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Friday, March 22, 2013

A face CNN can trust and the white man's media burden

SMUG MUG: Jake Tapper is the face of the new CNN.
  • YouTube screenshot/CNN
  • SMUG MUG: Jake Tapper is "the face of the new CNN."
So the "face of the new CNN" is a white guy. No surprise there. The news network's new prez Jeff Zucker made the proclamation Monday at a Washington D.C. launch party for former ABC reporter Jake Tapper's new 4 p.m. weekday show on CNN called "The Lead."

While Zucker heralded Tapper's debut as "a really important day in the history of the bureau and the start of something very exciting and very fresh," most of the media hubbub since then has revolved around the anchors and analysts who are on the outs at CNN - specifically, the black ones - Soledad O'Brien and Roland Martin.

Indeed, it's been another interesting week or two in race and media - from the racially homogeneous game of musical chairs playing out at CNN and MSNBC to the polarized response to Robert Huber's Philadelphia magazine cover story, "Being White in Philly."

In case you haven't read it, Huber's piece is essentially a privileged white guy's earnest but failed attempt at bridging the racial gap in a city equally divided by segregation and gentrification. Instead of interviewing people across racial lines, he sticks to his own kind by talking to white "urban pioneers" and longtime white residents about the blacks. Huber's piece has kicked off a conversation, all right. The city's black mayor, Michael Nutter, who called the article "a pathetic, uninformed essay" in a four-page letter, has asked the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission to rebuke the writer and the magazine in addition to investigating some of the "sensitive racial issues" explored in the piece.

The latest fallout, which includes a call to boycott the mag's advertisers, occurred at a Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists meeting that Huber and Philadelphia editor Tom McGrath attended this week. At it, members of the PABJ questioned the magazine's total lack of racial diversity among its editorial staff - some of whom have criticized the story as racist, faulty journalism. The internal torment doesn't stop there; a writer at the weekly and all-white Philadelphia City Paper even wondered, "Why Is The Journalism Industry So White?"

It's not white guilt so much as colorblind insight. At the same time, the stiff castigation Huber has received will probably have the negative effect of keeping well-meaning white folk from entering the fray for fear that they, too, might be slayed over their own supposed ignorance.

But the larger issue of newsroom diversity is exactly what ties the Philadelphia magazine piece to the changes - or, in this case, non-changes - taking place in cable TV news.

Best known for her "Black in America" and "Latino in America" exposés on CNN, O'Brien will see her morning show host duties end on March 29, when she's replaced by white journalist Chris Cuomo. (She's been contracted to independently produce documentaries such as the "In America" series for the network after her departure.) And this week's revelation that CNN political analyst Roland Martin's contract won't be renewed past April prompted Richard Prince to ask "Why is CNN's 'face' invariably white?"

Martin, who came under fire last year and was temporarily suspended for alleged anti-gay tweets, recently responded to a fan's query about his departure by tweeting that the "new boss wants his own peeps."

"Cable News Is Still Unbearably White," Tampa Bay Times TV critic Eric Deggans wrote in reference to CNN and MSNBC - the latter of which "boasts of how its ratings with black viewers rose 60 percent last year" but continues to feature no black anchors during its prime-time hours of 8-11 p.m.

Neither MSNBC show hosts Rev. Al Sharpton nor Melissa Harris-Perry, whose Saturday show has become something of a surprise success, were considered as replacements for Ed Schultz's weekday spot, recently filled by white weekend host Chris Hayes, writes Deggans.

There was a time when the face of CNN was "esteemed black journalist" Bernard Shaw, as Prince reminded readers in his op-ed.

In CL arts & culture editor Wyatt Williams' 2011 profile of Don Lemon, the gay black CNN anchor lamented being relegated to weekends on the 24-hour news network:

Lemon checks his Twitter feed on his iPhone and shows me a message from a viewer that reads, "Why are all of the black anchors on the weekend?" When I ask him what he thinks about that, he just shrugs his shoulders. Later, at a photo shoot for this story, I ask him if he knows why T.J. Holmes decided to leave CNN for BET. He shrugs his shoulders again at that question, "I think he probably wanted something more than weekends." After considering it a bit longer, he says, "If we complain about it, we're malcontents but if you don't how do you sleep at night?"

Just as the Philadelphia article is a prime example of the kind of myopic vision that occurs when minorities - or, in this case, Philly's inner-city black majority - are left out of conversations on race, the shrinking range of voices on network news could foreshadow a more lopsided worldview from cable's news leaders. Which is odd considering exactly the opposite is happening in terms of diversity today in America.

Deggans, whose book Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation was published last October, is speaking today at a TEDxBloomington event in Indiana at 3 p.m. [live stream]. He'll be speaking about "how to talk about race across racial lines," he writes. Sounds like it could be a great speech for the guys at Philadelphia magazine, Mayor Nutter in Philly, and Zucker at CNN to eavesdrop on.

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