critical eye

Color blind

When white men and three networks ruled the media, coverage of race was ... better? Damn you, Internet!
November 1, 2012

Last summer, Gawker asked veteran news anchor Dan Rather to review Aaron Sorkin’s new television series The Newsroom. It was an inspired choice. In The Newsroom, Sorkin feeds on nostalgia for newsmen like Rather—the mythical authoritative anchor who delivered objective facts to the American people in a simpler time, before blogs.

Perhaps predictably, Rather loved the show, giving it six stars on a five-star scale. “I’m aware that my musings run counter to some of the more prominent early reviews in high-profile publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times,” he wrote in an introductory note to his review of the show’s first episode. “But with all due respect . . . I just don’t think they ‘get it’; they’ve somehow missed the breadth, depth and ‘got it right’ qualities—and importance—of Newsroom. Maybe it’s because they are print people.”

So Dan Rather is biased. Why wouldn’t he be? He used to hold court behind an anchor desk in a three-man field; now, he jockeys for attention on an entertainment television channel called AXS TV. Less clear is why that bygone era of TV journalism—the news dominated by three networks, each dominated by white men, none asked to disclose their own prejudices—still looks so good to media critic Eric Deggans, whose new book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation, picks apart the racial biases inherent in today’s new media landscape, and casts a strangely rosy view of the old news monoliths.

Deggans is a “print person”—he was the original media critic at the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times)—but he’s also a TV guy who has spent much of his 20-year-plus career critiquing that medium. In his book, he argues that increasingly opinion-driven, niche-marketed news networks have created a modern media landscape that “often works to feed our fears, prejudices, and hate toward each other.”

He also argues that media’s role as racial instigator is a recent development. “Before the rise of niche outlets such as cable TV, satellite radio, websites, and social media platforms,” he writes, “big media outlets made their money by seeking to serve huge, diverse audiences and selling advertisers access to them, creating a shared cultural dialog in the process.” In the absence of unifying voices like Rather’s, rival opinion-makers have emerged—Bill O’Reilly v. Al Sharpton, Glenn Beck v. Keith Olbermann, Sean Hannity v. Rachel Maddow—each feeding off the other’s arguments. (Typically, one side accuses the other of racism; the other retorts that their antagonists are “race-baiters,” a term O’Reilly himself has applied to Deggans.) “The ongoing fragmentation of media—with Facebook, Twitter, iPods, YouTube sites, and Internet-accessible smartphones allowing users to create their own, custom-tailored media worlds—has only made it all worse,” he writes. “In a fragmented media culture, hate sells.”

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Deggans doesn’t clarify how iPods are stoking racial hatred in the United States. Instead, he turns to Rather, who just joined Twitter this summer, has amassed 11,000 followers (1/200th of Rachel Maddow’s following), and is 81 years old. In a conversation with Deggans during the 2012 GOP primary, Rather “admitted to feeling the influence of online media on the reporting process”—as if by engaging with social media, Rather had committed some sin for which he needed to atone. Paraphrasing Rather, Deggans writes that in journalism’s “new, social media-fueled environment . . . race issues are almost the new ‘third rail’ of political discourse—considered dangerous to discuss head on, because any gaffe can spread ‘like mildew in a damp basement.’ ”

It’s true that when Dan Rather’s Twitter feed blows up with minute dissections of a candidate’s every racially charged word, it makes it difficult for politicians and journalists to speak openly and honestly about race. Then again, when in American history has open dialogue about race been a hallmark of our television news discourse? And how does intense and visible public engagement on the issue constitute a step backward? Deggans notes that Rather “covered the Civil Rights movement” in his time at CBS. The implication is that everything was better when just one guy was leading the discussion—and when it was spat out on television, instead of unfurling in many directions online.

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.

The members of my generation are not TV people or print people—we are Internet people. We are about as likely to watch Bill O’Reilly as we are to invest in gold bars. But in Deggans’s work, new media consumption never takes center stage—it’s always employed as the setup for successes like Breitbart’s or failures like Limbaugh’s. Deggans’s book is ostensibly an overview of media attitudes toward race in the 21st century, but it more or less dismisses the Internet as a place where stories circulate in an attempt to influence the “mainstream.” In September, 9.6 million Americans visited Gawker in one week. The Internet is the mainstream.

At nearly the last page, Deggans allows that “online outlets can. . .be a cure for our ‘horizontal segregation,’” and don’t always make everything worse. For me, the potential positive power of the Internet is no big reveal. I don’t know if the Internet offers more opportunities for journalists of color than the traditional avenues do. But I refuse to just believe it’s worse than the old model, without a thorough accounting.

Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles who focuses on the intersection of sex, youth culture, and technology. She is a co-founder of Tomorrow Magazine and a Slate contributor. Follow her @amandahess.