Before MDI… and After: An Origin Story  

“For MDI, the work must continue – building on past success and demonstrating the way forward. Continuing to shine a light on the media manipulation that turns difference into division. Continuing to demonstrate the positive example of inclusive reporting. And continuing to nurture the next generations of students and reporters that we so need to pick up the torch”.

By Rob Leavitt*

This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London.  Watch this space for the other 24 essays.

I knew almost nothing about the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia when I first flew to Skopje, the capital, in 1994. I flew in from Amsterdam on Palair Macedonian Airlines, on an ancient, Russian Tupolev Tu-154, hunched in the last row next to my friend Paul, a veteran metro reporter from the Providence Journal who jumped at the chance for what seemed initially like a great adventure. We did share a few morbid jokes on the flight in; the jet was painted bright red “so it would be easy to find when it went down in the mountains.” A Palair flight had crashed the year before, killing most of the 97 people on board. 

Our mission seemed noble, quixotic, and arrogant all at once. The ethnic cleansing of nearby Bosnia had continued for two years by then while the whole world watched. Sarajevo remained under deadly siege.  Macedonia had avoided being dragged into the Yugoslav wars but tensions between the ethnic Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority were rising. United Nations, NATO, and nongovernmental conflict specialists were on high alert. UN peacekeepers, including 500 US soldiers, patrolled Macedonia’s borders with Serbia and Albania. 

Neighboring Greece was heightening the tension, too. The Greek government opposed the very existence of a state called Macedonia, hearkening back to ancient times and insisting that “Macedonia” was and is forever a part of Greece. In 1993, Greece launched a trade embargo, shutting off Macedonia’s access to imports and exports. This exacerbated the already high unemployment, falling GNP, and growing social pressures that the Yugoslav wars had already generated. 

Paul and I were on a scouting trip. The conflict resolution group Search for Common Ground had opened an office in Skopje led by a retired US diplomat. The organization knew local media played a huge role in fanning the flames of ethnic conflict in Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia (among many other parts of the world). They wanted to identify opportunities to bring “media and diversity” ideas from the US that might help newly independent, post-Communist news organizations develop more inclusive approaches to local reporting.  

Sure, give us a week, we’ll figure it out! 

My sensitivity to ethnic and social conflict emerged early. I grew up as a Jew in Worcester, Massachusetts in the US, an ethnically diverse and economically struggling industrial town. We were a small minority in town–about 5% of the population–but we had a tight community, pride in our achievements, and a strong ethic of social responsibility and “giving back.” 

I also grew up amid a quiet but lingering anti-Semitism: Periodic slurs, casual references to “the Jews killed Christ,” pennies thrown at you as you walked the halls in middle school. It was nothing terrible but it was ever-present. Growing up in the long shadow of the Holocaust and seeing survivors in the synagogue meant you could never completely dismiss it either. 

I was fortunate in having powerful female role models in those days of rising feminism. My mom was always active in the community and stood strong against the common sexist indignities of the times. Her mom, my nana, had lost her husband in her 30s and took over his struggling small business amid the Great Depression and made it work. She had lost a young son, too, but never let that slow her down.  

My university education was another inspiration. I studied U.S. history amid the flowering of a new bottom-up approach to the discipline. History was about all the people, not just the white male politicians and generals and business leaders. There was a boom in women’s history, history of the working class, new ways to consider the experiences of slavery, immigration, the devastation of Native Americans, and so much more.  

I was fascinated by the first wave of Populism in the U.S. in the 1880s and 1890s. Here was a truly multi-cultural, multi-racial social movement demanding justice for farmers struggling against the railroad tycoons, miners and loggers working in brutal conditions, black sharecroppers being pushed back into slavery-like conditions, and women demanding a voice and a vote. 

By the early 1900s, though, the movement had fizzled out after yet another great recession, political attacks, and the ultimate inability to overcome the deep fissures of racial and ethnic tension and hostility. 

The fate of that original populist movement in the US foreshadowed the next 120 years of competing populisms of the left and the right.  

Populism is always about “the people” vs. the elites running (and ruining) the country. Leftist versions typically crossed most other social boundaries, from the inclusive union and civil rights movements of the 20th century to the social and racial justice movements and the Bernie Sanders boomlet in the early 21st.  

Right-wing versions have posited a more narrowly defined “real American” people under siege by devious elites (often with an anti-Semitic tone) in league with any number of other enemies undermining the country: Immigrants, African-Americans, intellectuals, gays and lesbians, communists, and more. The rise of Trumpism and Make America Great Again is just the latest but probably the largest wave yet. 

I met Randall Forsberg in 1983 and spent the rest of the 1980s following her unique lead. Randy seemed one of a kind; a powerhouse woman in the male-dominated field of military and nuclear weapons policy and strategy. She began as a secretary in a think tank, moved up to an analyst role, and then burst on the global political scene in 1982 with her brilliant and deceptively simple Nuclear Freeze proposal to halt the nuclear arms race in place.  

Amid the nuclear nightmares of the Reagan age and the hyper-politicized debates between Disarmament Now and Peace through Strength, Randy was able to galvanize a broad coalition of activists, politicians, and millions of concerned citizens on all sides that played a central role in slowing the arms race and paving the way for Reagan and Gorbachev to step from the precipice. 

Unlike many in the antinuclear left of the time, Randy was also a vocal proponent of human rights and security for all, not just for those opposed to “the American war machine.” This meant opposing Soviet imperialism just as much as American imperialism – and standing up for the incredibly courageous dissidents and democrats in central and eastern Europe. 

As the cracks in the iron curtain began to appear in the late 1980s, I leaped at the chance to sneak into Prague for a secret gathering of peace and human rights activists east and west. The goal was to show solidarity with Charter 77, the Czech dissident group led by Vaclav Havel and other prominent artists and intellectuals. 

Not surprisingly, we were arrested and thrown out of the country. The secret police knew we were coming. They had arrested many of the Czechs before we even arrived. They threatened us when we first tried to meet. And then they arrested the entire activist group at our second meeting attempt at Jiri Dienstbier’s apartment. (Already in prison while we sat frantically drafting a statement of outrage in his living room, Dienstbier would soon become Foreign Minister in the first post-Communist government under Havel).  

Along with the arrest, three moments stood out. First, amid the cat-and-mouse with the secret police following the initial threats (“you should not associate with these criminals”), our main thought was how to get in touch with The New York Times. Protests always look to the media. The local state-controlled media had already branded us anti-socialist agitators. 

Second, a few hours into the interminable wait to be processed at the central police station, we began agitating to be fed. Our guards huddled for a few minutes, then one came back to announce: “If you provide the money, we can take two of the women prisoners to get food for the group.” Barely missing a beat, the women in our group launched immediately into a feminist protest. “Why should it automatically be the women who get the food?” 

Finally, after being released with persona non grata stamped on our passports and threats to leave the country by midnight or face the (undefined) consequences, a few of us were able to gather at a local café before boarding the train to Vienna. A confused representative from the US Embassy (low-level CIA?) showed up to question us and couldn’t seem to grasp the idea that peace activists from the West would also support the local anti-communist dissidents.  

Just a few months later, I faced a choice: Randy had wrangled an invitation to Moscow for a few of us to explore new arms control and confidence-building measures with the Soviet Union’s top two international relations institutes.

While the Czechs continued their crackdown, Gorbachev was pushing glasnost and perestroika in Moscow – his opening to the West and attempt to liberalize at home without giving up entirely on the Soviet state. 

Should I test my recently marked-up passport, which now indicated that I was an anti-socialist agitator? Ultimately, I decided not to risk missing the opportunity so I rushed to get a new, clean passport. And the trip proved a perfect bookend to my adventure in Prague: We received VIP treatment by day with Soviet officials as we toasted to peace and cooperation in smoke=filled rooms in the capital and then tested the local black market by night as our local minders barely pretended to care.  

Fourteen months later the Berlin Wall fell, Havel became president and moved into the castle in Prague, and the cold war was over. 

Working for Cultural Survival in the early 1990s, a small NGO focused on human rights and the environment, broadened my view considerably. Our mission revolved around the rights of indigenous peoples in the most marginalized societies around the world – native peoples in South American and South Pacific rainforests, African deserts, the Arctic north, and more. Founded by a prominent British anthropologist, David Maybury-Lewis, the group was led by another powerful woman, Pam Solo, a Quaker and veteran peace activist I had met during the nuclear freeze campaign. 

Influencing the media was central to our work: How can we publicize the plight – and the essential dignity — of literally endangered peoples who, if acknowledged at all, appeared at best as exotic curiosities but more commonly as uncivilized savages? The growing awareness of the destruction of the world’s rainforests provided a powerful hook for media attention and our work building sustainable Brazil nut-trading operations in the Amazon (we even created Rainforest Crunch candy) added to the allure. But the rights and dignity of the people we cared about too often fell to the end of the story.  

I moved more fully into media education and advocacy in 1992 when I joined the Center for War, Peace, and the News Media at New York University. Founded by Rob Manoff in 1985, the Center initially focused on improving coverage of the US-Soviet arms race and arms control with a combination of media criticism and educational programs for mainstream reporters, editors, and producers. 

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons coverage remained on the agenda but we focused more on the fate of the former Soviet arsenal and proliferation risks in the Middle East and Asia. We looked as well toward reporting on the future of Europe, German reunification, regional conflict and security in Asia, and, ominously, the growing connection between ethnic conflict and media power, as evident in devastation in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda.  

We also moved into Russia, opening a Russian-American Press and Information Center to promote informed and responsible journalism and help develop new media organizations as independent businesses. This meant working with Russian journalists as well as helping newly emerging women’s, human rights, and ethnic minority groups voice their concerns and tell their stories in the new media environment. 

We added another international dimension, too: Bringing together US and Asian journalists to explore regional security issues and challenges from cross-regional perspectives. I led study tours for international media groups to Washington, Honolulu, and Seoul to meet with academic experts, government officials, military leaders, and NGOs. We pondered the Vietnam memorial, Pearl Harbor, and the heavily armed “demilitarized zone” between North and South Korea. And we built connections and respect with top journalists from China, Hong Kong, Japan, India, South Korea, Indonesia, the United States, and others. 

By the time I flew into Skopje, my personal and professional experience gave me confidence that I could help but the challenge certainly seemed formidable.  

With support from Search for Common Ground and several charitable foundations, we put together a series of training and reporting projects focused on supporting more cross-ethnic, inclusive, and confidence-building journalism.  

It was challenging but gratifying work. We brought in American journalists with deep experience covering diverse communities across the US as well as conflict zones around the world. We respected the difficulties of building new profitable media businesses but still called out examples of playing to local prejudices and going overboard with nationalist themes and symbols.  

Adapting a powerful approach developed by the Maynard Institute in the US, we organized a month-long, cross-ethnic reporting project with young ethnic Macedonian, Albanian, and Turkish journalists on the impact of the economy on “ordinary people.” As we had seen in Russia and other newly post-Communist countries, journalists were used to talking mainly to government officials, not everyday members of the community.  

We arranged for their work to be published jointly across newspapers serving each of their different communities. We continued with additional projects exploring common concerns on health care, the environment, and the role of women in the local society. We built trust and confidence in good, fair journalism and created new opportunities for Macedonians from diverse groups to understand a bit more about their fellow citizens without prejudice, stereotyping, or a sense of inevitable conflict. 

“In my entire career I’ve booked four trips to Macedonia,” my travel agent mentioned as I booked yet another mission to Skopje. “All for you.” My friends at home had little sense of what I was up to. One regularly mentioned, I think jokingly, that I must be in the CIA. 

I have no doubt that local leaders and the broader international community deserve all the credit for keeping Macedonia from falling into the ethnic conflict abyss in the late 1990s. But I like to think we made a small contribution, too.  

When I met Milica a few years later at a journalism conference in Moscow, the stars seemed to align for a more ambitious new initiative. Building on our Russian and Macedonian experiences, we had already launched a broader “Media and Conflict” program to address the destructive uses of media that were spreading across the post-Cold War world in the 1990s. 

From my NYU perspective, Milica brought hard-earned experience from ground zero in Belgrade in the 1990s. She began her journalism career as a presenter on state-run Serbian TV, was fired for protesting from the inside against its cheerleading for ethnic conflict and war in the former Yugoslavia and helped set up an alternative media network to counter the devastating role of Milosevic-run media. Milica had moved to London, earned an MA in International Journalism, and was working with the International Federation of Journalists. 

For Milica, journalism in the US, for all its faults, included a wealth of ideas, examples, and expertise that could help inspire a more inclusive approach to reporting. Bringing these approaches to media in other regions, she believed, could help lessen ethnic and other types of social conflict rather than egging them on.  

I leaped at the chance for the Center to hire Milica. Within just a few months, leaning heavily on her contacts across Central and Eastern Europe, we launched a new Reporting Diversity Network to bring together independent journalists across the region to share experiences, develop new standards, and support hands-on reporting projects to put theory into practice. 

The Reporting Diversity Network served as the launch pad for the Media Diversity Institute, and 

25 years later I could not be prouder of the fantastic work that Milica and MDI have done. From the small seeds we planted in the 1990s, MDI has grown to play a powerful global role in developing and demonstrating the best kinds of inclusive journalism, exposing the worst, and helping marginalized groups and communities share their stories with the world. 

The challenges, to be sure, remain daunting. The collapse of so many independent news organizations has created vast “news deserts” populated largely by (often right-wing) infotainment. The growth of Fox News and similar organizations in the US and elsewhere countries has demonstrated that divisive, resentment-based media can be highly profitable. The rise of social media has created a massive new platform for spreading hatred, harassment, and misinformation. The rapid spread of simple tools to use artificial intelligence such as Chat GPT and DALL-E promise new waves of deep fake disinformation.  

Most ominous, the rising tide of authoritarianism has both relied upon and reinforced social division and “othering” while strengthening destructive media and legitimizing the “enemy of the people” narrative that undermines good journalism and threatens a growing number of journalists. 

Indeed, just as our small NYU Center was trying to bring the best of US journalism to areas of social and ethnic conflict in the mid-1990s, the seeds of today’s right wing, media-driven MAGA movement were beginning to sprout.   

Rush Limbaugh, whose radio show had built a massive national audience by attacking and ridiculing “feminazis,” “militant homosexuals,” and black civil rights leaders (among other regular targets), burst on the political scene as a major force in the 1992 presidential election.  

Right-wing populists led by Congressman Newt Gingrich used media savvy and attacks on “liberal media” to take power in the Republican Party in 1994.  

Fox News launched in 1996 and within a few years became the central platform for conservative politicians to hone their message and build national support. By the time Barack Obama made history as America’s first black president, Fox had become the de facto hub of the conservative movement, and, not incidentally, a megaphone for the increasingly overt racism that characterized the right-wing reaction to Obama’s candidacy and election. Donald Trump laid the groundwork for his 2016 campaign on Fox News with regular appearances attacking Obama’s legitimacy to even run for office. 

The polarization was certainly not all one-sided. Extremist voices on the left joined the fray, especially on social media (although right wing TV and social media outlets continuously drew much larger audiences). And mainstream media leaders appreciated the ratings that the politics of anger could generate. As Leslie Moonves, chairman and CEO of the national TV network CBS famously said in 2016, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… The money’s rolling in and this is fun… It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” (Moonves was later ousted for sexual harassment during the #metoo movement.) 

By the time Trump and his allies tried to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election, the convergence of extremist right-wing media and conservative politics seemed complete. For millions of Americans, the news of the day was dominated by an angry rhetoric of attack and betrayal, unfounded conspiracy theories, and outright lies: “Antifa activists” staged the attack on the White House, Black Lives Matter activists were burning down cities, immigrant hordes were overrunning the country, “real Americans” were under siege, and Trump really won the election.  

Today, the fears we had about Macedonia in 1994 have come to life in America on a vast scale. “Culture wars” dominate local and national politics. Substantial segments of the public have lost trust in core institutions. Large numbers of both liberals and conservatives see their political opponents as threats to the country and accept that violence could be justified to achieve their social objectives.  

Fanning the flames of civil conflict, right-wing media harp endlessly about liberal/radical/deep state/socialist/communist activists destroying our country with “open borders,” “critical race theory,” pedophilia, and trans-gender rights. Racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic tropes appear with depressing regularity.  

In contrast, mainstream and liberal media often fall into a pseudo-objective both-sides-ism that provides equal attention to opposing arguments – often highlighting the most extreme voices on each side. Or they focus on the “politics” of the debate, looking for the potential impact on upcoming elections rather than the actual impacts on the people most affected. 

But we’ve seen important progress since the 1990s, too. The digital transformation of media has enabled a flowering of new voices and perspectives even as hundreds of traditional media outlets have gone out of business. Innovative approaches to civic journalism, non-profit newsrooms, and cross-organizational collaboration have worked to fill the void left by newspaper decline. 

The best newsrooms have become much more diverse and inclusive; thoughtful and sensitive coverage of formerly marginalized communities has grown accordingly. Investigative reporting continues to expose abuses of power and hold the guilty to account. Journalists are taking full advantage of the vast array of new digital tools, approaches, and formats to produce powerful and compelling reporting on the most challenging and complex topics. New and urgent discussions about countering misinformation and bolstering democracy have risen to the top of at least some media business agendas. 

For MDI, the work must continue – building on past success and demonstrating the way forward. Continuing to shine a light on the media manipulation that turns difference into division. Continuing to demonstrate the positive example of inclusive reporting. And continuing to nurture the next generations of students and reporters that we so need to pick up the torch.  

*Rob Leavitt is a Partner at Momentum ITSMA, an international business consultancy based in London, Boston, and Melbourne. He has worked for more than 20 years advising global technology and professional services firms on marketing and growth strategy. Previously, he worked with media, human rights groups, and Harvard and New York University to improve understanding of coverage of international and civil conflict, and support democracy, human rights, and global security.