Friday, July 9, 2010 Guest Post - Can A Brotha Get A Primetime News Gig?!?

[Editor's Note: Ray Charles could see that the lack of people of color on cable news networks is pretty sad. My homegirl Alissa from The FreshExpress goes in on CNN's recent decision to hire a disgraced former Governor, a stale Washington Post columnist, and a reality TV show host to run their primetime lineup. Show our guest some love you-know-where.]

On, we often “go in” on national black organizations. Those who claim to represent and speak for Black America don’t get a pass for historical significance or popularity. FXP contributors illuminate these orgs’ failures, expose their shortcomings and doubt their relevance.

However, these minority organizations don’t always get it wrong. Sometimes, they get it absolutely right.

Like this time, when CNN decided to hire Eliot Spitzer to fill the time spot that Campbell Brown left vacant. Yes, Eliot Spitzer the former NY governor who was forced to resign in disgrace after The New York Times exposed the fact that he was a client in a high-priced prostitution ring. CNN hired that Eliot Spitzer to co-host a nightly roundtable TV show alongside print journalist Kathleen Parker.

In a time when the lack of diversity in television news is a cause for alarm, the National Association of Black Journalists didn’t let this hiring of a former governor (who is virtually unqualified to be hosting any news show let alone a prime time one) over every single qualified black journalist in America go unnoticed. Instead they penned the following letter to CNN calling them out on their practices:
Dear Cable News Executives:

It is 2010, but the National Association of Black Journalists sees our cable news networks moving backward when it comes to who they believe is worthy of anchoring prime time news shows.

NABJ was founded in 1975 to encourage news media companies to hire and to promote more Black journalists. At that time, black journalists originally hired to cover riots during the turbulent 1960s found they were not being assigned to meaningful beats or were only allowed to cover “Black” stories.

NABJ’s advocacy for fair hiring practices paid off. Many of our founders, including columnists Les Payne in New York and DeWayne Wickham in Washington, D.C., and anchor Maureen Bunyan in Washington, D.C. remain prominent figures in the media.NABJ continues this advocacy today. To be candid, we have been focusing our talks with media executives on ways they can increase the diversity of their news management teams. It is our belief that a diverse management team improves coverage decisions and hiring practices. It seems, though, that the companies have taken that to mean that we don’t care about who is on the air. We’re watching, and we do.

Over the past several years, NABJ Executive Board members have met with leaders of the top media companies. Our message: “Let us help if you are looking for diverse talent.”

Some of the companies have reached out, but the names we have submitted never seem to be called in for interviews.

Three years ago, Ebony magazine’s Kevin Chappell noted, “While CNN has the most Black news anchors with eight, the other cable networks don’t fair as well… and none of the national cable stations has any Blacks in prime-time slots.”

Nothing has changed. NABJ questions CNN’s decision to hire former New York governor/attorney general Eliot Spitzer to co-host a new show in Campbell Brown’s old time slot. The company missed another opportunity to place a person of color in prime time. It just seems that cable news can never find diverse candidates who are good enough to meet their standards. We want to know your standards.

Are you telling us that CNN could find no one better than an ex-politician who quit being New York governor after consorting with prostitutes to grace America’s living rooms each night?

“In his story, Chappell talked with NABJ Member and CBS News anchor Russ Mitchell who summed up what many of us have witnessed over the years. Mitchell told Ebony “I’ve been to journalism conferences over and over again, and heard some executive say ‘I’d like to hire more African-Americans, but I just can’t find any qualified ones out there.’ That was b.s. then, and that’s b.s. now.”

NABJ couldn’t agree more.
Not to belabor NABJ’s point, but CNN’s recent hiring is just a prime example of the state of television media in general. Honestly, CNN, MSNBC, FOX, ABC, CBS, and NBC where are all the black people?

During the 2008 election season, I watched in awe as both network and cable news took one look at their all-white political analyst panels and scrambled to pull a record number of people straight from America’s Ivy League African-American faculty roster in to comment on President Obama’s candidacy for 30 seconds a piece. From Obama’s victory in Iowa to his ultimate win in DC, there was more color on nighttime news than ever. It seemed promising that the folks who run mainstream media finally realized that Black journalists and analysts should be included on nighttime news too. Unfortunately, that was not change we could believe in and before Michelle Obama could pair green J. Crew gloves and green Jimmy Choo shoes with a gold-embossed Isabel Toledo inauguration coat and dress, nighttime news was once again drained of color without a single black person being hired for prime time. In fact, one was fired.

When speaking on this topic, I know that some people say, “It’s just news. Why does it matter who is reading it on-air?”

It matters because the lack of racial diversity clearly contributes to racial insensitivity and blatant ignorance. (Cue Bill O’Reilly saying Columbia University professor, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, dressed impeccably in a pinstripe suit looks like a cocaine dealer.)

It matters because to not have a single black person anchoring prime time news tells exactly what these news directors think of black people: we’re unqualified, unintelligent and unable to be the face of a news organization at any time that matters. With that sort of mindset, it is impossible to trust the news organizations as a whole because clearly the people who are choosing what is and isn’t news possess a warped mindset.

It matters because for decades, news organizations have thrived and been sustained by reporting crime. Most of the crime reported has had African-Americans as the perpetrators. This disproportionate coverage has undoubtedly contributed to the poor view of Black people in this country and the false assumption that black people are more inclined to commit crimes. The simple act of hiring a black anchor can reverse at least some of the damage that only reporting black people as criminals has done over the years.

It matters because of the many black aspiring broadcast journalists. There are black students in this country, attending college against all odds, piling up student loan debt, gaining experience at student media outlets and graduating with honors. Yet, solely because of their skin color, they have no hope of securing the most coveted on-air positions.

It matters because black seasoned journalists should have the same shot at anchoring a show on a cable news network during prime time that a white person has. A person shouldn’t have to look like Katie Couric or Larry King to get a chance. (Substituting Roland Martin and Lisa Sylvester in every now and then isn’t enough.) There are more qualified black female TV journalists than Fredricka Whitfield and Tamron Hall. And these journalist can report the news on Thursday evening to your biggest audience just as they can on a late Friday night to your smallest.

It matters because the anchors should reflect the public. There is no reason why a premiere cable network — whose headquarters are in the capital of Black America – doesn’t have a black prime time news anchor. The same can be said of Fox News Channel and MSNBC both located in NYC. In addition, the viewership of these networks is not completely white so why is every prime time news anchor on both cable and network news white? This should not be.

….But it will continue to be as long as Black people turn a blind eye to it.

The lack of color in prime time news is without excuse. I applaud the National Association of Black Journalists for not being satisfied with CNN tossing their talented Black anchors on the weekend shift and leaving the prime time slot to ex-governors. If the United States of America can elect a black president, surely the Human Resources department of a cable news show can hire a black anchor for prime time.

Question: “Why should cable and network news hire an African-American for primetime?”, my question is: “Why not?“

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