Gregory Lee, President of National Association of Black Journalists, On the NABJ/UNITY Split, Money, and NLGJA [AUDIO]

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Steven Thrasher
Gregory Lee (foreground) of NABJ in a heated exchange with LZ Granderson of ESPN and Mark Whitaker of CNN

Updated below, with a message from former UNITY board member John Yearwood.

Greetings from New York, New York (the city, not the casino) as the Voice has returned from the 2012 UNITY convention in Las Vegas.

The elephant in the room for UNITY, as CNN Worldwide Managing Editor Mark Whitaker acknowledged in UNITY's first panel, was the absence of the National Association of Black Journalists.

For many years, multiple groups of minority journalists (NABJ, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, and the Native American Journalists Association) would meet every four years in what became the largest "Journalists of Color" convention in the world (and the largest gathering of journalists, period, in the United States). But in a highly public battle, NABJ decided it would not participate in UNITY 2012 about a year ago.

Meanwhile, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association joined UNITY a few months later. The formal name "UNITY Journalists of Color" was changed to simply "UNITY Journalists."

Listen to a Voice interview with NABJ President Gregory Lee

As UNITY opened, it was announced that many members of NABJ were in attendance, including its president, Gregory Lee. But the formal absence of the group -- which co-founded UNITY and, according to Lee, accounted for 52% of attendees to UNITY 2008 -- was palpable.

Whitaker's opening panel had representatives of all the organizations, and the most heated words were in the exchange he had with sports columnist LZ Granderson of ESPN and CNN.com.

Granderson was, like yours truly, in an interesting position at UNITY 2012. Being black and gay, he is affiliated with both NABJ and NLGJA, and his work has been honored by the latter.

Onstage, Whitaker asked Granderson about this. Granderson said that while the split had already happened, it looked really bad because there was an appearance that NABJ had left because of the presence of NLGJA. I've had many people ask me the same thing, and while there wasn't necessarily a quid pro quo, there is definiteily the perception of this. People are ready to hop on the black-vs.-gay meme whenever they can, and fairly or unfairly, there is no denying that the NABJ split from UNITY falls into that perception.

Granderson said that he is proudly affiliated with both groups and that he'd always planned on attending both UNITY and the NABJ conference this year. But a far more interesting exchange happened right after the panel was officially over.

It was then that NABJ president Lee confront Whitaker and Granderson and accused them of falsely framing the NABJ split. Lee heatedly said it had nothing to do with NLGJA and that NABJ left UNITY over "governance and money."

Lee repeatedly pointed to the fact that "we brought 52 percent of the people" in 2008 but that they did not get back that much of the money after UNITY divided it amongst the groups. This was especially difficult, Lee said, after 2008, when NABJ (like many media organizations) had dire coffers and had to lay off staff.

Lee was angry, as well, that he said NABJ was the first group in UNITY to form an LGBT task force, yet they were being called homophobes now, even though NLGJA joined after they had left. But he did display anger in noting that, while NABJ did not get its way after on many things (despite being a founding member) NLGJA was able to get "of color" taken from the UNITY name in just a matter of months. (From other exchanges I had through out the conference, I realized that the name change in this way fuels tensions between NABJ and NLGJA members more concretely than anything else.)

The perception has been that, once NABJ pulled out, UNITY went out and got a lot of white gay guys to fill the gap, who then slashed "of color" from the name. But it's not as simple as that. For one, NLGJA has been pretty good at honoring the work of journalists of color the past couple of years.

Also, through out UNITY, multiple sources told me that though NABJ had not left because of NLGJA, it had been the only organization to vote against NLGJA's inclusion when the group had tried to join before. So it seems like a weird coincidence that once NABJ was gone, NLGJA was able to join. (But, to be absolutely clear: NLGJA was not up for inclusion just prior to the split last year.)

Lee still maintains that crediting NABJ with keeping NLGJA out before is giving NABJ "too much power," noting how they've been out voted on so many things. He thinks UNTY has "lost its way."

After Granderson, Whitaker and Lee had it out for a few minutes, I talked to Lee one on one to get more specifics about why NABJ left, and why he found the perception presented at the first UNITY panel unfair. Our entire exchange is recorded in the audio embedded above.

Update: John Yearwood of the Miami Herald emailed me this:

Just read your piece on NABJ and Unity. You wrote this: "Also, through out UNITY, multiple sources told me that though NABJ had not left because of NLGJA, it had been the only organization to vote against NLGJA's inclusion when the group had tried to join before."

While I agree with you on many points, I have to question that statement. The Unity board has four members representing each of the four alliance partners and the majority vote carries. So, it would have been impossible for NABJ to be the only organization to vote against NLGJA and it not allowed to join -- NLGJA would have won 12-4. It's clear that others were also against the move. Your story made it seem as though NABJ was the only organization blocking NLGJA admission to Unity when that seems far from the truth.

Just clearing the record.

John, former Unity board member.

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You can follow staff writer Steven Thrasher on twitter (@steven_thrasher) or reach him by email (sthrasher@villagevoice.com).


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