Deggans makes that view explicit in his interview with another white male anchor, Brian Williams. After speaking with Williams about his struggle to persuade NBC to continue covering Hurricane Katrina after the waters had receded, Deggans writes that the “experience left Williams yearning for the days when journalists could set the world’s news agenda, almost unilaterally.” (No shit?) “‘The world you and I grew up in—I’m 51 years old,’” Williams says. “‘Three channels on TV. The president spoke, you didn’t watch anything else. You wouldn’t think about it. Men landed on the moon, a global event. I’d like to see what kind of audience share it would get today. Getting people’s attention is hard.’”
We’re expected to believe that were we to grant total control to a guy like Williams, he’d do the right thing. And in Deggans’s argument, even opening up the news elite to a broader base of potential story sources leads to negative consequences. Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism tells Deggans, “In an earlier era, where media was more homogenous, you had to persuade journalists directly to give you coverage.” But now, “in this more varied media culture, you can get noticed by friendlier media and eventually get coverage from [outlets] who are skeptical of you, because you’ve reached a point of prominence.” Deggans uses the quote to explain the Web-to-network success of the late great media-baiter Andrew Breitbart, and his distorted videos of minor, liberally aligned figures.
But the same tactics can be used to champion the causes of any underserved minorities, not just conservative obfuscators. The killing of Trayvon Martin was “a story that lived on social media until the audio of the 911 call surfaced, when it became a major mainstream story,” Rosenstiel told me via email. “The [Komen Foundation] story is another example. It might have taken weeks for the protest among pro-choice advocates to surface in an earlier era. . . . In this instance, the reaction on Twitter and elsewhere in social media took just days, and reporters knew about it in almost real time by monitoring that conversation.”
Still, it’s true that racial bias has persevered even as media technologies have evolved. And for the uninitiated, Deggans’s book offers a decent primer for these evolving dynamics. Though the US population is diversifying at a steady clip, the ranks of television journalists are not. When black anchors do make it behind the desk, they’re more likely to be figureheads speaking to specific demographics than traditional journalists trusted to speak for all Americans. Consider MSNBC contributor Al Sharpton, who Deggans notes leveraged his media role to both lead and report on a rally for Trayvon Martin. Off the air, the view is grimmer: Since the recession, journalists of color have lost one out of four jobs in the industry’s extensive layoffs. Media responses to Martin’s death, Obama’s presidency, and Herman Cain’s presidential candidacy all offer case studies in the challenges of modern reporting on race, particularly when the issue is only raised in “a time of crisis.”
Race-Baiter seems primed to occupy the shelf next to intro-to-media-crit syllabus staples like Jennifer Pozner’s Reality Bites Back. Unfortunately, most students won’t find their own media diets reflected in Race-Baiter’s critique, which is focused on legacy platforms like cable TV news, network television, even talk radio. The Internet is an afterthought in Deggans’s book—even though online sources now constitute the critic’s biggest competitors. On the Internet, media criticism comes built into the very processing of the news—through comments sections, anti-racist blogs that break from the partisan media mold, Twitter @ replies, or the work of pros like Deggans himself.
In a media environment where the critiques begin as soon as the news breaks, a book like this ought to offer more interesting narratives, better interviews, and deeper insights than its online competitors. Instead, reading Race-Baiter feels a lot like browsing the “related links” section of a critical race blog; the book never builds to a coherent argument. Though Deggans interviews behind-the-scenes figures like the Trayvon Martin family’s PR rep and in-the-spotlight guys like embattled radio and TV commentator Juan Williams, he fails to process their broader social relevance. Mostly, though, he fails to recognize that the media game those figures are playing will soon be obsolete.