Uncovering biases below the surface

May 08, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- A couple of new studies about race and gender bias got me to thinking about an age-old question: Is it possible to think in a racist way without being consciously racist? How about sexist?

Stephen Colbert indirectly raises such questions when he declares on his Comedy Central show The Colbert Report that "I don't see race." Unless you are pitifully tone-deaf to irony, you can tell that Mr. Colbert is putting us on with his flip certainty. I don't care what race you are - asserting too casually that race isn't important is a risky invitation to be fooled by how differently the world looks to people of different races.

For example, liberal media watchdogs often have charged that TV news-panel programs book too many white male guests. The broadcasters predictably respond that they are not racist. The broadcasters aren't responding to the right question. The issue is not whether they are consciously racist, but how much subtle biases and personal habits of mind enter into their decision-making.

With that thought in mind, the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America decided that it would see how race and gender representation changed during a major race or gender-related story in the news.

Don Imus provided the event.

During the week of April 9, the profusely apologetic talk-show host battled unsuccessfully to save his popular radio show from the fallout over his remark about the Rutgers women's basketball team. It cost him advertising sponsors and eventually his show in a matter of days.

That was the week when I, dear reader, was invited, by my own count, to more than three dozen radio and TV interviews, including CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. These networks were also monitored by Media Matters, whose Web site was the first to post Mr. Imus' incendiary quote.

My blackness probably did nothing to hurt my being invited on the programs. I was also part of the story. I confronted Mr. Imus on the air as a guest back in 2000. Drop the cheap shots against women and minorities, I said. Instead, he dropped me. I was not invited back. Too bad; he should have taken my advice. He might still have his show.

Anyway, Media Matters' survey found a pronounced upsurge in black guests on prime-time cable TV news during Imus Week, although not much of an increase in women, despite the misogyny implicit in Mr. Imus' calling the team "nappy-headed hos." In its survey, Media Matters compared Imus Week with the week before and with two weeks afterward, leaving out the horrible week when the Virginia Tech massacre crowded Mr. Imus and almost everything else out of the news.

The question arises: If TV programs more often book white men to be experts, does that make the bookers racist? We can never know what's in the hearts of individuals. All we can see is what goes up on the TV screen, feeding public perception.

In that sense, the cable TV survey is like a new university study on bias among professional basketball referees. Reported by The New York Times recently, the study found that professional basketball referees were more likely to call fouls on players from another race. NBA Commissioner David Stern was quick to respond with the NBA's own research, which shows no bias. The argument will continue endlessly, I suspect, although the problem probably will correct itself. At least foul calls in the NBA occur in front of lots of witnesses. Incentives are high on all sides to keep the game honest and to argue endlessly when it apparently isn't.

But what's really important is that, unlike Mr. Colbert's character, we remain ever watchful to the possibility that our decisions are guided less by good sense than by unfair biases.

Political talk-show producers, like basketball refs, are vulnerable to stereotypes and misperceptions, habits of mind that lead them back to the same people - or the same sort of people - again and again in their search for "experts."

When a story with a strong racial angle pops up, a racial reflex can kick in with the most fair-minded of liberals. Suddenly they are sent running to their Rolodexes: "Who can we book who's black?" Or Latino, Asian, Native American, etc.

That's why the cable networks and other news talk shows seem to have little trouble finding a more diverse lineup of guests to respond to a five-alarm eruption of news that involves gender, race or ethnicity. The real question, then, is why broadcasters seem to have so much trouble finding that same diversity of talking heads the rest of the time. Maybe they need a bigger Rolodex.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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