TV boycott fights to change stereotypes

April 18, 1991|By New York Times

The Oakland, Calif., branch of PEN, the international writers' group, is boycotting prime-time network news for the month of April, in protest against the negative coverage of blacks and Hispanic Americans.

Anyone who pays attention to television news may sympathize to some degree with the complaint by Ishmael Reed, chairman of the Oakland PEN media committee, that the networks tend to "associate black and Hispanic people exclusively with drugs, crime, unwed parenthood, welfare, homelessness, child abuse and rape."

And although the notion of PEN, an organization devoted to freedom of speech, going in for a boycott may seem unseemly, yet, there are not many other ways that viewers can express dissatisfaction with what shows up on the tube.

Reed makes the point that most of the people involved in crime, drugs and so forth are white, while most television reports on such subjects focus on blacks.

Television news is not reluctant to play up whites on the other side of the law, whether it is a junk bond manipulator, or a man who is convicted of beating his baby daughter to death.

But those are not the kinds of cases that spring to mind when people talk about crime on the streets. What worries most Americans are the muggings, assaults, murders that make the nation's cities seem so dangerous. And it is not possible to talk candidly about that without taking into account the condition of black men in their teens and 20s.

If network news can be faulted, it is for not digging deeper than the stark figures of who winds up in jail, into the dangerous neighborhoods and fractured families where so many black children are at risk.

But even if the boycott has the effect of drawing the attention to the accomplishments of minorities, the difficulty is that vice attracts bigger audiences than virtue.

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