PBS' Hari Sreenivasan: 'Diversity Is More Than Just the Face on TV'
Born in India, Hari Sreenivasan immigrated to the United States as a child, where he and his family settled in the Seattle area. It was then — when the young Hari translated Peter Jennings' nightly news reports for his parents — that he first began his "career" in journalism. In the years since, Sreenivasan has emerged as one of the country's most respected broadcast journalists, serving as an anchor on PBS NewsHour Weekend.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Asia Blog at his New York office, Sreenivasan discussed his early days in broadcasting, the necessity of diversity, and why shows like PBS NewsHour — the so-called "broccoli on your plate" — remain as vital as ever.
Did you always want to be a journalist? Or was this something you fell into?
I started out as a radio DJ in high school. KNHC, the radio station for Nathan Hale High School in Seattle, Washington, had a fully-powered, 30,000 watt stereo station for high school kids to run. We played all kinds of things: post-modern rock, alternative, a little bit of dance. It was really just an excuse to play loud music in a soundproof room for three hours and get away with it.
But eventually I realized there was just more interesting stuff going on in television, and that it was a much more powerful storytelling tool. I wasn’t even thinking about a career in journalism until college. You had a wide range of stuff on TV — crazy Maury Povich-throwing-chairs type television, but also PBS, the Discovery Channel, and the stuff that filtered through India too, like the National Geographic Channel. These networks presented slivers of the world and were incredibly informative and enlightening and educational.
In television news, I noticed at that time — in the early to mid 90s — that there was a lack of South Asian representation on the air. The most famous South Asian then was Apu from The Simpsons. That was a tragedy. It was a caricature — a cartoon — that most people were noticing about South Asians.
I also noticed that news stories often got fundamentals about Indian-American society, Hinduism, and India-Pakistan relations wrong, and that if we didn’t have a seat at the table, we couldn’t make editorial decisions.
The question was — how do you go about doing that? I started taking internships in college, at local TV stations in Seattle. I had to muscle my way into one during my sophomore year, because the internship was primarily reserved for seniors. I just made this lady a pitch. I said, give me 10 days, and if you guys don’t like me, no harm, no foul. It took a little bit of moxie, I guess, because most of the schools around there, the University of Washington, Washington State University, etc., were cranking out broadcast journalism professionals. I was just this kid from a liberal arts college down the road. I just figured — why should I have to wait until my senior year if I’ve figured out this is what I want to do? I was giving them free labor.
They took the risk. I think I did pretty well in that first internship. During those first couple of days, I’d carry any piece of gear any cameraman wanted, and befriended them. Eventually, by day 10, they said “keep the kid around,” and that was it. During those internships I started to recognize the process of how those errors and inaccuracies occurred in local television news. And then I just got the bug.
The beauty of journalism is that it's a license to stay curious. You want to interview a homeless person, a mayor, a police chief, a CEO? It doesn’t matter — you have the right to talk to everyone. And that’s fascinating to me, it has been and it still is. That, and the fact that I can be stimulated on a daily basis by a different topic.
During my childhood in Renton, Washington, after we immigrated, I would translate [longtime ABC World News Tonight anchor] Peter Jennings every night to my parents. They’d be working on their English, I’d be working on my English, and I would explain to them what was going on. That was my first newscasting experience, I guess — to an audience of two. In some ways, I still feel that I'm translating for people.
Racial and ethnic diversity in newsrooms have become hot topics lately. To what extent do we still need to make a push to make newsrooms more diverse?
The Asian American Journalists Association has surveys that go back several years, as do the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. They have all these statistics on diversity that consistently paint the same sets of problems and issues.
Diversity is not just about the face on TV. It’s also about these questions: Who’s the decider? Who’s the person behind the scenes? Who’s the news director, the general manager, the owner of the television station? And when you start to look at those power structures, journalism becomes less and less diverse. There was a good New York Times breakdown in February that showed the 503 most influential people in America, and just about everyone in the media category was white.
Again, racial diversity is not just about bringing a different set of life experiences to the table. It can also bat down preconceived notions and stereotypes that all humans, including storytelling humans, have. Someone at the table has to say “What you just said is accurate for one slice of the population, but from where I live, where I grew up, we saw this event or this series of events, this person, or this institution, very differently.”
Are there any stories that you feel remain underreported as a result of the lack of diversity in newsrooms? Alternatively, are there stories that have surfaced in recent years because of renewed attention to diversity in media?
Gene Demby at NPR’s Code Switch wrote a story about how tired he is about being the "Black Lives Matter guy." He was tired of having every story about the tensions between African Americans and the police being assigned to him. He felt typecast — like he couldn’t write about anything else.
There are still stories that are underserved in the American press, including, frankly, the “rest of the world.” And fixing that is more than just having the right people in the room. Let’s say someone where I work pitches a story about something happening in India. There are going to be a couple of people in the room who look at me and say, “What do you think? Is this a big deal or not?" In some ways it’s stereotypical. I am not all of India or the subcontinent, and I can’t speak for 1.2 billion people. But I can say, “Hey, I know a source that can help you make a little bit more sense of this, or you can add this or that newspaper to your research pile when you're considering whether this is a story or not."
There are opportunities for greater diversity on the editorial front for any masthead in the country. It’s better for business to have a more diverse staff. It sells more papers and it gets you more clicks when you have a diverse group of people with different life experiences coming from different political backgrounds, different ideological ways of thinking, in addition to different races and classes. So what if you have an entire room of people who look like a United Colors of Benetton ad, if they all went to Ivy League Schools? And they all went to a fantastic prep school before that? That isn’t necessarily diversity.
To me, diversity includes how you grew up and the different life experiences you’ve had, including ones gained through living overseas or growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. All these things shape who we are. There’s not a single newsroom that would not benefit from thinking about the nature of the people they're bringing in and the people they're promoting into positions of power. If all the publishers and owners are still in the same lunch club, I don’t think we’re going to collectively move the ball forward.
At PBS, to what extent are you insulated from some of the pressures that face other media companies that rely more on advertiser and subscription money? Is the rise of companies like BuzzFeed — and their uber-successful watermelon-exploding videos — causing PBS to rethink its mission?
PBS NewsHour has traditionally always been the broccoli on your plate. We’re not going to give you the injection of sugar that you might get from watching cable news, or even some of the network evening newscasts. Just like every other story teller, we have the challenge of making whatever it is interesting to you. If I can’t make what’s happening in Turkey interesting, then you're not going to watch. And if you're not going to watch, you’re not going to learn, and you're not going to be a better informed citizen and the democracy will crumble.
This is a phenomenal time for experimentation within the industry. There are upstarts coming in with little to no legacy costs who are able to compete using internet-only platforms for distribution and delivery. They don’t have to have the sunk costs of satellites in the sky or fiber optic connections to places, they don’t have to have printing presses or delivery people in their minivans at three in the morning throwing things on porches. They’re skating on the back of Facebook and Twitter, and their infrastructure is paid for by your high-speed cable internet bill. They are able to take risks faster than some legacy media companies.
We’re open to experimentation and trying to innovate in places. But we still have to get our program on the air. We aren’t necessarily swayed toward watermelon videos when we have a migrant crisis that’s still massive and needs to be reported. I’m all for fun videos, don’t get me wrong. Puppy dogs eating peanut butter for the first time is going to do fantastic on the internet, and that’s great.
BuzzFeed also does good investigative reporting; for instance, I was just opening up an article about how ISIS uses the Internet. But they’re realizing the same challenges that the New York Times faced 50 years ago. One, how do we get all the people watching the watermelon video to come over and read this interesting article that we spent a lot of time and energy on producing. And by the way, how do I make sure that they clicked on some sort of ad? These aren’t new ideas and challenges — this is what newspapers had to deal with for decades, when they saw the margins for these ads are so low. So you start to ask, what is the business model behind storytelling today? This is a challenge for both the BuzzFeed's of the world, and the New York Times of the world.
We have a really good relationship with our audience, and we’re growing on digital platforms, double digits every year. We know from our surveys that our audience is more educated, more influential, and more affluent than average. They’re open-minded enough to tolerate the cognitive dissonance of arguing with people with whom you disagree with. When you come to cable news, a lot of it is confirmation bias — this exercise of hearing what you already believe — but articulated better by smarter people. “Yeah, that's exactly what I think, that’s what I’m going to say at the next barbecue to that cousin I hate.”
We’re not like that. When you can have a couple of people on our program disagree agreeably, standing next to each other, and they’re not yelling at each other — they’re actually having a civil conversation. That’s incredibly helpful. You get smarter. Let’s say you’re a dyed-in-the wool member of “team blue.” If you can hear “team red” say something and say, “I hadn’t thought about that" — that makes you a stronger member of your team. If you watch cable TV right now, they put two people on the air who yell at each other for 15 minutes and just let it go. And that’s what we’re not interested in doing.
How optimistic are you for the future of journalism?
I think it’s a very stressful period. It really depends on the day. I could argue that this is the end of journalism as we know it, and I could argue that this is the beginning of a new era of fantastic storytelling. I think there are more opportunities for great stories to tell than ever before. The barriers to entry have fallen. With our phones, we can create the basis if not the entirety of of documentaries. We couldn’t do that before. And that’s fantastic.
At the same time we have 50,000 options of where to go to get information. And none of these have a very good business model of how to support news. I think there’s an opportunity for trusted voices in this chaotic period to emerge. Possibly institutions, but certainly individuals.
Why did I watch Peter Jennings when I was growing up? Because at some point, I made the bargain that this guy is going to read all the newspapers and tell me what I need to know by 6:30 pm every night. Now it’s not only the newspapers — there are also all the websites, and social platforms, and everything else. And at some point, I just don’t have time to get through all of those things. So after awhile I get to the point where I think “Who are these people that I trust? What they think is really important to me.” If it’s about cars, there’s a guy writing about Tesla. If it’s about overseas atrocities, maybe it’s Nicholas Kristof; today’s he’s with the New York Times; maybe tomorrow he’ll be with someone else. If it’s about money and financial news, maybe there’s someone else that I trust. The friction to find mavens from other sources is almost nil.
If I put just a little effort into finding these sources I trust, I can build a news diet for myself coming from really really really smart people, whether they’re working at one company and one network or not. This is an amazing time for consumers of news, because they can choose what it is that they want and when they want it and how they want it. The challenge is for the creators of the stories to figure out how to get their work in front of people when they want it where they want it how they want it. And for them to come back again.
Facebook is in some ways an existential crisis, because individual brands and institutional brands are subsumed underneath the platform. When you ask someone today where they get their news, they’re likely to say, “I saw it on my phone.” When you ask them a follow-up question, “no, really, where?” they might just say “I saw it on Facebook.” Facebook doesn’t actually write articles. But you might not remember which institution published the articles, who the reporter was that did the work, because Facebook gets the credit. So what happens to us? Are we all essentially working for a platform, in some way?