While Fox News may have raised the ante for biased news reporting a long time ago, in the poker game that is mainstream news coverage, NBC on Tuesday apparently saw CBS’ diversity flub over the weekend and raised it one tone-deaf racial faux pas.
Gambling metaphors aside, if the recent moves by two of the major players in mainstream news were any indication, the masses should brace for an onslaught of news missing precious context. That much was apparent on Tuesday afternoon when HuffPost reported that NBC News bosses had ordered its editorial staff against characterizing U.S. Rep. Steve King’s “remarks as racist.” King, of course, who has been all but openly racist for nearly two decades, just last week wondered aloud how language like “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization” ever became “offensive.”
To the trained eye and ear, those comments go well beyond dog whistling — they are, indeed, racist as defined by Merriam-Webster and other top dictionaries.
But that didn’t stop Susan Sullivan, who HuffPost identified as “a senior employee in the standards division at NBC News,” from sending an email warning staffers to “[b]e careful to avoid characterizing [King’s] remarks as racist” and advising them that “[i]t is ok to attribute to others as in ‘what many are calling racist’ or something like that.”
While the report was not surprising, the timing of it certainly was after CBS News spent the past weekend trying to wake itself up out of a PR nightmare following the self-inflicted revelation that its digital news team covering the 2020 election didn’t have one single Black person on it.
NBC quickly “revised” its “guidance on Rep. King’s comments” to be the exact opposite of what it called for only hours earlier, but the apparent damage was already done.
The rapid succession of racial flubs by CBS and NBC cast further doubt on mainstream media’s ability to accurately cover what has become an increasingly diverse world both in and out of politics. It showed that NBC News either wasn’t paying attention to CBS’ misstep or didn’t care about it when sending out the email to its staffers telling them not to use the word “racist” to describe a racist.
The National Association of Black Journalists on Tuesday addressed CBS News’ easily preventable gaffe by saying in part that it was “ disappointed” and “disturbed” with the digital politics team’s glaring void of one or more Black journalists.
“It is unfortunate that we are still having these discussions about diversity and inclusion,” NABJ President Sarah Glover said in a brief statement. “Ironically last year the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission Report was a major topic and now in 2019 we’re still asking media organizations specifically, and society as a whole to do the right thing. CBS’s political team takes previously heralded steps back half a century.”
According to NABJ, CBS pointed to a senior Black staffer who would be overseeing the digital political coverage as proof of a commitment to diversity, but the damage had already been done, according to Roland Martin.
“It is unacceptable that no African Americans are even in the initial group of hires,” Martin, NABJ’s vice president for digital, said. “We implore CBS to significantly improve its hiring from a healthy pool of African Americans, not only in political coverage but in areas company-wide. We are closely watching developments in hiring practices of CBS and all media companies, not only in the political arena but company-wide.”
Glover put it all in its proper perspective.
“It makes good business sense to be fair and balanced in everything we do. We can’t hold others accountable, if we are not practicing basic, sound business practices,” she said.
A handful of notable Black journalists sounded off on social media in response to CBS News’ tone-deafness. Expect more of the same reacting to NBC news.