Racism and US mainstream media

Posted on 11/06/2010


By Jeff Cohen, FAIR, 1 October 1999

When newspaper executives make a commitment to change, they often show great prowess in meeting their goals: Consider the breathtaking speed with which they added color graphics and lifestyle sections to their pages.

When it comes to fulfilling their 1978 pledge to integrate people of color into their staffs, however, most newspaper editors are moving slower than a Gutenberg press. The American Society of Newspaper Editors’ goal was to achieve minority employment at daily newspapers “equivalent to the percentage of minority persons within the national population” by the year 2000. Racial minorities now constitute 11.6 percent of news staffs but 27.3 percent of the country’s population. At the rate newspapers are going (ASNE last year extended its deadline by 25 years), they won’t reach their goal until late in the next century.

Slightly more diversity can be found in TV news staffs, and far less in magazines. But few top news executives in any medium — real decision makers — are people of color. This lack of diversity has consequences in terms of content. To take a relatively trivial example, when the decision was made at Time magazine to darken a cover picture of O.J. Simpson, only the lone nonwhite person in the room objected.

A more important consequence is the narrow, distorting lens through which racial minorities are frequently portrayed in mainstream news. Studies commissioned by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists have found that only about 1 percent of the 12,000 stories aired yearly on the three network TV evening newscasts focus on Latinos or Latino issues — and roughly 80 percent of these stories “portray Latinos negatively,” often on subjects like crime, drugs and “illegal” immigrants.

Kirk Johnson’s classic study (Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1987) of 30 days worth of coverage of Boston’s two largely black neighborhoods found that mainstream media focused overwhelmingly on lights-and-sirens stories involving some “pathology” — to borrow a term journalists love to apply to reports about black and Latino communities — such as violent crime or drugs, and “85 percent reinforced negative stereotypes of blacks.”

By contrast, Johnson also found that coverage of the same two neighborhoods by four black-owned news outlets during the same period was more multifaceted, and thus ultimately more accurate. These outlets certainly covered crime, but they also covered local business, school successes and community cleanup campaigns – “57 percent of the stories suggested a community thirsty for educational advancement and entrepreneurial achievement, and eager to remedy poor living conditions made worse by bureaucratic neglect.”

Each individual “pathology” story in mainstream news may not be false, but if that’s basically the only kind of story presented, the total picture becomes a lie.

The flip side of media’s overrepresentation of minorities as criminals and druggies is their underrepresentation as experts and analysts. FAIR’s studies in the late 1980s and early 1990s documented not only the incredible whiteness of being an expert in national media (92 percent of Nightline’s U.S. guests were white; 90 percent of the PBS NewsHour’s were white; 26 of 27 repeat commentators on National Public Radio during a four-month study were white) but a tendency to ghettoize minority experts into discussions of “black” or “brown” issues…often those “pathologies” again.

For Americans still inhabiting largely segregated workplaces and neighborhoods (some as segregated as prime-time TV sitcoms), the media are the main sources of information about people of other racial groups and therefore deserve a share of the blame for the prevalence of racist attitudes.

In 1990, a National Opinion Research Center survey found that 53 percent of nonblack respondents said that African-Americans were less intelligent than whites, 56 percent said they were more violence prone, 62 percent said they were lazier, and 78 percent said they were more likely to “prefer to live off welfare.” Majorities of respondents expressed similar views about Latinos, and significant numbers attributed these traits to Asian-Americans.

It would be easy to link such attitudes only to such media forums as talk radio, on which powerful hosts have trafficked for decades in ignorance and myth about people of color. But it was publications like The New York Times and The New Republic that helped resurrect the pseudoscience of eugenics and racial inferiority through prominent, often credulous coverage of texts like The Bell Curve. Take, for example, Malcolm Browne’s October 1994 Times review, which praised The Bell Curve for making “a strong case” of a “smart, rich” elite polarizing with an “unintelligent, poor” population.

And it’s the major newsweeklies that for years have promoted a white-pundit brethren — men like George Will, John Leo, and Joe Klein — who specialize in fiery sermons about the “pathologies” of the “underclass” that do much to absolve the overclass of responsibility.

Here’s Time’s Lance Morrow: “If I were something like the Pope of black America and had the moral authority to make such suggestions, I would propose that no African-American use the terms racism or racist.” Not surprisingly, Morrow is white; one wonders what the reaction would be if he’d advised Jews to abandon the term anti-Semitism.

Conventional media wisdom tends to see our country as a place in which racial discrimination happened in the past, where charges of racism are mostly an excuse, where societal depravity is largely the province of communities of color.

This worldview explains why mainstream journalists:

  • so often frame affirmative action as an effort to correct “past discrimination,” as if society were now color-blind. A six-month FAIR study in 1998 found that nearly a quarter of the news stories used the terms “affirmative action” and “preferences” interchangeably — a bias against affirmative action proponents who see themselves as opponents of dominant pro-white, pro-male preferences.
  • waxed indignant over anti-white, anti-Jewish invective uttered by an associate of the Reverend Louis Farrakhan to a college audience of a few hundred (which prompted a 97-0 U.S. Senate resolution of denunciation) while being virtually tone deaf to the anti-black, anti-immigrant invective emanating, via 50,000 watts of power, from Bob Grant, a top talk-radio host in New York City. (Senators, as well as other politicians, have appeared regularly as Grant guests.)
  • largely ignored, for years prior to the Oklahoma City bombing, the militia movement. If hundreds of heavily armed units of African-Americans (or other racial minorities) were training across the country and talking of the inevitability of violent clashes with the federal government, we’d have seen massive, hysterical coverage — and not just from white talk radio.
  • have made conservative black academics more prominent news sources than their progressive colleagues. Although blacks and Latinos tend to be left-leaning as voters, right-wing blacks and Latinos — like Armstrong Williams, Linda Chavez, Walter Williams, Larry Elder, and Thomas Sowell — are more prominent in syndicated columns and talk shows than left-wing ones. (After becoming editorial page editor at New York’s Daily News in 1991, Ellis Cose found a memo from his predecessor decreeing that the paper run no more than one black op-ed columnist per day.)

Many news outlets, of course, have done some exceptional work on racism. In 1991, for example, ABC’s PrimeTime Live presented dramatic evidence that racial discrimination is a present-day disease, not merely a “legacy.” Producers dispatched two evenly matched, well-dressed, well-spoken college graduates — one white, one black — to seek jobs through the same employment agency, apartments from the same landlords, a car from the same dealer. Again and again, hidden cameras recorded how the black man was lied to or turned away.

Even without hidden cameras, mainstream media should be able to focus a sharp lens on present-day racism in society. A good place to start might be in the newsroom.


This article was originally appeared in Brill’s Content, October 1999.