Holiday Nonfiction Offerings: Journalists Follow Their Passions

Andre Leon Talley of Vogue Magazine and author Robin Givhan pose for a photo at her 'Battle of Versailles' book signing party with special guest Andre Leon Talley at the French Ambassador's Residence on March 24, 2015 in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Robin Givhan

Our latest list of nonfiction books by journalists of color or those of special interest to them — the second of two — features journalists following their passions, whether delving further into their beats, pursuing an avocation, expanding on an interest kindled at work, seeking more information about why they grew up as they did or using their writing skills to become better parents.

Robin Givhan

Robin Givhan, fashion writer for the Washington Post and winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for criticism, has written "The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History" (Flatiron Books, $27.99 hardcover; $14.99 ebook; $16.99 paperbook due in March.)

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Givhan explores one of the most influential episodes of 20th century fashion history, one that also bears on efforts by black models and designers to snare their rightful places in that industry.

Givhan "whisks readers back to an electric night in 1973 when five emerging American fashion designers bested their French counterparts," Elizabeth Wellington wrote in April for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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"The 306-page tome . . . recounts how the industry's then-underdogs — Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, and Roy Halston Frowick (simply known as Halston) — surprisingly triumphed in a fashion show competition and fund-raiser that would benefit the crumbling Versailles palace.

"Givhan would say the win over fashion greats Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, and Marc Bohan changed the course of history, cementing American designers as respected arbiters of high fashion. That set the tone for the future Tommy Hilfigers, Diane von Furstenbergs, Betsey Johnsons and even Rocawears to dominate the world fashion scene. . . ."

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In the Boston Globe, Christopher Muther noted that Givhan also built a case for diversity in fashion. "The Versailles show overlapped with an unprecedented moment when the industry realized it was time to reach beyond its fascination with chilly, porcelain runway models. After race riots, the Kerner report, and the ensuing 'Black is beautiful' movement, US fashion found new energy with African-American models. Of the 36 American models at Versailles, 10 were African American. That's more than the number of black runway models you're likely to count during the entire span of New York Fashion Week. . . .

"Most of the designers have since died, most recently de la Renta in 2014, but Givhan brings the story together by plunging deep into magazine and newspaper archives and interviewing those in attendance, including a young Donna Karan, who was Klein's assistant. She extensively quotes Burrows, who was the youngest designer in the show, and also the only African-American one. More importantly for the purposes of 'The Battle of Versailles,' she talks to the models who spun, danced, and defeated the staid French and their milquetoast presentation. . . ."

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Thessaly La Force, writing in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, added that "on that night, they weren't African-American models and Burrows’s clothes weren't African-American designs — they were American models in American clothes.

"After the event, the French designers embraced change. Givenchy said that he went to California to find black models for his Paris shows; 'I [tried to] make a cabine with only black models, but some of the clients refused to wear the [ensembles] presented by these models. But I still continued.' Contemporary music was introduced to presentations, and models were encouraged to move differently — transforming stuffy, gilded affairs into something a little more spontaneous. As fashion has taken less direction from Paris, American designers have risen in prominence.

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"But it's disappointing, as Givhan smartly points out, to look at fashion today and see how clearly other considerations have failed to gain in importance. 'The default standard of beauty had always been white, and it remains so,' Givhan writes, noting the dearth of African-American models on the runway and in print. The stage, she suggests, has been set for a new battle."

Derrick Z. Jackson

Derrick Z. Jackson, who took a buyout at the Boston Globe in June after writing an op-ed column at the Globe since 1988, is co-author with Stephen W. Kress of "Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock" (Yale University Press, $30 hardcover; $20 paperback due in May).

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Jackson, who continues to write for the Globe, has always included the outdoors among his column subjects. Kress is the National Audubon Society's vice president for bird conservation and director of the Audubon Seabird Restoration Program. Jackson thanks him "for allowing me into the inner workings, er, burrows, of his life's work and entrusting me with the task of helping him to fledge a story that has changed seabird conservation forever."

Their subject is the puffin, a black-and-white seabird with a brightly colored beak and feet.

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"Although never listed as endangered, Atlantic puffins were plundered in Maine and Canada in the nineteenth century for food and feathers and were reduced to just one pair on a Maine island by 1902," they write. "This book is the story of the first forty years of Project Puffin and its quest to bring puffins back to Maine.

"The project began with the knowledge that no seabird had ever been restored to an island where humans had wiped them out. . . . The return of puffins to the Maine coast is proof that people can, instead of exploiting nature, become responsible stewards for the planet. This inspirational story is not just about bringing a singular bird back to a former nesting island.

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"We tell it in the hope that the tempest calms, the skies clear, and conservation becomes the guiding principle that averts the tragedy of future bird extinctions — and perhaps our own."

Writing in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, Thomas Urquhart, former director of Maine Audubon, told readers, "Project Puffin makes a strong case for going beyond [laissez-faire] conservation that leaves recovery to nature. But 'playing God' inevitably leads to increasingly tricky questions. Eliminate black-backed and herring gulls to gain a puffin colony? No problem.

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"But then laughing gulls (a species of special concern in Maine) return with the puffins and need to be controlled. Increased numbers of bald eagles and peregrine falcons also pose threats. Kress doesn't suggest culling them, but one wonders where and how the line is drawn. 'Project Puffin' is a serious book that raises immensely important questions."

Jackson's photos of puffins are displayed on the website of public radio station WBUR-FM in Boston.

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Derrick Z. Jackson, PRI's "The World": How puffins made it back to Maine's Egg Rock (Sept. 3)

Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson, for years a theater and book critic for Newsweek and the New York Times, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995, has written "Negroland: a memoir" (Pantheon, $25 hardcover; $12.99 ebook).

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"Negroland" is already becoming fodder for black book clubs, which are populated by women who are not neutral about the class divisions Jefferson describes.

"Negroland," she writes, "is my name for a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty. Children in Negroland were warned that few Negroes enjoyed privilege or plenty and that most whites would be glad to see them returned to indigence, deference and subservience. Children there were taught that most other Negroes ought to be emulating us when too many of them (out of envy or ignorance) went on behaving in ways that encouraged racial prejudice."

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Tracy K. Smith wrote in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, "That warning — that manner of instilling in children the understanding that with privilege comes responsibility — strikes me as the true impetus for Jefferson's book. For once we become accustomed to delicious glimpses of Negroland's impeccable manners and outfits, the meticulously orchestrated social opportunities and fastidiously maintained hairstyles, what we begin to notice is the cost and weight of this heavy collective burden. . . ."

The book has its detractors. A blogger writing as "Whitney" at brownbooksandgreentea.com wrote, "That's my biggest issue with this book — other than the tone, which sounded as though she expected me to be impressed with her name-dropping and empathetic with her occasional aloofness — it was directionless. Margo Jefferson is far too gifted to write what was essentially a historical text with arbitrary anecdotal filler. . . ."

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The publisher lists these accolades: "A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER; New York Times: 100 Notable Books of 2015; New York Times: Dwight Garner's Best Books of 2015; Washington Post: 10 Best Books of 2015; Los Angeles Times: 31 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015; Marie Claire: Best Books of 2015; Vanity Fair: Best Book Gifts of 2015."

C-SPAN: Book Discussion on Negroland (Sept. 16)

Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen, an NFL writer for 15 years for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Chicago Sun-Times and Pioneer Press in St. Paul, Minn., is working with athletes to produce a series of children's books collectively called "The Middle School Rules."

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The first, "The Middle School Rules of Brian Urlacher," eight-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Chicago Bears, was published in January (BroadStreet, $14.99 hardcover). "The Middle School Rules of Charles 'Peanut' Tillman," cornerback for the Chicago Bears and Carolina Panthers, followed in November (BroadStreet, $14.99 hardcover).

"Jensen's 7-year-old son, Elijah, was the inspiration for the project," Phil Thompson wrote in January for the Chicago Tribune.

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" 'I try to read to Elijah every single night and it's frustrating trying to find a book. The characters were either too whiny or kind of naughty,' Jensen told the Tribune. 'I really wished there were better examples of people who had better character. . . . I reflected on what I could possibly do about that. I thought, well, I'm a sports writer, I have a lot of connections.' . . ."

Tillman writes in his introduction, "I wasn't always the biggest, the fastest, or the smartest growing up. I was actually quite small, hence the nickname Peanut.

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"My experiences growing up molded me and helped me become the man I am today. I made many mistakes and suffered some setbacks, but I always searched for the lessons.

"I'm not that different from you all, as you will see in this book. I faced some of the same challenges that you may be dealing with. Not if, but when you have trials, my hope is that you can rely on some of my rules to guide you through your struggle. . . "

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The series targets children in grades 2 to 7 and is published by a specialist in Christian books. Jensen now works as digital content and marketing specialist for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a sports ministry.

For the Urlacher book, Jensen "traveled to Lovington, N.M., to talk to coaches and friends who knew Urlacher when he was young," the Tribune's Thompson wrote. "The 38-year-old author said he always has been fascinated by players' various paths to the NFL, having an unusual background himself. Jensen was born in Korea and was adopted by an airman. When Jensen started first grade at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., 'I didn't speak a word of English when the school year started,' he said.

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"Now he views learning through the prism of his own son. 'Whenever I was writing chapters (for the book), I was thinking, would I want my son to read this?' . . ."

Ron Nixon

Ron Nixon is a reporter in the New York Times Washington bureau and a visiting associate in the department of media and journalism studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where he teaches investigative reporting and data journalism.

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He has written "Selling Apartheid: South Africa's Global Propaganda War." (Independent Publishers Group, $21.95 paperback; $17.99 ebook).

Though the book was published in June in South Africa, a limited number of copies is available in the United States before the April 2016 U.S. publication date. Those interested may contact Independent Publishers Group at 1-800-888-4741.

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"This is the story of the worldwide propaganda campaign waged by the apartheid government to win support and burnish its image overseas, above all in the United States," reads the cover of the South African edition. "Run with vigorous efficiency for almost fifty years and costing about $100 million annually, it involved an elaborate network of supporters. In the United States these included global corporations with business operations in South Africa, conservative religious organisations, and an unlikely coalition of liberal black clergy and anti-communist black conservatives aligned with right-wing Cold War politicians. . . ."

Rebecca Davis wrote in September for Britain's Guardian newspaper, "The bulk of the apartheid government's efforts . . . were directed at the US. Nixon's book is populated with extraordinary characters, particularly those black Americans who became such diligent mouthpieces for the apartheid government.

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"Nixon's previous short e-book Operation Blackwash vividly chronicled the apartheid regime's attempts to win the favour of African Americans, and here again Nixon returns to this surreal aspect of the propaganda war. . . ."

Excerpts 

Joy-Ann Reid

Joy-Ann Reid, a national correspondent for MSNBC, has written "Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons, and the Racial Divide" (Morrow, $27.99 hardcover; $14.99 ebook; $24.99 downloadable audio file).

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The rise of Donald Trump and the crowded Republican field has put most of the media attention on the GOP presidential race, but Reid, writing before Trump became a factor, saw a story in changes in the Democratic Party since the days of Lyndon B. Johnson.

"If the modern Republican Party represents the part of America that in fundamental ways is pulling backward toward a distant and irretrievable past, the current iteration of the Democratic Party represents the possibilities and challenges of a multiracial future," she writes.

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"It doesn't always get the alchemy right, and if it ultimately fails, party loyalties and demographic compositions could one day be scrambled again. But for the time being, and for the foreseeable future, particularly for African Americans, the Democrats are the only ball game, and with pressing issues of economic, health, and educational disparities, and with voting rights hanging in the balance, failure is not an option . . . "

Reid added, "I wrote this book because if the Democrats can't get it right — and they haven't yet —it's hard to see how the country can."

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The book, released in September, has not been reviewed in major newspapers.

Ron Stodghill

Ron Stodghill, who has worked at the New York Times and Business Week and runs a think tank at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black institution, has written "Where Everybody Looks Like Me: At the Crossroads of America's Black Colleges and Culture" (Amistad/HarperCollins, $26.99 hardcover; $12.99 ebook; $14.99 trade paperback due September 2016).

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"Today, HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] are stumbling, in some cases, toward extinction," Stodghill writes in his introduction.

"Once hailed as national treasures, the life force behind the black surgeon, engineer, painter, or poet is scraping hard to get by. . . . Experts in higher education don't expect most of these schools to survive. Based on current trends, they expect that by 2035, the number of HBCUs will shrink by more than half — with only 15 of these actually thriving." He counts 104 HBCUs today.

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The premises of this book were strongly challenged in a Washington Post review by Daryl Michael Scott, a history professor at Howard University, among the most prominent HBCUs.

"Stodghill is committed to the future of HBCUs but calls on them to get their houses in order before it’s too late," Scott wrote in October.

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"While acknowledging that state policies and those of the Obama administration, especially changes in the Plus Loan Program, have created an economic hardship on HBCUs, Stodghill sides with reformers who, in general, believe in less dependence on government money, increased standards for admissions, merging and consolidating colleges, more accountability for administrators and boards of trustees, and constructing majors tailored to the marketplace. Unlike some of his interviewees, however, Stodghill believes in the standard justification for HBCUs: providing a more nurturing environment for students.

"Unfortunately, Stodghill bases his case on historical myths.

"He holds the view that majority-white schools 'poach' the best black students. (Who owns them?) He seems unaware that those deemed the best students often attended majority-white colleges even during the segregation era. Phi Beta Kappa keys from the Ivies and small Northern colleges were treated much like Olympic medals, while many HBCUs were considered a continuation of high school — which, given their inadequate funding, they often were. Without doubt, desegregation, along with new federal programs, brought better funding and transformed most HBCUs into viable colleges.

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"Stodghill also promotes the myth that once upon a time, dynamic, committed faculty members and administrators led HBCUs and pursued the path to progress. . . ."

In Newsweek, Marybeth Gasman, Andrés Castro Samayoa and Felecia Commodore, all affiliated with the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions, called the book "a collection of anecdotes based on interviews with various people associated in some way with HBCUs — it is not research-based and does not draw upon or build upon any research related to HBCUs. It is interesting and provocative and provides quite a bit of fodder for critics of HBCUs, which it seems was not Stodghill's intention given that he claims that HBCUs' demise will take 'a vital part of our shared history with [it].' "

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"Where Everybody Looks Like Me" is listed among the Los Angeles Times' "31 nonfiction picks" for the holidays, and at The Root, is one of "14 of the Best Nonfiction Books by Black Authors in 2015."

Ron Stodghill, Salon: Bill Cosby is on the phone: "Wake up, man!" (book excerpt) (Oct. 11)

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Short Takes

Linda Hervieux, a white journalist and photographer who is former deputy metro and deputy national editor at the Daily News in New York, has written "Forgotten: The Untold Story of D-Day's Black Heroes, at Home and at War" (Harper, $27.99 hardcover; $14.99 ebook). "To reconstruct this forgotten chapter in history, Hervieux conducted interviews with the twelve members of the 320th who were still alive, as well as the relatives of others, and culled archives from across America and Britain," according to the publicity material. " 'Some of the men had never spoken of their wartime adventures until I showed up at their doors,' Hervieux writes.' . . ." (video)

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Charisse Jones, business travel correspondent at USA Today, has co-written "Unlocking the Truth: Three Brooklyn Teens on Life, Friendship and Making the Band" (Putnam, $16.99, paperback). Unlocking the Truth are "three amazing, black, Brooklyn teens who formed a heavy metal group and got a nearly $2 million record deal last year," Jones writes. "It's the boys' story, in their own words, with a foreword by Questlove. They're incredibly talented and an inspiration." She added for Journal-isms, "Basically I took the boys' story — which I reported through interviewing them, watching them perform etc. — and then 'channeled' if you will their voices. They then obviously played what I had written. Same thing as any co-writing project except I interpreted the voices of three teen boys!"

Leonard Pitts Jr., syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald, has written a novel, "Grant Park" (Agate Bolden, $21 hardcover; $13.99 ebook), with a black journalist as a central character. "Disillusioned, weary, and outraged by yet another report of an unarmed black man gunned down by police, columnist Malcolm Toussaint writes a column so incendiary that his editor, Bob Carson, rejects it," according to a plot summary, "but Toussaint uses Carson's password to hack into the newspaper's computer system and publish it anyway. Then he disappears, abducted off the street by two improbable but still-dangerous white supremacists plotting to bomb Barack Obama's Election Night rally in Grant Park. . . ."

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In Other News . . .

Norris Leaving NPR to "Grow" Race Project

Host Says Effort Might Expand Beyond Journalism

After 13 years at NPR, many co-hosting the network's signature "All Things Considered" daily newsmagazine, Michele Norris is leaving to devote more time to growing "The Race Card Project," the Peabody Award-winning initiative she began five years ago.

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"It's a good time to try something new, particularly since this project has grown in ways I hadn't thought it would," Norris told Journal-isms by telephone on Thursday. "There are so many issues around race and identity and the gap that divides us."

Moreover, "the media landscape is changing," and she'd like to see whether the Race Card Project can expand beyond the confines of journalism or try different kinds of storytelling. She suggested a look at the project's website and the stories told by readers to get a sense of the possibilities for further exploration. Churches and college campuses are among places that have sought interaction with the Race Card Project, she said.

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In announcing the award for the project in 2013, the Peabody Awards explained, "This project, headed up by Michele Norris, undercuts the political, pejorative meaning of the term 'race card' by asking people to use six words to summarize their thoughts and experiences about race and send them in on postcards, emails, or tweets.

"Initially compiled on a website (theracecardproject.com), the descriptions eventually grew into a regular segment on NPR's Morning Edition. A single six-word description such as 'Ask who I am, not what,' 'Mexican white girl doesn't speak Spanish' or 'My mixed kids have it differently' opened up complicated, vulnerable and insightful discussions about race that we rarely hear in public spaces.

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"The segments featured enlightening commentary from the authors about their own racial experiences. In a succinct 7½ minutes, we get a glimpse into the nuances of personal experience with race — ones that we might never hear, even from somebody we have known for years. For encouraging public discussion about diversity in ways that cut through obvious differences to present unique and individual lived experiences, The Race Card Project receives a Peabody Award."

Michael Oreskes, NPR's senior vice president of news and editorial director, announced Norris' impending departure in a staff memo late Thursday afternoon.

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"For the past 13 years, Michele Norris has brought inspiring voices, thought-provoking perspectives, and deeper insights into the day's news to millions of NPR listeners. While hosting All Things Considered, in reports across NPR newsmagazines, and through live events, she has made an indelible mark on NPR. All this makes it difficult to share that she has decided it's time to open the next chapter in her journalism career and will be leaving us at the end of December.

"Over her time at NPR, she brought our audiences profoundly moving, award-winning coverage ranging from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and interviews with leaders in politics, art, culture, and beyond.

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"She also helped NPR reach younger listeners through the Backseat Book Club with producer Justine Kenin and she has led visceral, honest national conversations about race through the York Project she conducted with Steve Inskeep around the 2008 elections that earned the duPont Award. In recent years, as the creator and host of The Race Card Project, she has challenged each of us to think in new ways about how we see ourselves and each other. . . ."

Norris, 54, spent almost 10 years as a reporter for ABC News in its Washington bureau before joining NPR in 2002. She also worked as a staff writer for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

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Norris began hosting "All Things Considered" on Dec. 9, 2002, and in 2009 was named "Journalist of the Year" by the National Association of Black Journalists. in 2011, NPR announced that Norris would take a leave from the hosting job until after the 2012 elections because her husband, Broderick Johnson, accepted a senior adviser position with President Obama's reelection campaign.

Johnson went on to take a position as cabinet secretary in the administration, heading the "My Brother's Keeper" initiative to help young men of color, starting in 2014. Norris did not return to the anchor chair, instead becoming a host and special correspondent.

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She told Journal-isms that she had not determined a business model for the Race Card Project. But she cited the StoryCorps project headed by David Isay, which travels the country collecting the stories of everyday people and airing them on NPR, in calling today "a wonderful time for entrepreneurial journalism."

StoryCorps calls itself "an independently funded organization" as well as a public service.

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The announcement comes two days after ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen disclosed that NPR has "four more Asian employees in those areas than a year ago and three more Latinos, but two fewer African-American employees."

Quoting Oreskes, Jensen wrote, "NPR is examining how it can step up its hiring of people with strong journalism experience from related industries, such as newspapers and television

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YouTube: Michele Norris — The Race Card Project — 2013 Peabody Award Acceptance Speech

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