T.J. Holmes Talks Race and Journalism

Current and former members of the Colgate community entered the chapel on Saturday afternoon to listen to ABC correspondent T. J. Holmes speak for Mosaic Weekend. Mosaic Weekend provides students of color the opportunity to meet with alumni of color, presenting students with networking opportunities and a chance to talk about their experiences with one another. Holmes’ keynote address, which took place on Saturday, March 28, was one of the culminating events of the weekend and was co-sponsored by Brothers, the Mosaic steering committee, the Office of the President and The Maroon-News.

The event started out with an introduction from sophomore Emmanuel Poku and junior Andrew Vallejos, who are leaders of the Brothers organization on campus. The two detailed Holmes’ extensive background in the world of media, including his former work on networks such as CNN, BET and MSNBC. Holmes is known for his coverage of widely-publicized news events, including the execution of Saddam Hussein in 2006 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Poku and Vallejos also noted how Holmes is a part of the National Association of Black Journalists and an organization that works to empower young African American men called 100 Black Men.

Holmes started his discussion by running onto the chapel stage with a Bible clutched to his chest. He joked with the audience, saying that he had never been able to give a talk like this in a chapel and wished to take advantage of the opportunity to make a memorable entrance. Despite the weight of some of the topics that Holmes addressed – including the coverage of stories like the George Zimmerman trial and the representation of young black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown in the media – Holmes kept a trace of humor in every topic that he addressed to maintain the audience’s attention. Holmes then proceeded to talk about how he always seems to be overshadowed by former Vice President Joe Biden in his professional career, telling the audience, in a humorous manner, about his past experiences introducing Biden at events and referencing the fact that his speech on campus this weekend seemed less significant once he heard that Biden had spoken the previous evening.

While the title of the event was “When the Big Story Happens,” Holmes focused less on particularly well-known news events that he has covered and more on the newsroom culture and how particular individuals are represented in the media. As a black man, he spoke about his experiences in the newsroom and the way that he has been accused of covering events in a biased manner because of the color of his skin.

Holmes discussed an incident in which he was accused of being biased during his coverage of the George Zimmerman trial. He said that he had used Trayvon Martin’s first name when referring to him, which is typically what journalists do when they are referring to a child or young person. However, an individual behind the scenes ran up to Holmes after his segment to tell him that he should be using Trayvon’s last name, as, by using his first name, Holmes was trying to purposefully evoke sympathy from the audience. Holmes argued that the producer was the one being biased by assuming that Holmes’ skin color was affecting his connection to the story and his ability to convey it objectively.

Holmes then went on to note how there are very few people of color working in the media, particularly when it comes to those in charge of production and those who choose what stories get covered and in what manner. Because of this lack of diverse perspectives in the newsroom, Holmes argues, the mainstream media misses out on important perspectives and is thus limited in its ability to cover pertinent stories. He said that a more diverse newsroom could work towards a solution to this problem.

 Additionally, Holmes touched upon the idea of not being afraid to fail and the importance of understanding that no one’s lives are passing by as smoothly as their Instagram accounts or public image conveys. He recounted two of his own personal experiences in college – losing his scholarship money because of his grades and finding out that he was going to be a father – that were not what he had originally expected and noted people should not be fooled into thinking that everyone’s lives are without difficulties.

After completing his address, Holmes engaged the audience, providing an opportunity for members of the Colgate community to ask him questions. Several individuals in the crowd asked their own questions to learn more about Holmes’ experiences and his insight into the world of media. One student asked whether or not Holmes felt his lighter skin was an advantage when it came to getting such a high-visibility job in the media, particularly because societal standards of beauty convey the idea that lighter skin is more beautiful. Holmes answered this question by acknowledging that colorism can be an issue. However, it did not seem as though Holmes believed this to be a particular advantage for him. Another student inquired about Holmes’ stance on black women in journalism. Holmes reiterated the importance of having a diverse range of perspectives in the newsroom, including those of women and black women in particular.

A parent in the audience was interested in hearing if Holmes thought that the new U.S. presidential administration under President Donald Trump had fostered a different kind of culture behind-the-scenes of news and media production, and if negative attitudes towards expanding diversity in the newsroom had been sparked due to this new kind of culture. Holmes did not think that this was the case; however, he acknowledged the need for media to listen to a larger audience of individuals in order to better understand what motivates people to act in certain ways. He noted how the reason why so many polls inaccurately portrayed Hillary Clinton as predicted to win the election was because the media had not taken the time to listen to the voices of individuals who voted for Trump.

The last question that Holmes addressed was about whether or not ego is necessary for a job like his. Holmes said that there is a lot of vanity that comes with continually seeing oneself on broadcast television, and that it is important to not let this get to your head. 

“He was incredible. I was afraid that he would be too caught [up] in his own ego and personality, but he really made himself professionally and personally vulnerable. It resonated and was inspiring,” Vallejos said.

 Vallejos spoke of what he saw as the success of the weekend as a whole in connecting students with alumni in a productive way. 

“The weekend, all in all, was really fun and extremely helpful. I loved meeting alumni and getting their perspectives of Colgate when they were here as people of color,” Vallejos said. “I learned that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I also learned how much these alumni want to help build this network, not just for individual organizations, but also for all people of color generally. It really made me feel like I matter.”