Our Profile and Theirs
When Dr. W.E.B DuBois predicted the question of color would become the problem of the twentieth century, he was writing before the advent of television, the proliferation of the mass media, and the many uses (and abuses) of the idea of racial profiling. DuBois spoke about color in terms of oppression of nations and nationalities, of structural inequalities and injustices imposed by systems of colonialism and later capitalism. He was an advocate of self-determination on the political level and redistribution on the economic one.At century's end, Spike Lee is making movies about the Son of Sam, not Uncle Sam, and DuBois's ideas are out of fashion. With that imprecise phrase 'people of color' in vogue, the racial divide in America is as pervasive as ever and just about as invisible as when writer Ralph Ellison chose that phrase to explore how racism infected its victims as well as victimizers. In the American media, the racial profile is worse than the racial composition of nation it "serves." (If you want a shocking contrast, compare integration in the military and the media.) A year or so ago, newspaper editors admitted abandoning goals set a decade earlier to desegregate newsrooms while on local TV news, black criminals are still featured on the nightly perp walk while black anchors are confined mostly to the weekend ghetto. (Crime on TV goes up as crime in the streets goes down!)
Anyone who has looked closely at the media industry--even now as it "converges"--has to concede that racial "progress" in hiring, promotions and consciousness has been, to be generous, thin indeed. The new media world of the internet is, if anything, even whiter and more locked into the logic of the market, than any high minded social mission to which at one time media moguls at least paid lip service. In broadcasting, the deal making culture has diminished the tiny foothold that minorities achieved in terms of ownership, while media concentration has put more power in the mostly white hands of fewer and fewer machers. The merger of news biz and show biz has limited the amount of time devoted to all but episodic long form looks into the institutionalized racial equation of what used be called "the American dilemma." In most media, corporate interests overshadow public interests.
Yes, I know a black banker is the president of TimeWarner while Oprah rules on day time TV and well paid black athletes are well rated. Yet, black history month is still the only time we see semi-serious upbeat programming on blacks while other minority struggles in multi-racial America are just seeping into view. (By 2050, there will be more nonwhite than white Americans reports Farai Chidaya and most will be Asian and Latino) Thanks to talented film maker Jennifer Fox, PBS will soon be airing its next generation reality series on the American family. This new Loud-like drama features nine hours on an interracial couple but, again, story telling, not whistle blowing, is the genre. Any sense of urgency about widening gaps in American life is confined to Sunday morning sermons, and magazines like Z, not chat shows or chatrooms. As the social justice movement merges back into the labor movement, it is more marginalized by a media with five channels for business and none for labor. (Maybe because labor practices inside the media are so deplorable!)
The class character of today's racial realities are not as sexy as the news making confrontations in the glory days of civil rights activism. Today, it's Bloomberg for the classes and Jerry Springer for the masses with the dumbing down of TV News and stupefication of programming all but color blind. Occasional documentaries like Mark Levin and Daphne Pinkerson's excellent "A Thug Life" expose the massive minions of incarcerated black youth but they air late at night on HBO, not NBC. PBS meanwhile has gone from Eyes on the Prize to loving portraits of black celebrities like Walt Disney Company board member Sidney Poitier. Rupert Murdoch may marry a Chinese businesswoman while Fox features black sit-coms, but prejudice and intolerance lives. Ask the Trench Coat mafia. The globalized face of poverty and exploitation in the oilfields of Africa or the sweatshops of Asia and America pop into view from time to time but with little follow-up or sense of outrage.
Scant attention to civil rights has been replaced by almost no attention to human rights until there is a military crisis like ala Kosovo. Globalvision's public television human rights series Rights & Wrongs--canceled after four years for lack of funding--visited Kosovo in l993, warning of ethnic cleansing to come but policy makers and media makers alike were indifferent. (Initially the program's concept was greeted by PBS incredibly with the assertion that "human rights is not a sufficient organizing principle for a TV series"--unlike cooking! Sadly, it has not been replaced.) The Monicas of the world still get far more media play than the Mandelas or the Mumias.
So let's not get hung up on racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike while ignoring the racial profile of the news media. A practice exposed one day in the New York Times (and rationalized a few weeks later in its magazine) has been going on for years. Driving While Black (DWB) remains an ugly offense thanks to a failed drug war that compels and sanctions aggressive police searches. Media Making While White (MMWW) in the sense ongoing neglect of and indifference to racial injustice is more of a problem.
Twenty-five years ago, the Kerner Commission issued an annex to its eye-opening report on the persistence of a divided nation excoriating the news media for widening the racial gulf. Has that changed? There's some content worth investigating.
Danny Schechter, Executive Producer of Globalvision is the author of The More You Watch The Less You Know, and Executive Editor of The Media Channel, an internet supersite.