Commentary: The Dwindling Black Anchor Stable at CNN

CNN president Jeff Zucker was on hand in Atlanta this week to have a meeting with the leadership team at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). The meeting’s agenda? How Blacks are faring at CNN.

CNN president Jeff Zucker was on hand in Atlanta this week to have a meeting with the leadership team at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). The meeting’s agenda? How Blacks are faring at CNN currently and what the future holds for diversity at the station. If current trends are indicative of anything, however, that future does not look so bright for people of color, at least where on-air talent is concerned.

Zucker’s visit to the NABJ follows the recent shuffling of Black anchors and on-air pundits on CNN: Just last week, the network announced that Soledad O’Brien, host of the popular “Black in America” series, would be going off camera for a behind-the-scenes role as a documentary producer. Also potentially losing his on-air spot is Roland Martin, whose contract, which ends April 8, has yet to be renewed. So far, Zucker's new journalism hires have all been white.

“[O’Brien’s] departure from a day-to-day role leaves Don Lemon, Suzanne Malveaux and Fredricka Whitfield as the most high-profile Black anchors on CNN,” writes Jack Mirkinson at the Huffington Post. In 2011, Black anchors T.J. Holmes and Tony Harris also left their positions at CNN. Mirkinson reports that Blacks have had an issue with CNN’s commitment to diversity for some time now: “In 2011, the NAACP said it was ‘deeply concerned’ that there were no Black anchors in CNN's prime-time lineup.”

The people of color working at and watching CNN may be right to complain. If it appears as if CNN is intentionally scuttling on-camera opportunities for African-Americans, the Blacks at the network have every right to be angry. But it’s also important to consider that just because there are fewer Black anchors at CNN doesn’t necessarily mean there will be fewer Black stories, or that the Blacks at CNN in off-camera positions aren’t as important as those on camera.

Take Soledad O’Brien, for instance. While O’Brien may be appearing on your TV screen less and less in the coming months, in her new role as a producer, she still has some serious say when it comes to what CNN broadcasts. Producers very often hunt down the stories they believe are important and then give them to the anchors and on-screen talent to broadcast on the air. O’Brien could still come up with stories very relevant to the Black community; she just will no longer present those stories herself. O’Brien working off-camera is certainly a loss, and putting more Blacks on television, a medium with a real lack of Blacks in smart positions, is always important. But it’s not necessarily a devastating blow to CNN’s Black coverage.

None of this is to say that the NABJ representatives shouldn’t press Zucker on what he’s doing to maintain a Black on-air presence at CNN. But maintaining diversity at any network means maintaining diversity in all facets of the company, and Black journalists should make sure Zucker, who hired a Black diversity officer at his last job as the head of NBC, is keeping Blacks in production positions and executive positions, too.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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