Race, Media and Politics: Awkward Bedfellows

National Action Network forum explores what happens when the three converge.

Posted: 04/13/2012 01:34 PM EDT

Race and racism are issues that too often in America are swept under the carpet, like a dirty secret, until something unavoidable, like the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, occurs. The tragedy and subsequent relentless pursuit of justice by African-American leaders and ordinary citizens is forcing the nation to confront its demons. Stories about Martin are now as ubiquitous on the airwaves and in publications as weather updates.

 

But where is the media when Blacks are facing the daily indignities of racial profiling by local law enforcement or discrimination in the workplace or at school? As April Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio, noted during a panel discussion hosted by the National Action Network in Washington, D.C., on Friday, African-Americans face disparities in almost every segment of life and that’s worth reporting, but too often isn’t.

 

David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet the Press, said there’s a tendency, particularly with the election of the first Black president, for people to say that race no longer matters, which presents a challenge for the media in determining when a story should be about race. People of color care about the same issues as all Americans do, from education to foreign affairs, he said, but there are issues where race should be a prominent part of the discussion, such as the disparately high unemployment rate among Blacks.

 

“That deserves special attention. We just can’t say the economy affects everybody, including Blacks,” Gregory said.

 

Unfortunately, he said later, the kinds of tough discussions that need to take place don’t until a tragedy or other dramatic event occurs.

 

There has always been a racial divide in the U.S., said longtime journalist George Curry, even when it shouldn’t be an issue, such as with Hurricane Katrina, which prompted speculation about how survivors would have been treated if the population then was predominately white. The media covers instances of racism, such as Newt Gingrich calling President Obama a “food stamps president” or the occasions when he’s been portrayed as a chimpanzee, but when it comes to the larger issues, they’re absent. Part of the problem, he added, is that Blacks have never had fair representation in the media.

 

MSNBC host Andrea Mitchell agreed that there needs to be far more diversity in front of and behind the camera. Race does matter in one’s perspective, filter and life experience, she said.

 

Mitchell recalled a story a young Black colleague shared with her about his experience with racial profiling and how the Martin tragedy has brought it back up to the surface.

 

“I’ve lived among lots of people. But, as a white woman I can understand, I can read, but I haven’t lived it. And until you have more people of color in the newsrooms, reporting, editing and writing, there aren’t enough people,” who will be telling it like it really is, she said.

 

Mitchell urged the media to address head-on the continuing and pervasive racism that exists today inside and outside the media and in its coverage and called on people of color to use their power as consumers of the news and the products and services media outlets advertise to force that increased coverage.

 

A Baltimore reporter in the audience told a story about how while interviewing some recent high school graduates about their future plans, a group of policemen jumped out of their cruiser, and said, they’re all going to jail.

 

Washington Post reporter Nia Malika-Henderson said that posting videos of such incidences on the Internet and social media networks can be a powerful tool that gets out important stories, citing Kony as an example.

 

“You have power. It’s in your hands,” Malika-Henderson said.

 

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