T Dog’s Think Tank: Diversity matters

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s untimely death, the world is calling for reform – and the media business must follow the lead

[Editor’s Note: This post was updated on July 1.]

As one of the few African-Americans who writes a media blog, for years I’ve been pushing for more diversity in the media business, whether it’s behind the camera, in the writers’ room, in TV and radio ownership, in the newsroom, or in talk radio. 

As you know by now, the death of George Floyd by the knee to the neck of a Minneapolis police officer – not to mention other high-profile murders by police – and many well-publicized racial incidents over the last few weeks, have boiled over into rioting and looting all over the country – Chicago included – in a manner not seen since 1968 in the days following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. 

Over the last few days, I’ve seen countless statements from media corporations, movie studios, sports teams, and others stating they stand in solidarity with African-Americans and committed to ending racism. 

But these statements are mostly empty press releases as most of them have failed to diversify their workforces. In other words, it’s not enough.

Certainly the biggest case in point is the local news media. Last September on this blog, I criticized crime reporting as stereotypical, factually inaccurate, and totally lacking. While it is great the city’s on-air personnel now features more persons of color than it did in the past, editorial decisions – the way news stories are written – are still made by mostly Caucasians. Not surprisingly, the lack of knowledge of African-American areas of the Chicago metro shows up in their news reporting. 

And it leads to the black community tuning out – especially young people. Last month as COVID-19 was raging, a party in honor of slain murder victims was thrown at a Belmont Craigin residence (not “Galewood” as the news media reported, though it is just south of the neighborhood) with no one wearing masks or social distancing from each other. Streamed on Facebook Live, the party went viral on social media and was criticized by everyone, Mayor Lightfoot included. It raised questions about young African-Americans not knowing enough about the deadly virus, as it showed a disconnect and lack of trust of the mainstream news media – maybe even more so than conservatives. 

“We have to think about what the news looks like to different people. When you turn on the news, when it’s talking about the Black community, it’s normally in a negative light.”, Chicagoan and former MTV News correspondent Domenti Pongo told The Triibe, a news website catering to the city’s African-American population and did a full story on the party. “When you look at something that doesn’t represent you, doesn’t speak to you, after a minute, you begin to disengage. This is something that happens over time as we grow up and consume content and don’t see ourselves represented,” he continued.

Dreamworks’ solidarity with African-Americans is nice, but means nothing if they don’t do hire people from diverse backgrounds.

Last year, Politco featured a story on how City Bureau was training students from diverse backgrounds on how to “re-invent journalism”, to reflect their communities instead of one covered by mainstream news organizations downtown, who use “deficit language” to describe black and Latino neighborhoods, such as “low-income” and “crime-ridden”. In the article, Andrea Hart – a former employee of the non-profit Free Spirit Media, noted local news needs “a really honest, explicit, unapologetic assessment of the problems in journalism: newsrooms are racist. They’re not equitable because they only have white people.” One case in point was the malicious editing of an African-American 4 year-old by CBS-owned WBBM’s news department in 2011. The news director was never disciplined, a bad look for a station with a history of racial insensitivity dating back to the 1960s.  

Riot coverage by local news media Sunday night was blasted by some as being too focused on the North Side and pro-police (this blog criticized their lackluster Saturday morning and afternoon coverage of the protests, or lack thereof.) They were also criticized Monday for lackluster reporting on a combustible situation in west suburban Cicero, where looters made their way into some businesses. The northern part of the formerly all-white and now majority-Latino suburb, known for racial clashes in the 1950s and 1960s, lies next to the predominately black North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago, separated by Roosevelt Road to the north and railroad tracks to the east.  

George Floyd’s murder has also renewed calls for diversity in Hollywood – and also revealed numerous lingering racial issues. Riverdale’s Vanessa Morgan (who is married to White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech), slammed showrunners for a lack of storylines featuring African-Americans and as one, is the lowest-paid cast member on the show. Former America’s Got Talent judge Gabrielle Union is suing NBC and Simon Cowell for racial harassment. Racial stereotyping still abounds in numerous from scripted fare such as Blue Bloods and “unscripted fare” such as The Real Housewives Of Atlanta, Love And Hip-Hop, Basketball Wives, and Survivor and Big Brother has had problems dealing with racial incidents in the past.  

Others are questioning the purpose of police-based reality shows such as A&E’s Live PD and the long-running Cops (the season premiere of latter show has been postponed indefinitely.) And many people questioned the sincerity of press releases made by sports teams (such as the Chicago Cubs and Washington Redskins) and media companies (such as iHeartMedia, NBCUniversal, and others) while diversity remains elusive in those organizations. And of course, writers’ rooms for most television shows remain overwhelmingly white, despite recent efforts to diversity. 

What happened here exposed a long line of injustices in the business – many of them I’ve written about in this blog for years, from talk show hosts making racist comments on-air and not being disciplined (and if they do, they find a gig somewhere else), to what I described with local news. After all, Amy Jacobson still has a career after what she pulled and wouldn’t have one if she weren’t a white woman.

But there is hope – even from the murder of George Floyd by police officers. The issue of race relations are finally being addressed, something that needed to be done decades ago. Large crowds protesting the death of George Floyd are multi-racial, marching in the Black Lives Matter movement in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, demanding change. Also being addressed is the issue of police brutality against African-Americans and other minorities – an issue Chicagoans know all too well

Politicians need to listen – not dictate, like a certain buffoon on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.  

What the media business needs to do now is instead of releasing empty PR statements on how they support the black community, how about hiring more people of color? There are many people who are qualified and smart – nurture them and promote them. To Hollywood, there are a lot of talented writers, actors, dancers, producers, and directors available – hire them directly, instead of funneling them through from flimsy diversity program. To local TV and radio stations, hire more people from the communities you serve – I’m tired of reporters saying they’re in Chatham when they are really in Auburn Gresham. 

And the conversation won’t end here. Over the next few weeks and months, I will be devoting more time and space to issues involving race and media amid the urgent need to have a conversation. I’ve added a diversity category to all the stories I have written about media as it pertains to race, and is the category is now front and center on the T Dog Media website. 

The entertainment industry and journalism needs to change –  and it needs to start now as we want our voices heard instead of being ignored. 

Because Black Lives Matter. 

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