What a great way to start my day-- with news of NBC's choice to succeed the late Tim Russert-- Mark Theis Whitaker, formerly of Newsweek Magazine, will be assuming the role of NBC Washington Bureau Chief.
The news was actually announced yesterday by officials at the Peacock network. It landed in my e-mailbox this morning in a message from Broadcasting & Cable Magazine.
What is particulary rewarding are the kind of qualities that Mark's superiors see in him, as were outlined in their statement. Here's what NBC President Steve Capus had to say about Mark Whitaker:
"the truth is, he is the ideal candidate for the job, and that was evident the minute we took stock of potential replacements. Mark's got all of the components that will assure his success -- a commitment to journalistic integrity, political savvy, a keen eye for the future and a management style that is inclusive and fair. He is exactly what the bureau needs."
Like many others (including on-air talent) who wear two hats in these lean, mean economic times in our industry, Whitaker will continue as senior vice president at NBC even as he assumes day-to-day management of Russert's beloved Meet the Press and election coverage.
In facts, holding both jobs is probably not a bad idea at all.
The timing of this announcement is uncanny, purely coincidental nonetheless. It came a day after the conclusion of the UNITY Journalists Convention days after results of a survey of 61 network-owned stations was released by National Association of Black Journalists.
Whitaker (at least at one time) was a member of the National Association of Black Journalists. I'm not sure if he still is. (Full disclosure: I am a member of NABJ)
According to the NABJ study, "Among 58 news directors, 17% were non-white: eight were African American, 1 was Hispanic and 1 was Asian. All the news directors of color worked for NBC or Fox."
Let's be clear-- we're talking about LOCAL STATION management and Whitaker will be a network manager. But, there's a related/key point here about diversity in those with decision-making authority-- those calling the shots, doing the hiring and firing.
Last week, the UNITY alliance of minority journalism organizations also launched its "Ten by 2010: Transforming Journalism Through Diversity Leadership" initiative.
The goal of "Ten by 2010" is to have 10 media companies commit to selecting at least one high-potential manager of color and to promote that employee to a senior management position by midyear 2010. Participants will receive customized training to help prepare them for specific senior level positions.
The first two companies to sign on were reportedly Gannett and The New York Times Company.
Technically, Whitaker has been at NBC in senior-level position since 2007. So he would not be counted in this new initiative.
In fact, were it not for Whitaker, NBC might not have committed to a most aggressive weeklong series of reports last November airing on its top-rated NIghtly News program, African American Women: Where They Stand.
While Whitaker certainly was not the only one responsible for a decision about the series, it certainly didn't hurt that he was a part of the discussion.
Value-Added Beyond Skin Color
Caution: This does not mean that just because a news manager is African-American that he or she will automatically push African-American issues.
The real value in Whitaker's ascension to the coveted leadership role at NBC's Washington Bureau is that in an historic election like we'll have this year with an African-American as a likely candidate from a major political party, there will be another African-American heading up the coverage at the nation's top television network.
But, Whitaker's multimedia background is also a value to add. As he described in a 2002 blog posting, Whitaker spent much of his career on the print side as the editor at Newsweek Magazine from 1998 to 2006.
Before joining NBC in 2007, he was VP and editor-in-chief of new ventures at Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. The graduate of Harvard College, who worked on the famous Harvard Crimson, made history last decade as the first African American editor of major newsweekly in the U.S.
Not only does Whitaker bring this new media, digital ventures background, he also has been tried and tested through some pretty heated fires.
Many will remember the 2005 controversy where Newsweek ran an item in its Periscope section, based on a single anonymous source. The story said the U.S. military had desecrated the Quran in front of Muslim detainees in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba
Whitaker was the one who had to defend his journalists' decision in a barrage of media interviews. But, he got through that experience, landed on his feet.
It's that kind of experience that not a lot of journalists of color in high-profile positions have had. The journalists at NBC will, no doubt, be in the spotlight as they cover this campaign. Whitaker knows how to handle the attention.
Hopefully now you see why this week's announcement at NBC is that much more gratifying and inspiring for other black journalists like myself.
Having worked at two NBC affiliates producing local news programmed around Meet the Press, I considered Tim Russert a colleague. I even got a chance to meet him when he and his son, Luke, came to our Atlanta station, WXIA-TV, to do an edition of Meet the Press a few years ago. So, I was hit REALLY hard by his sudden death in May.
But, the bitterness of Russert's loss is little less painful now knowing that Russert's successor at the NBC Washington Bureau is such a seasoned journalist, who just happens to be an African-American brother.
Already one of at least two African-American VPs at NBC (Lyne Pitts heads up the network's strategic partnerships and production operation), Whitaker won't be the only African-American key manager at the NBC Washington bureau, which shares a building with its top-rated owned-and-operated station, WRC-TV. As I noted in a previous posting last week, Camille Edwards is the vice president of news for WRC-TV.