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Two international students from Saudi Arabia, Raina Asid, a senior studying communications disorder and sciences, and Aymen Belazi, a sophomore learning the hotel, restaurant and tourist management, speak with Ray Suarez of PBS-s 'NewsHour' after his lecture given as part of the President-s Speaker Series at Plattsburgh State.

PLATTSBURGH -- After radio host Don Imus made racist comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team last year, the fallout was swift and decisive.

Popular NBC weatherman Al Roker spoke up and said it would be a good idea for the network to stop running Imus's program. Producers and correspondents spoke to executives. An African-American member of the CBS board first quietly, and then publicly, exerted pressure.

It became an example of the strides that have been made in diversifying journalism.

"Twenty years ago, there was no one with that kind of tact and clout inside the company to make that representation," said Ray Suarez, senior correspondent for "NewsHour" with Jim Lehrer on the Public Broadcasting System.

"Thirty years ago, there was no price to pay -- literally -- no price to pay, no push back."

LITTLE REPRESENTATION

Suarez, a seasoned news veteran, discussed diversity in journalism Monday night at Plattsburgh State as part of the college's Presidents' Speaker Series.

A life member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and a founding member of the Chicago Association of Hispanic Journalists, Suarez said that while diversity has improved in journalism, there is still a ways to go.

Suarez, who grew up in Brooklyn with a Latino population of more than 1 million, said that despite population numbers, few people of color were featured on television when he was young.

He recalled being asked by groups of students during the annual meetings of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists what Latinos were on television during his childhood. His answer is a short list: Desi Arnaz on reruns of "I Love Lucy;" the Cisco Kid, who wasn't even played by a Mexican; and Quick Draw McGraw's burro sidekick, Baba Looey.

During the urban unrest in the 1960s, minority reporters were starting to get opportunities. White reporters were sometimes afraid to cover stories or couldn't get people to speak to them, leading to an editor sending out minority reporters along with seasoned white reporters to cover the events in a "literal trial by fire."

Diversity in the newsroom was still sorely lacking, and improvements came slowly. Community groups started to use public and private pressure, and occasional lawsuits motivated more hiring and promotion.

There were growing pains as minorities were breaking into journalism on a larger scale.

"We hadn't been there before," Suarez said. "Now that we were there, we were going to make up for lost time and set the record straight."

STILL SKEWED

Even with diversity now at a level where it has never been, there are still shortcomings. Suarez said the American Society of Newspaper Editors is promoting parity in newsrooms -- the people there should reflect the mixed ethnicity of the population.

But in 2004, about 40 percent of the 927 newspapers that responded to the annual census survey reported having no minorities in the newsroom.

Television networks refuse to release that type of information and often say that while they need to improve on diversification, they are making efforts, Suarez said.

"Believe me, if the numbers were great, they'd be released."

Suarez pointed out some recent examples of minority reporters getting more important opportunities. Gwen Ifill, a co-worker and friend of Suarez's on "NewsHour," handled questions during the vice-presidential debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney.

"That was a big deal," Suarez said.

He said he's curious, excited and anxious to see what's waiting around the corner. The current generation is growing up in a much more integrated world than Suarez did.

He did not want his lecture to be taken as simply a rant about every minority journalist deserving a great job.

"What it should be understood as is an acknowledgment of how far things have come in the last 40 years and a call to a better future in the newsrooms that are waiting for us, out there in the later years of this century."

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