The Unbearable Whiteness of Cable
CNN just announced two new hosts for the 8 p.m. prime time hour recently vacated by Campbell Brown: Eliot Spitzer and Kathleen Parker. Last week, MSNBC announced that the new host for its 10 p.m. prime time show would be network staple Lawrence O’Donnell. What do these three people have in common (and thankfully for O’Donnell and Parker, it’s not being caught with your socks down with a prostitute)? Pretty obvious: They’re white.
They’re white like Chris Matthews is white, like Bill O’Reilly is white and Keith Olbermann is white, like Wolf Blitzer is white and Megyn Kelly is white and John King is white and Ed Schultz, Greta Van Susteren, Jake Tapper, Joe Scarborough, Bob Schieffer, David Gregory, Chris Wallace, Rachel Maddow, and Dylan Ratigan are white, not unlike the lion’s share of their guests.
“No one would have thought that, when there was finally a black president, TV would get whiter.”
Flip through the channels and there is no denying it: The world of cable news—and their network chat-show brethren—is very, very white.
Back in the heady days of the 2008 election, things were different. Not that different, mind you, but the news shows, dayside broadcasts and marathon primary night-panels had a pretty decent level of diversity. Already recognizable faces like Donna Brazile, Amy Holmes, Eugene Robinson, Juan Williams, and Roland Martin were joined by newcomers Joe Watkins, Keli Goff, Marc Lamont Hill, Michelle Bernard, and Jamal Simmons. Back in January 2009, I wrote on this site: “If 2009 isn’t the year of the black media star, then we are all doing something wrong.”
Clearly I was very, very wrong. Let’s review: Carlos Watson got a show briefly on MSNBC and was canceled, then disappeared from the network entirely; Roland Martin filled in for Campbell Brown on CNN for two months, then seemed to fade away as well. MSNBC’s Tamron Hall has been spotted doing fill-ins on the Today show, but when it comes to branded TV real estate, the 3 p.m. hour with David Shuster doesn’t quite measure up. Even NBC’s Christina Brown, who used to be featured on MSNBC’s First Look, was shelved for a Rachel Maddow rerun leading into Way Too Early with Willie Geist. It’s competitive out there, even at 5 a.m.
“TV executives are about making money. They don’t want to fix what is not broken. They don’t see it as a problem,” says Danielle Belton, founder and editor of The Black Snob, a blog about media, politics, and culture. “You often have a certain degree of sameness that exists at the top—and sometimes they don’t make that effort to actually dig up talent. I often feel like certain executives look around in their own circles and then say they couldn’t find anyone.”
In 2008, when asked how the network found new commentators, MSNBC president Phil Griffin said: “It’s word of mouth—someone says, ‘Let’s use this person,’” adding, “After the Don Imus situation, we had to reflect and say we’ve got to make a bigger commitment” to diversity. Apart from Watson’s short-lived show, since the 2008 election Griffin has given branded shows to Schultz, Geist, Ratigan, Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, Savannah Guthrie, and now O’Donnell. Said an African American commentator who preferred not to be identified: “Phil Griffin loves hiring white Irish guys.”
That may not be entirely fair—Maddow, Guthrie, and Mitchell are not guys—but it’s not a stretch, either. The scarcity of non-white faces on the networks was cited more than once by an African-American commentator who declined to comment for this story, even off the record—there were only so many I could have talked to, after all.
Yes, there are regulars: Apart from straight news (CNN’s Don Lemon and Fredricka Whitfield, MSNBC’s Hall), there’s the aforementioned Robinson, a staple on Morning Joe, plus Jonathan Capeheart, Harold Ford, and, occasionally, NBC News VP Mark Whitaker. Brazile is on CNN, Gwen Ifill on PBS, and NPR’s Michele Norris on an ABC or NBC Sunday-morning roundtable here and there. Touré was briefly a regular on Dylan Ratigan’s show, and we’ll see John Ridley on Morning Joe when they’re out in L.A. And hey, MSNBC viewers do see Tom Joyner all the time, but that, alas, is in an ad for his show.
Goff, regularly seen across CNN, Fox, and MSNBC during election season, pipes up in defense of the networks, pointing out that MSNBC has just signed academic Melissa Harris Lacewell, a regular on Rachel Maddow’s show, and noting that the calls wax and wane with the various shows and their various bookers.
“In my case, Dylan Ratigan has made a concerted effort to have me on his show, so when Dylan is mindful to say, ‘Let’s get Keli on the show,’ it makes a difference,” says Goff. “Once he got his own show, I started appearing on the network again.” Goff notes that, for minority constituencies, the push comes from either a “champion” or “one or two people who are mindful of diversity.” She adds: “There’s simply not enough of that. And I think that’s fundamentally the problem—at every network.”
It’s not that the networks don’t get it; they see the numbers. Hispanics, African-Americans, and Asians together make up about a third of the U.S. population, about 103.5 million people, and that comes with its own buying power. Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes cited just those numbers in April when he sent out a diversity-touting email entitled “The Multicultural Key to our Growth.” But when it comes to making the key decisions, the networks seem to err on the side of the safe and familiar.
What is different from 2008: Then, it seemed like there were all sorts of great up-and-coming African-Americans on screen and on the bench. Now there’s not even a bench. Minority websites are woefully underutilized. People from, say, The Root are few and far between, or BlackVoices.com (owned, incidentally, by Time Warner). Even David Wilson, around whom MSNBC built a whole black-in-America discussion in April 2008 and then hired for TheGrio.com, is rarely seen on the network.
But wait: Didn’t the networks try having a black host already? Watson, D.L. Hughley, Martin filling in for Brown for two months? Belton doesn’t buy it. “Tucker Carlson was allowed to fail at how many shows now?” she says. “There’s been tons of instances of white men who’ve been given shows who have failed miserably, and [the networks] don’t go, “Oh, no! White men can’t host TV shows!” Says Belton: “Based on that logic, why is Oprah on television?”
So is this Spitzer’s fault? Of course not—he’s eminently qualified for a splashy, buzzy cable debut, in his own very special way. And it’s not O’Donnell’s fault he’s a Harvard-educated Irish dude from Boston. But they are, alas, symptoms of a problem. One black pundit went off on the issue for a while, then paused. “I shouldn’t have to be saying this shit in 2010,” he said. “You have this change in the nation before their very eyes. No one would have thought that, when there was finally a black president, TV would get whiter.”
Rachel Sklar is the editor at large for Mediaite.com and a contributor to The Daily Beast. She was formerly a senior writer and editor at the Huffington Post, and before that, a lawyer. She runs online micro-giving site Charitini, and Twitters up a storm here.