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New book looks at how TV covers race
I want to give a shoutout today to Eric Deggans' new book, "Race-baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." A friend and esteemed colleague, Deggans is the veteran TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, and best I can tell, the nation's premiere commentator on matters relating to race in the media.
This remains an important subject that tends to fly under most of our radars until such time as it doesn't (Trayvon Martin) at which point the collective media struggles to explain terms, emotions and even meaning.
Deggans gets into all of that with his book, published last month by Palgrave Macmillan, but takes a much deeper dive, by exploring how TV actively baits race (hence "race-baiting") as a means of hooking and even dividing their audiences. It's a troubling read, needless to say, but Deggans has done a sober, thoughtful and intelligent analysis of what this is about. I've read a chunk of the book, skimmed other parts, so I asked Eric to boil it all down for me.
Why did you do this book?
"Bill O'Reilly called me racebaiter on his show in 2008, and at the time it was tough to know why — I'm chair of the media monitoring committee for the National Association of Black Journalists — but he had commentary about how white people can't talk to black people about race anymore [then] made a list of all people who had made . . . unfair charges of racism [and] called me the biggest race baiter.
"So it was an attempt by me to pull together a lot of the writing I'd done about race and media and focusing on the idea that there are many different media outlets that use racial stereotyping to pull together audiences. Sometimes they know what they're doing, but not necessarily."
You single out Fox News certainly in this analysis. Why?
"It has a long history of — how do I put this — seeking out incidents in which black people are scary or disruptive, or unfair to white people, and highlighting those. "
But you also go after MSNBC here — why? "They've become more partisan to the left [and] what happens is that when viewers see how the same news event [relating to race] gets distorted, then in the end people lose faith in the media. [Also] everyone knows what Al Sharpton [host of "PoliticsNation"] does, but if someone at Fox News was doing what he's doing — running a nonprofit that advocates specific laws [Sharpton founded the National Action Network] — they'd be criticized even more . . . I don’t call him a racebaiter because I don’t think he is one now."
Fewer black actors on network entertainment shows — why? "The number of black actors has gone down to make room for other minorities, and also shows centered on black casts have moved to cable. Television networks aren't doing those kinds of shows anymore but always have one or two cast members of color because they feel they have to do that to avoid . . . turning off black audiences but they also don't want too many people of color because then white viewers will feel it's not for them. [But the black character] is used to facilitate the adventures of the main character."
How's the problem of race baiting in the media to be solved?
"My point is to say this stuff has basic economic reasons for why it's happening and if you can figure out how the TV industry can make money by breaking down stereotypes rather than by reinforcing them, then the TV industry will do that.