Wednesday, September 5, 2007

White imbalance

For observers of the minority presence in television news, it was one of those little things that said more than it intended, not exactly history in the making, but something that was interesting precisely because you didn't see it that often.

On Saturday, Sept. 1, as MSNBC covered the resignation of Idaho Sen. Larry Craig for ethical lapses in an airport bathroom, the cable channel cut back to its newsroom for the usual reflexive comments from political analysts about What It All Means. MSNBC newsreader Tamron Hall talked with, among others, Joe Watkins, a one-time advisor to President Bush No. 41 and an MSNBC political analyst.

But there was a sort of sea change evident in the two-shot of Hall and Watkins in the newsroom: For one of the very few times in MSNBC’s 11-year history, an African American reporter talked to an African American political analyst in the same frame at the same time. Two black media figures, both in the employ of the network, discussed the fate of a white mainstream politician.

Do not adjust your set, this is not BET.

For MSNBC, arguably the blondest of the cable networks, that two-shot -- broadcast in prime-time, too, not the relative ghetto of infomercial world after 9 p.m. -- reflected a shift in the on-screen persona of authority projected to the American people by at least one network. Its specialness pointed to its rarity; its rarity indicates exactly what the problem is, and remains, for far too much of the electronic media.

Hall, a recent addition to the MSNBC lineup, and newcomer Christina Brown, who is black, are the two most visible minority additions to an on-air cable news staff in an industry that remains overwhelmingly white.

In recent years NBC News, MSNBC’s partner and one of its corporate parents, has gotten the message of the need for diversity in reporting and reporters. Journalists such as Rehema Ellis, Ron Allen, John Yang and Kevin Corke have been tapped for fairly prominent news reports filed from various global hot spots.

Lester Holt, an African American reporter who started with MSNBC in 2000 and as of May became the weekend anchor for NBC News, was one of MSNBC’s shining minority lights, conspicuous by the relative absence of others like him. With his ascension to the visibility of NBC in August 2005, though, MSNBC became even more woefully short of minority representation; until Hall and Brown arrived, there was only the African American meteorologist, Gary Archibald, who was a reliable minority presence on the air (not counting spot news stories filed by reporters from NBC affiliates)., the online arm of NBC news, pales in comparison. Literally. The Web site has, over a number of years, had only two minority journalists in its ranks, one of whom [full disclosure: me] left earlier this summer. In an era of increasing diversity, the news site has largely ignored stories on how race and ethnicity have become two of the primary engines of social change in the post-9/11 world.

And is hardly alone. Stories on minority affairs throughout the mediascape, from print to TV news to online, are routinely given short shrift, more often than not weaved into the news report below the fold (or several page scrolls down), or ignored altogether.

And in the first real throes of what is becoming America's most enduring experience with multiculturalism, American media is still largely preoccupied with perception of minority life as a conveniently binary phenomenon -- black and white. Stories from Indian Country Today, a seriously comprehensive Native American news digest, are hardly if ever mentioned as a news source, a direct reflection of the attention news about Native Americans gets on the mainstream air. Only passing attention is paid to the irresistible motive force of 34 million Latinos; there's little attention given to integrating the Latino experience into English-language network news broadcasts.

In 2001 NBC made the smart move of acquiring the Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, but a plan to weave Spanish- and English-language news has resulted only in one station, in Colorado, a station that took almost three years to get off the ground. NBC seems to have stalled following through on doing the obvious: pursue the culturally daring but financially compelling weave of NBC and Telemundo resources into a mainstream news report that could effectively transform the American newsgathering dynamic, and reap billions in advertising revenue in the process.

Almost two generations after the Kerner Commission report, which highlighted the complicity of the media in maintaining separate Americas for the underprivileged and the affluent, much has changed, but not nearly enough. Even as U.S. media have taken the babyest of steps toward integrating black reporters and anchors into the editorial mix, it's still behind the curve on recognizing the impact of the next emergent American demographic: the people whose faces will throw off the white balance on the studio cameras, people who've earned the right to be in the great American two-shot, the electronic national dialogue that defines who and what we are.

Image: > MSNBC

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