Racism Real, if Not Intentional

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

CNN “American Morning” co-anchor Soledad O’Brien threw the question out to the panel during the closing session of the 2005 National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications Conference last week in New York. She wanted to know “Who is behind what we see on television?”

“The white man,” snapped Reginald Hudlin, getting a big laugh from the multiracial audience.

The quip by Mr. Hudlin, a veteran producer who earlier this year was named head of entertainment for Viacom’s BET Network, was funny. But it also made an important point. It was a reminder about the symbolic elephant in the room that nobody talked much about during what the Walter Kaitz Foundation had dubbed Diversity Week. Still, it couldn’t be denied.

After two days of NAMIC workshops, what came out again and again was that the extent of diversity in the real world is still an issue. Out among the office workers, technicians, managers, engineers and executives, diversity is still mostly a goal, not a reality.

With the exception of Richard Parsons at Time Warner, the top executive suites in cable, and on Wall Street where it gets financed, and in the law offices that do the transactions, and the accounting firms who track them, and even the media companies who write about them, are still mainly white and mostly male.

What brought all of this into focus recently was the reaction to television coverage of the Gulf Coast hurricane tragedy. Some critics and bloggers charged that the (mostly) white men running leading news organizations were racist in their coverage.

There may well be some racism in the TV news coverage, but it is not planned. No one sits around deciding to be racist. To suggest news organizations have a plan to treat blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities differently would suggest a conspiracy within or among those news organizations. There is no way that is true. If anything, any discussions that are held are designed to do the opposite-to ensure that they are not being racially insensitive.

The reason that at times there is an appearance of racism is because that is our world. And what good news organizations try to do is reflect back to the audience their own image. News machines from CNN to NBC really do try to be, in the words of the Fox News slogan, “fair and balanced.”

They reflect their audience because it is the right thing to do, it is a smart thing to do legally and it makes good television. When bad things happen, man-made or by nature, television goes after the story.

If there is reason to criticize the process, it is the pack mentality that has news organizations dragging out endless reports about the same stories. In normal times, that gives us an over-the-top diet of Michael Jackson, Laci Peterson, Natalee Holloway and such.

Then along comes Katrina to instantly adjust priorities and, as it turns out, actually inspire real passion and genuine intensity among the media. In such times, journalists do a real public service. That should not get lost in the valid discussion over racism creeping into the news.

If anything, with Katrina, TV news was at its best. The result was that the news cameras brought into America’s living rooms an ugly reality that was hidden until the waters hit. “This was not a case of overt racism,” said NAMIC panelist Evan Shapiro, executive VP and general manager of the Independent Film Channel. “It’s more a form of ingrained racism.”

The racism on TV news is a reflection of the racism that still exists in our society, and yes, Virginia, it does still exist. Some just see it more than others. Mr. Hudlin made the point that blacks feel it more. “The reality is black people grow up talking and living race their whole life because they have to,” said Mr. Hudlin. “Whites don’t.”

What we saw reflected in the coverage was that many of the evacuees lived in terrible poverty. We saw that government agencies were overwhelmed and lacked coordination. We saw that politics and a lack of resources, pushed by nature, fueled the disaster.

It is in such situations that journalists and officials inevitably clash. The authorities want to discuss who has been helped. The journalists focus on those left behind.

It is something veteran journalists understand. The newsman looks for the personal story that implies something larger but details what happens to an individual. Often it will break your heart. That kind of approach often doesn’t suit the agenda of business or government. So there is a natural clash.

There is racism in America, even if it is felt to different degrees by blacks and whites. It now appears, as the president pointed out in a speech last Thursday, the federal, state and local government responses to Hurricane Katrina were slow, and many of the worst hit were minorities, all too many of whom lived in poverty.

For once the TV crews weren’t there because a publicist called. They were there to capture reality. What they found was a shock to many Americans. And it certainly seemed to be an eye-opener for news anchors, who responded by asking tougher questions.

The challenge as we go forward through the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast and as we return to normal is to not forget these lessons. The ugly realities reflected by TV news are not going to go away, though the cameras may move on to other subjects. It is imperative that TV news, especially, remains vigilant and continues to ask probing questions. The cameras need to return to the scene during the massive rebuilding, not just to note new construction but also to see if promises are being kept to rebuild a fairer society.

There were a lot of lessons for the government. There are also important lessons for the media. Taking authorities at their word isn’t good enough. Letting politicians spin stories is not acceptable. Ignoring the ugly underside of the richest nation in the world cannot continue.

The big worry is not racism in mainstream media. The real concern is that once the evacuations are over and the rebuilding is under way, we will see a return to the media pack mentality. Let’s hope television journalists have learned a lesson and that the reports they do in the future will show that America really is on a path to being the land of equal opportunity for all.