Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nationby Eric Deggans
Gone is the era of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when news programs fought to gain the trust and respect of a wide spectrum of American viewers. Today, the fastest-growing news programs and media platforms are fighting hard for increasingly narrow segments of the public and playing on old prejudices and deep-rooted fears, coloring the conversation in the
Gone is the era of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, when news programs fought to gain the trust and respect of a wide spectrum of American viewers. Today, the fastest-growing news programs and media platforms are fighting hard for increasingly narrow segments of the public and playing on old prejudices and deep-rooted fears, coloring the conversation in the blogosphere and the cable news chatter to distract from the true issues at stake. Using the same tactics once used to mobilize political parties and committed voters, they send their fans coded messages and demonize opposing groups, in the process securing valuable audience share and website traffic. Race-baiter is a term born out of this tumultuous climate, coined by the conservative media to describe a person who uses racial tensions to arouse the passion and ire of a particular demographic. Even as the election of the first black president forces us all to reevaluate how we think about race, gender, culture, and class lines, some areas of modern media are working hard to push the same old buttons of conflict and division for new purposes. In Race-Baiter, veteran journalist and media critic Eric Deggans dissects the powerful ways modern media feeds fears, prejudices, and hate, while also tracing the history of the word and its consequences, intended or otherwise.
“Deggans makes a smartly presented call for more civil discourse.” Entertainment Weekly
“Mr. Deggans writes about race with clarity and wit. He understands and explains the politics of the broadcast and cable networks and the logic of its programming decisions without letting them off the hook for falling short of their own goals.” The Pittsburgh Post Gazette
“Troubling, detailed account of race and racism in today's media.” Kirkus Reviews
“Eric Deggans is one of the most insightful and provocative writers about television today. In his columns for the St Petersburg Times and his NPR commentaries, Deggans has established himself as a voice worth listening to. His many fans -- and I'm one of them -- will devour this book.” Andy Borowitz
“If you care about this country, if you want to take part in a citizen's movement that helps heal the deep racial, economic, and cultural divides tearing us apart, you must read Eric Deggans' Race-Baiter. No book of recent vintage so thoroughly dissects the media's monetized appetite for division. Provocative, honest, and smart, Race-Baiter is a supremely important book. Read it and let the conversation begin.” Connie May Fowler, Author of Before Women had Wings
“Eric Deggans proves that he is one of the most insightful and courageous writers covering today's fast-shifting media landscape. This is an important book.” Michele Norris, NPR's All Things Considered and founder of The Race Card Project
Eric Deggans proves that he is one of the most insightful and courageous writers covering today's fast-shifting media landscape. This is an important book.
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How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation
By Eric Deggans
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Eric Deggans
All rights reserved.
FOX NEWS CHANNEL VS. MSNBC
Downgrading All Journalism in the Race to Win a Political Fight
SITTING IN MY OFFICE ON A THURSDAY NIGHT, WATCHING TV COVERAGE of an emotional rally in Sanford, Florida, to protest the shooting death of 17-year-old African American high school student Trayvon Martin, it felt like I was seeing media history made before my eyes.
Martin, a teen visiting with his father from South Florida, was killed by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. The teen was unarmed, holding just a bag of candy and a bottle of iced tea. The shooter — identified as a white male in the initial police report, but actually a Hispanic man with a Peruvian mother and Caucasian father — said he shot Martin in self-defense after the youth attacked him. Weeks after the incident, among the few undisputed facts was a tragic reality: A young black teen was dead, and the man who killed him hadn't been arrested.
And so on March 22, 2012, Rev. Al Sharpton also was making a small bit of media history: as a civil rights activist leading a rally that would draw thousands to a tiny town about 20 miles northeast of Orlando, just before anchoring his MSNBC show, PoliticsNation, from the grounds of the rally, and leading chants demanding local police arrest Zimmerman and fire the current police chief.
"Early today, Trayvon's parents, attorney, and I met with the Justice Department here," said Sharpton, who got involved with the case soon after 911 tapes of Zimmerman's call to police that fateful night were released. On the call, Zimmerman reported a suspicious person at the subdivision who turned out to be Martin.
Sharpton, who learned on the morning of the March 22 rally that his 87-year-old mother had died in Atlanta, scoffed at news that the town's police chief, Bill Lee, temporarily removed himself from the job amid the growing media coverage and protests.
"Temporarily?" the activist asked, before turning to interview Martin's mother, father, and family attorney. "Temporarily is not enough. This man needs to be removed permanently. And let's not lose sight of the fact that Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, still walks free."
In a sense, this was the Al Sharpton every news junkie was used to seeing. For those troubled by his activist past, Sharpton was hitching his wagon to another high-profile, racially charged case. To those who saw how effectively he marshaled public attention and media coverage, it was proof that the reverend could help bring worldwide focus to a killing that might have gone unnoticed.
TV viewers were also used to seeing opinionated hosts weigh in on criminal cases in process. But in that moment on his MSNBC show, Sharpton brought all those roles together in one instant: an opinionated anchor leading an hour-long crusade on a major cable news channel while advocating for the victim's family, leading a rally, and even collecting money on their behalf from the rally crowd (according to the Associated Press, Sharpton kicked off the donations with a $2,500 pledge, joined by $10,000 gifts from radio host Michael Baisden and TV judge Greg Mathis).
As an advocate, Sharpton raised a host of important issues: Was Martin singled out for attention by Zimmerman for his race? Did police move too slowly to investigate the killing? Had the teen been a victim of "Walking While Black" — having the unfortunate luck to draw attention from an armed volunteer watchman just because he was a young black man?
But Sharpton's involvement at the heart of the Martin case raised questions for media critics, too.
I talked about it on CNN, appearing on media critic Howard Kurtz's show Reliable Sources on March 25, 2012: "The problem is that MSNBC has to cover this as a news organization and as I said, we're getting to the point where George Zimmerman is starting to speak up, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. He has an attorney. He has a side. Is he going to feel like he can talk to NBC News or MSNBC and be treated fairly when one of their signature on-air personalities has spent weeks talking about how he should be arrested and he should be in jail?"
When NBC News was later criticized for the way it edited audio of Zimmerman's 911 call to police — cutting out a moment when the dispatcher asked Martin's race, so it appeared the volunteer watchman offered the information on his own — the network apologized privately to reporters and fired the producer and a reporter connected to the story, while assuring media critics and the public the omission was a mistake.
But, in part because of Sharpton's role at MSNBC, some critics asked if the network's editing actions were deliberate. For news professionals, that sounded far-fetched, but sometimes journalism is a game of appearances as much as reality.
And it raised an uncomfortable question: Where does the line between news channel and opinion channel really lie?
MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines replied to these questions with an email: "When Rev. Sharpton joined MSNBC, it was with the understanding that he would continue to do his advocacy work," Gaines wrote me, three days after the rally in Sanford. "We're fully aware of that work and we have an ongoing dialogue. His participation in these events is very public and our audience is completely aware of where he stands on the issues. It's because of this work and his decades of activism that Rev. Sharpton brings such a unique perspective to our line up."
It's a position that sounded an awful lot like treading water, taking advantage of the notoriety and attention that comes from having an anchor at the forefront of the hottest story of the year without addressing the implications of making a major face at MSNBC also a face for the family at the center of a still-contested murder case.
And, of course, at the heart of all these issues were questions of racism.
One reason the Martin story became an international issue — I saw stories about Sanford's police chief stepping down in French, Australian, and English newspapers — is because of the early work by journalists of color: columnist Charles Blow at the New York Times, Trymaine Lee at the Huffington Post, Roland Martin at CNN, and Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC. Though Martin was killed on February 26, national media outlets didn't begin talking about his story until more than a week later, as his family began speaking to the press, wondering why their son's killer hadn't been arrested.
Ryan Julison, a Florida-based public relations expert, was asked to help spread word about the case by an attorney for Martin's family. He found initially that getting national media attention was tough, and said he used early stories by Reuters and CBS This Morning to push local media into attending a press conference held by the family on March 8.
Julison had also worked to publicize the cases of a drum major at historically black Florida A&M University who died amid allegations of hazing, and a homeless African American man assaulted by the son of a lieutenant in the Sanford police department.
"The race issue certainly plays heavy in the media, but it depends on how clean and how easy the story is to tell," said Julison. In his other race-related cases, he noted, the victims were less sympathetic: a twentysomething college student who willingly joined the school's marching band and a homeless black man who struggled with drug addiction. But Martin, a black teen with no history of violence and no weapon on his person, was a seemingly uncomplicated case.
"The media wants to frame a story that's easy to tell," he added. "Unarmed teen, shot down by an armed — at the time we thought he was white — neighborhood watch guy, that's an easier frame. Race is explosive and it certainly is a huge determining factor in coverage, but it depends on how it is framed and told."
Still, Julison said, other major national TV news outlets were hesitant to spend much time on the story until March 16, when audio of 911 calls from Zimmerman and residents at the subdivision were released. Local police had resisted making the calls public until Sanford mayor Jeff Triplett ordered their release; when they were revealed, the drama of the audio expanded the story.
The city's police chief had said that Zimmerman didn't know Martin's race, but the audio revealed the volunteer watchman had told the 911 dispatcher that the youth "looks black"; Zimmerman seemed to continue following the teen after a dispatcher told him it was not necessary; and calls from neighbors revealed high-pitched screams that sounded like a young person, stilled after a gunshot.
"I remember having conversations with [ABC News reporter] Matt Gutman and [NBC News correspondent] Kerry Sanders; they were struggling to get the story on the air," Julison said of the days before the 911 audio was released. "The 911 tapes gave them the ammunition they needed. It hit the Today show and hit everywhere; it set the table. We were on the morning shows and the evening news shows every day."
More than anything, the audio provided some objective evidence that the parents' suspicions might be right, the public relations expert added. "They provided the emotion. People wanted to side with us, and this gave them the reason to ... The media takes the racial dynamic, because it incites people to pick a side."
For some, it was proof of how stereotyping and prejudice in society can cause more than hurt feelings or offended sensibilities.
Associated Press writer Jesse Washington, an African American who covers race and ethnicity, wrote a moving column about explaining the "black male code" to his son, warning the 12-year-old that others' fears of him, simply because of his race and gender, could be deadly if he didn't learn how to carry himself in a non-threatening way.
Even conservative news outlets such as Fox News Channel seemed a little stunned by the circumstances, at first.
As Sharpton was speaking to thousands in Sanford on March 22, Bill O'Reilly opened that evening's edition of The O'Reilly Factor by talking about how the liberal watchdogs at Media Matters aired radio ads critical of conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh. O'Reilly didn't get to Trayvon Martin until more than halfway through his show, asking fellow anchor and attorney Megyn Kelly about the police chief stepping down. Later that evening, on his 9 P.M. show, Fox News anchor Sean Hannity would ask, "Is it possible it's a horrible accident?"
Then Geraldo Rivera stepped in it. Big time.
In an emotional appearance on the news channel's Fox and Friends show the day after the Sanford rally, Rivera zeroed in on Martin's clothing, implying that the hooded sweatshirt the teen wore made him look worthy of suspicion.
"I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters, particularly, to not let their children go out wearing hoodies," the anchor said, offering comments he later admitted even his son found shameful. "I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was."
Angry that the anchor seemed to be blaming the victim, advising people of color to simply accept the stereotypes others have of them, critics drowned Rivera in nasty replies. Roland Martin, a pundit for CNN and black-centered cable channel TV One, concluded the man had "lost his mind." Actor Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: Next Generation) tweeted: "Hoodies don't kill people. Paranoid racists with guns kill people." And the website Mediabistro dug up a photo of O'Reilly and Rivera, purportedly from 2007, sitting at a baseball game wearing — wait for it — hooded jackets and/or sweatshirts.
But liberating as it was to clobber Rivera for his insensitivity, his comments revealed an important question:
Should people, especially those who don't have power, such as racial minorities and women, change to conform to the system?
Or should the system change for them?
Too often, when ideologies clash in big media — especially on race and social issues — these are the questions at hand, buried beneath the jockeying for viewers, impact, and prominence.
Does America mostly work for everybody — which means that people who face adversity should just get over it and work harder — or is the system embedded with inequity, sexism, and racism that require tireless vigilance and constant advocacy to change?
These are faultlines entire media industries have been built on, from Fox News's tireless echo of conservative, middle-aged, middle-class white sensibilities (the system mostly works) to Pacifica Radio's string of progressive stations and shows, including flagship series Democracy Now's challenge of America's corporations, militarism, and dominance by the wealthy (the system often doesn't work).
Applied to the Martin case, these divisions are easy to see. The Orlando Sentinel reported that white and black residents in Sanford interviewed randomly seemed split on the issue, with whites more hesitant to condemn the local police department for failing to arrest Zimmerman weeks after the teen's death. White residents more often had faith in the legal system, while black people viewed the lack of arrest as a reminder of the bad old days in Florida, when imperious police forces could disregard the rights of any person of color anytime.
Even President Obama noted, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." Skilled as he was at avoiding typical approaches to talking about race, America's first black president had to admit that this situation felt a little bit personal.
Small wonder then that when Zimmerman eventually was arrested on April 11, a poll by news service Reuters and marketing firm Ipsos found that 91 percent of black people surveyed believed Martin was unjustly killed, compared to 35 percent of white people.
But the racial dynamics in the Martin case seemed different and deeper than the superficial stories many national news outlets were telling.
The Miami Herald noted that the community where Martin was shot was a neighborhood in transition, with an influx of poorer people, people of color, and rising crime rates, raising tensions. In the year before the teen's death, there had been eight burglaries, nine thefts, and one other shooting in the area, according to the Herald.
Some in Sanford's black community had longstanding frictions with the police department, accusing it of moving slowly to arrest the son of a police officer caught on video punching a homeless black man and of failing to adequately investigate two security guards who were eventually acquitted of killing a black man by citing self-defense.
In my own work for the Tampa Bay Times, I wondered if some of this wasn't wrapped up in a too-simplistic notion of racism.
"We still, too often, act like racism is a switch — either you're Archie Bunker or David Duke and acting as a clear cut white supremacist, or you're not," I wrote for The Feed, my own media blog at the Tampa Bay Times. "But that's not how I think it works. Very often, people who would never consider themselves racist in other settings have very negative views of minorities in certain circumstances — say, if they live in a high-crime neighborhood where many offenses are committed by black or brown people."
In the 45 days between Martin's death and Zimmerman's arrest, national media obsessed over the story in surprising and dismaying ways.
At the beginning, Zimmerman went into hiding and had no surrogates speaking for him. So the narrative of an innocent teen killed by an overzealous, wannabe cop seemed to hold sway. Cable news personalities such as Martin and Harris-Perry wore hooded sweatshirts on air, NBC aired video of several black on-air personalities talking about their experiences with racial profiling during the news magazine Rock Center, and an audio analysis by CNN broadcast on March 22 suggested Zimmerman complained about "fucking coons" during his 911 call to police.
Conservative bloggers and pundits began to complain of a rush to judgment, wondering why some news outlets described Zimmerman as a "white Hispanic" (there are indeed white, black, and brown Hispanics, since the term describes people with family lineage from Spain, Portugal, or Latin America). They also complained that pictures of a much younger Martin were often shown alongside a mug shot of Zimmerman from a 2005 arrest.
Julison said he gave reporters the only images he had: photos from Martin's funeral program. One of the only other photos of Zimmerman available before his 2012 arrest was an image of him smiling in a shirt, tie, and jacket, obtained from an unnamed source at his last place of employment by the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, which initially didn't give other news outlets the right to reproduce it. Eventually, after the image was distributed on several wire services, other news outlets began to use it.
Excerpted from Race-Baiter by Eric Deggans. Copyright © 2012 Eric Deggans. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Meet the Author
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for National Public Radio and formerly for the Tampa Bay Times, Florida's largest newspaper. He also contributes to CNN.com and the Huffington Post. Deggans regularly appears as a pundit/expert on MSNBC's "Countdown"; CNN's "Reliable Sources"; Fox News Channel's "Fox and Friends" morning show and "Hannity and Colmes"; PBS's "The NewsHour"; CNN Headline News' "Showbiz Tonight"; "The Tavis Smiley Show" on Black Entertainment Television; and the PBS shows "Livelyhood" and "The Calling." His work has also appeared in a host of newspapers and magazines ranging from the conservative Newsmax magazine to the Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Detroit News and Miami Herald, VIBE magazine, Hispanic magazine and Ebony magazine.
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This is a great book for everyone to read. This is a great piece of work by Eric Deggans. I recommend this book to everyone to read. This book tells the truth about how the media divides race relations in this nation. A tell-all book that tells it all. A must read! William B. Turner Authur