Guest Commentary: We must learn from Sept. 11

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Jugnu Mohsin, publisher of the Friday Times, an independent newspaper in Pakistan, was recently quoted in the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times as saying: “America doesn’t know the world, doesn’t understand the world and doesn’t try to understand. … Isn’t that a recipe for disaster?”
This is a partial response to the nowfamous question, Why do they hate us? which has been a favorite topic of pundits and journalists since the Sept. 11 tragedy.
And where do most Americans get their news and information to form the basis of understanding their diverse communities and the world? Television, particularly local television.
To those of the old school of broadcast philosophy who hold that broadcasters should serve the public interest by responding to the tastes, needs and interests of their local communities, it is sad to observe the annihilation of local publicinterest programming at television stations around the nation. Such programs were fast becoming obsolete even before the current economic slump caused such shows to become the first casualties on the budget-cutting chopping block.
WHDH-TV in Boston, which recently canceled several public affairs shows that focused on the Jewish, Asian and other minority communities, is but one example of this trend. In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, national and local television now is finding time to focus on the Islamic religion and seeks out leaders of Muslim communities to learn more about the philosophy and views of American Muslims who are a growing force in many parts of the United States.
Although Muslim communities and leaders existed before Sept. 11, local and national viewers have only recently been made aware of their presence and views. That’s not too different from television’s response to the black commsunity after riots or civil disturbances. After the fact, news departments seek out “spokespersons” to answer the question, What do you want? and viewers learn of the concerns or interests of fellow citizens who may not look or pray as they do but still are part of their communities. They are suddenly “discovered” by news departments.
Assuming that viewers want, need and will respond to local news and public affairs coverage that gives them information on the diverse aspects and concerns of their communities, does local news provide that coverage? In too many cases, the answer is no. Usually, the only time members of minority communities receive attention is when they are perpetrators or victims of crime.
Although the 2000 census shows very clearly the increasing diversity of our nation and cities-particularly in the rapidly growing Hispanic and Muslim populations-most newsrooms, for the most part, have not kept pace.
There are still too few minority general managers, managing editors, executive producers and producers. Such positions are still largely the domain of nonminorities, particularly in the producer ranks, who, for the most part, know precious little about the various ethnic communities and their concerns in their own service areas.
At the same time, viewers see very few male or female blacks or other minorities as program hosts at the local or national level. It is all good and well for the NAACP to focus on the lack of minorities in prime-time sitcoms; however, it is at the local level where the public-interest “rubber meets the road” and where frustration among minorities in newsrooms is greatest.
The only remaining vestige of serving the tastes, interests and needs of communities in most cities is local talk radio, where people from diverse communities at least have an opportunity to express their views on issues of public importance. Even there, minority participation and involvement is usually left to minority-owned stations.
In this era of industry consolidation and deregulation by Congress and the FCC, and with an almost nonexistent effort by local citizens and community groups to express concern and make local stations responsive, probably nothing will change. And then, when another disaster or major event occurs involving a racial, ethnic or religious group, local stations will scramble about, looking for someone to explain why we do not understand.
Clarence McKee was legal assistant to Benjamin Hooks at the FCC and practiced communications law in Washington. He is a former owner of WTVT-TV, Tampa, Fla., and a past chairman of the Florida Association of Broadcasters and currently is president of Tampa-based McKee Communications.