PBS and Al Jazeera America Are Diversifying - Will Lily-White News Rivals Follow Suit?

By Sara Morrison, The Wrap

PBS and Al Jazeera America are shaking up the status quo by hiring a diverse group of journalists for key on-air positions. The moves reflect the networks' conscious effort to become more multicultural in their approach, executives tell TheWrap.

When Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff were named the co-anchors of PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, it was hailed as a historic advancement for both women and minorities in TV news, where both have been largely underrepresented.

Along with Ifill and Woodruff, Indian-American Hari Sreenivasan became the show's senior correspondent, adding to his upcoming responsibilities as the anchor of the show's new weekend edition. Behind the camera, Linda Winslow serves as the show's executive producer. Previously Ifill and Woodruff rotated hosting duties on the program long anchored by Jim Lehrer and Robert MacNeil.

PBS isn't the only channel making an effort to diversify its talent: Al Jazeera America, set to launch Aug. 20, has been on a hiring spree -- and many of those hires are minorities. Joie Chen, Antonia Mora and Ali Velshi will anchor shows on the network, and many hires both in front and behind the camera have been similarly diverse.

"When I was a little girl and I looked up and saw so few people who looked like me, I thought I didn't belong," Ifill told TheWrap when her new anchorship was announced.

But at the same time, she said, "diversity is more than just skin color and more than just gender." It's about making sure as many viewpoints as possible are represented and as many voices are heard.

Ifill says it's important to her to "listen and be open to the possibility that someone might say something you've never heard before." You have to know what you don't know, and seek out people who do.

Soledad O'Brien, who will serve as a correspondent for the Al Jazeera, pointed out diversity isn't just about the color of one person's skin – it's about the viewpoints and topics that person covers.

"Diversity is never about one person, ever. It's about a company's philosophy, what they believe and what they want to put on TV and how they want to serve their viewer," she said. "I think I can serve my viewers by making sure that the stories that I cover are over a wise range of topics."

"I always felt like you can't really tell the story and leave out important voices. And by 'important' I mean across the board, all the voices," she added. At Al Jazeera America, "definitely I'm going to get a chance to continue doing that"

"I think that they've put together one of the most diverse teams to cover the news in this country," Al Jazeera America's recently announced primetime anchor John Seigenthaler told TheWrap. "And that's one of the things that makes them stand out."

Looking at other cable news networks' primetime anchors, a theme emerges: Bill O'Reilly (white man), Sean Hannity (white man), Greta Van Susteren (white woman), Anderson Cooper (white man), Piers Morgan (white man), Chris Hayes (white man), Rachel Maddow (white woman) and Lawrence O'Donnell (white man). And don't forgot Megyn Kelly (white woman), who will be somewhere on the Fox News primetime schedule in September, and Alec Baldwin (white man), who is in talks with MSNBC for his own Friday night show.

Some strides have been made in the past: Barbara Walters paved the way for women when she became the first female to co-anchor a newscast in 1976, and was followed by Connie Chung, who co-anchored with Dan Rather before Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer went solo at the desk. Over at NBC, Lester Holt is holding down the fort for Brian Williams when he's off for knee surgery, and Ed Bradley was a correspondent for CBS' "60 Minutes" until his death in 2006.

But it's hardly enough for Bob Butler, president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

"I've been in the business quite a while and I have watched with chagrin as the cable companies and the broadcast networks never seem to find that person of color to be an anchor," Butler told TheWrap.

Butler said the NABJ has met with networks several times over the years about the issue, often to hear that they're just looking for the "right person," so he or she will have every chance to succeed. But, he said, "it is 2013 and you'd think that there'd be some kind of movement."

Ifill agreed: "We haven't come as far as we should. The fact that it's news in 2013 that Judy and I are doing a broadcast together shows that."

The advances that have been made didn't come easy, Ifill said: "I have a flat spot in the center of my head from banging my head against the wall trying to put more diversity in the newsroom."

Butler thinks if Al Jazeera America and PBS NewsHour succeed, it'll give the other networks a big reason to follow suit: ratings. "I think everything is ratings-driven," he said.

Ifill remains optimistic. "We're doing better," she said. "Today was a couple steps forward, and I'm happy about that."