long-form, audio rich pieces and commercial does breaking news. Well, commercial should do long-form, and public radio should do breaking news, traffic and weather.
In that video you also talked about how three black people, yourself included, got to high-ranking positions at a station with a largely white audience. You said it’s because “You’re damn good at what you do.” Even so, do you recognize the need for more diversity in journalism employment, and should news outlets actively try to change the percentages of minorities they employ?
That has been my position about American journalism for more than 40 years. What disappoints me is we’ve been having this conversation for more than 40 years. There are, if you look at the numbers, the numbers are going down, they’re not increasing (of minority employment in journalism). Particularly in public broadcasting, I have a very serious concern that people of my experience and level are not represented.
I’d consider myself a public media junkie, and the perception I have is that those who are employed in public media are of a different stripe, not political, but have a certain kind of personality and loyalty to public media that’s somehow different than other news media. Do you have a sense of that?
I think that is a dominant perception within the public media world, that we are more passionate, more invested. But I’ve worked in commercial newsrooms, radio and newspapers, and I don’t think those people have any less passion for journalism.
What’s your favorite public radio show or host?
Metro Connection (a WAMU program). I think it’s one of the best locally produced public radio shows about its local area.
At SPJ we’ve been asking people for a while about what we call j-peeves – journalism pet peeves. Do you have any?
Improper use of language. Something as basic as grammatical rules. I understand that language changes – we don’t say “thee” and “thou” – but agreement between subject and verb is a rule. No matter what we do, language is important.
What’s your advice to young people getting into journalism now compared to when you were starting?
Don’t consider yourself a student. Consider yourself a journalist who happens to be in school. You can be a journalist whether you’re 12 years old or 120. Don’t wait to get out of school to do journalism. The more you write the better you become. Read (the work of) other journalists. There’s too much “I” in journalism. I never wanted to tell someone my opinion; I wanted their opinions to be informed (because of my reporting).
Tagged under: diversity