Where’s the “Viable Discourse”?

At a panel at the Time Warner Summit this afternoon, Michael Eric Dyson, Amy Holmes, Charles Blow, and Smokey Fontaine discussed race, the media, and politics—and the way the three have intersected during the 2008 presidential campaign.

In a conversation that featured lively dissension among the panelists—about where, exactly, is the line between pride and prejudice when it comes to African-Americans voting for Obama because of his race; about the extent to which William Ayers is Obama’s Willie Horton; about the media treatment of Jeremiah Wright—there was one issue that the participants agreed on: the need for more minority voices on TV and in the newsroom.

Dyson pointed to the most recent round of Sunday shows, and to the fact that they generally assembled a group of privileged white pundits to talk about issues facing people of all races and economic situations. The implication, he said: That white people can talk about anything with authority, while minorities—blacks, latinos, Native Americans—can speak with authority only on niche issues. The result, he continued, is that “there are no countervailing voices”; non-white perspectives aren’t generally brought to our media narratives as they’re developing and solidifying, so audiences generally don’t consume a full breadth of of viewpoints.

“I hunger for that kind of viable discourse,” Dyson said.

The other panelists echoed that sentiment. Holmes mentioned the coverage of Wright, and, specifically, the “timidity,” as she called it, of mostly-white editors and producers to question the idea that Wright was representative of black political and religious culture. Wright and the ideas he espoused had only a 15 percent approval rating among African-Americans at the height of the controversy, Holmes pointed out—but a complacent media wound up producing a false impression of his authority.

And Smokey Fontaine pointed to a study that found that people of color trust ethnic media over mainstream media almost 2 to 1. Minorities don’t feel represented by the mainstream media, he said, and therefore mistrust much of its content. But there’s an upshot to that, Fontaine said, given the market for minority media and the presidential campaign’s renewed attention to racial issues: “There’s no better time in human history to launch a black Web site.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.