Tuning out the networks' racial bias

Ishmael Reed

April 25, 1991|By Ishmael Reed

IN 1989, during a panel discussion at the Bumbershoot Arts Festival in Seattle, I expressed dismay at television's relentlessly negative news coverage of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans.

Half-seriously, I suggested that a boycott of prime-time network news might be in order.

I was shocked by the sustained applause that greeted this remark from an audience that was predominantly white.

Now, I and my colleagues at PEN Oakland, a branch of the international writers group that fights censorship, and writers in 13 cities are boycotting prime-time network news for he month of April.These programs are the chief source of information that Americans receive about the world.

More often than not they associate black and Hispanic people exclusively with drugs, crime, unwed parenthood, welfare, homelessness, child abuse and rape, although the majority of the people involved in these circumstances are white.

The networks' reasoning seems to be that if blacks weren't here, the United States would be a paradise where people would work 24 hours a day, drink milk, go to church and be virgins until marriage.

Yet, to cite but one example, a USA Today poll showed that 15 percent of the drug users in America are black, while 70 percent are white.

According to Black Entertainment News, however, TV news associates drugs with blacks 50 percent of the time, while only 32 percent of the drug stories focus on whites.

Last month NBC and CNN used blacks exclusively to illustrate Justice Department statistics about both black and white crime.

On NBC's report a white family was used to show the vulnerability of Americans to crime. At the end of the segment, black children were seen dancing in the street while a reporter commented on youthful drug dealers.

Whether their participation was staged or whether these kids were engaged in the drug trade was unclear.

Recently Ed Turner, executive vice president of CNN, said black faces go with drug stories because journalists "rely upon local police forces when busts are going to be made, and don't get calls saying there's going to be a bust at a high school in a white neighborhood."

But when Home Box Office -- not a network organization -- did a feature called "Crack U.S.A.," it located a number of white crack users.

Many blacks were offended by CBS's widely seen "48 Hours on Crack Street," which seemed to attribute the crack problem to blacks, stigmatizing an entire class of people.

Similarly, in a regular feature on ABC World News Tonight called "The American Agenda," blacks are disproportionately associated with "underclass" activities.

There is another a problem that we minority citizens have with network news. If I have a beef with newspaper coverage, I can always write a letter, which may get published. And newspapers, to their credit, often print stories that reveal that some of their emotional and sensational op-ed writers and columnists are pushing myths about minority citizens.

Local TV stations include community programs moderated by blacks, Hispanics and Asian-American people.

Radio stations include call-in programs that are as close to participatory democracy as you're likely to get from the electronic media.

Network news organizations, however, provide no opportunity to challenge their stories.

With the elimination of the fairness doctrine, they aren't obligated to provide equal time to opposing viewpoints.

The exclusion of a variety of viewpoints and the inability to respond to unbalanced stories are just as much a censorship problem as is the suppression of books and writers in other countries.

Alix Christie, a columnist for the Oakland Tribune, described the kickoff meeting for the PEN boycott as "the truest town meeting I've seen."

The main purpose of the boycott is to educate the public in a way that the studies, articles and reports about bias in network news coverage have apparently failed to do.

So far, NBC, ABC and CNN have taken an interest in our complaints; I hope we continue a dialogue.

But if the situation doesn't improve, we will come back in 1992 with a new boycott.

We might even complain to their sponsors.

Ishmael Reed, chairman of the media committee of PEN 9 Oakland, is the author of "Writin' Is Fightin'."


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