News organizations lack diversity, NAACP chief charges

TV/RADIO COLUMN

October 29, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Kweisi Mfume says he sees modest but real progress in putting African-Americans and other minorities as recurring characters in television shows. But now the president and CEO of the NAACP is firing a shot across a different bow of the sprawling conglomerates that control the entertainment and news media.

Mfume declared yesterday that television news organizations - especially cable news channels - are failing to feature minorities on any appreciable scale, whether as anchors, correspondents, the subjects of interviews, paid consultants or experts. He said he's serving notice that he intends to pressure the news organizations toward expanding the diversity they offer on the air.

He made his remarks yesterday at an appearance at the National Press Club to announce the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People's third-annual study of diversity in the television and film industries.

"None of Fox News, CNN or MSNBC are doing well with diversity or equal opportunity," Mfume said. "On the cable side, I think it's just horrendous." But he remained critical of broadcast network news shops, too, saying their political shows, newscasts and news magazines fail to reflect the life of minorities.

"We don't believe there's some great big bogeyman that's making racist decisions," Mfume said, instead citing what he called "systemic and institutional racism." His organization has not recently done research on the subject, he acknowledged, but Mfume said he first wanted to give industry officials time to meet with him and address the question of diversity.

Mfume's charge about news coverage is not an altogether new one. In 2000, the NAACP released a review of the three most-watched Sunday political shows that showed the overwhelming majority of guests interviewed were white men. And yesterday's remarks appeared intended to resurrect and intensify attention on the issue.

Cable and network news officials responded gingerly yesterday. Each of those willing to talk listed correspondents, anchors and producers who represent diversity at their news outlets.

"We're always looking for ways to diversify our air - not just ethnic diversity but cultural diversity and the kind of stories we put on the air," said Matthew Furman, a spokesman for CNN. He pointed to the cable network's bureaus in Africa and South America.

Paul Schur, Fox News spokesman, said, "Just look at our air."

Several years ago, ABC News president David Westin instructed his staffers to select interview subjects from a more varied range of people in racial, cultural, economic and regional terms. "We've made a very earnest effort to ensure the experts speaking on our air reflect the diversity of the people they serve," said ABC News spokesman Jeffrey Schneider. "It makes sense journalistically, and it just makes good sense."

On the entertainment side of the coin, the NAACP report, titled "Out of Focus, Out of Sync," praised the networks for putting more African-Americans and other minorities on the screen. Fox, in particular, came in for hearty praise, though CBS also displayed strong on-air progress, according to the report. Last year, Fox had 121 minorities in a regular or recurring role, while CBS had 99, NBC had 81 and ABC had 74. Fox achieved that while having fewer hours of prime-time programming, Mfume noted. NBC's numbers, while on the low end, represented more than a doubling from its levels during the 1999-2000 season.

Mitsy Wilson, senior vice president of diversity development for Fox Entertainment Group, which oversees the network, the Fox film studio and its television production company, said her office's success relies on the strong backing of senior executives.

"We have been involved in all aspects of the business," Wilson said yesterday by telephone from California. "We actually participate in those meetings where [hiring] decisions are made. We can sit back and work with executives to make diversity an organic part of our organization."

In 2000, the NAACP and a coalition of other civil rights groups reached accords with the four largest network entertainment divisions to promote minorities both behind and in front of the lens. Workshops were put in place to train aspiring directors, producers and technical staffers, while the networks promised concerted efforts to hire more directors, writers and actors of color.

However, progress behind the lens has been slow, according to the NAACP, which yesterday termed the problem "widespread and pervasive." Only CBS, for example, has a minority "show runner" - the lead producer on the program. It is Pam Veasey of The District.

On the news side, Mfume said local network affiliates are showing more promise than their network counterparts. But a recent study found no significant progress there, either.

"Over the last nine years, there has been no consistent, meaningful change in the percentage of minorities in television news," concluded a joint effort of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation and Ball State University.

Mfume said he intends to focus more strongly on news than ever. "Regulatory oversight, legal challenges, congressional legislation and consumer boycotts may be the only ways to bring about change in news operations that continue to only give lip service," he said.

His group's latest study can be found at www.naacp.org.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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