Whitewashing television news

This election season, there is a glaring — and inexcusable — paucity of Black voices on TV news programs.

Considering the historic moment at hand — a world in crisis and the United States facing a potentially momentous electoral shift — the under-representation of African American voices, or other ethnic voices, shortchanges the public discourse.

Though network news programs have always been predominantly white, there were periods of progress. In the 1970s, pressure from the civil rights movement and a more progressive regulatory climate opened up the airwaves and produced a proliferation of Black public affairs programming, some lasting through the 1980s. But that progress is now being reversed.

Today, for example, the networks’ marquee Sunday morning news programs feature only white male anchors (George Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert, Bob Schieffer, Chris Wallace), and the racial makeup of guest commentators resembles a country club gathering in Kennebunkport, Maine.

With the exception of CBS’s Katie Couric, a white woman, all network evening news anchors are white males. Max Robinson of ABC News was the first and last African American to host a network evening news program, and he died in 1988.

Since its inception, ABC’s “This Week” has tended to feature an all-white panel. These days, Donna Brazile makes the occasional appearance, usually to comment on issues affecting African Americans, and her increased appearances lately coincide handily with Obama’s electoral rise.

NBC has only recently increased the visibility of Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post writer, on “Meet the Press” and MSNBC’s “Countdown.”

The irony is that on Sunday mornings, it is Fox News, a conservative network, that has a permanent seat for a Black commentator: Juan Williams.

What’s more, you don’t get to hear from Black experts on national security, terrorism or the Iraq and Afghan wars. Apparently foreign policy, and especially military affairs, is the exclusive province of white male experts. Shouldn’t it matter that people who sacrifice life and limb for their country be represented in the national debate?

When the network news programs neglect the voices of people of color, it is no wonder that issues such as affirmative action; poverty; racial disparities in employment; education and health; environmental racism; and 4 million dead in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo hardly get the coverage they warrant. Instead, there is obsessive coverage of missing white girls, dysfunctional white celebrities and self-congratulatory stories on how to catch sexual predators.

When it comes to election coverage, the commentary can be especially distorted. On the night of Sen. Barack Obama’s victory in the Iowa caucus, syndicated columnist and television commentator George Will declared on “Nightline,” “The big losers, two big losers tonight are probably Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton,” adding, “they are representative of those who have a sort of investment in the traditional and, I believe, utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States.” On CNN, as if in coordination, conservative talking-head Bill Bennett also echoed the new line: “Obama has taught the Black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson, you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton.”

It was disappointing, though not surprising, that none of the commentators on the panel — all of them white — contested these comments or offered a different perspective. The fact that such statements on national television go unchallenged is a testament to the lack of racial diversity on the media landscape. In fact, a Black commentator might have challenged the conservative narrative on the meaning of Iowa. The audience might have learned that the “big losers” that night were not Jackson and Sharpton — the ones who actually fight against racial injustice — but racism itself. They might have understood that it was the work of civil rights activists that paved the way for Obama’s success.

As the country is becoming less white, the face of television news is becoming whiter.

We urgently need to open up TV news to more diverse voices.

James Thindwa is executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice. This article is reprinted, with the author’s permission, from The Progressive Media Project.