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.
1. Jamil Smith, Rolling Stone
Failing to hire black journalists is not some sort of benign omission. It isn’t about the lack of candidates or professional networks—or whatever excuse news executives make for their racism or their laziness. It is a choice, and networks and publications keep paying for it.— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) January 13, 2019
2. Wesley Lowery, The Washington Post
3. Yamiche Alcindor, PBS NewsHour
How dare you type “many black people have no interest in journalism.” Where is your evidence? Your conversation with yourself in your bubble of ignorance? Please get educated and realize @NABJ exists because black people are interested in and highly qualified at journalism. https://t.co/RP9fkHCkBG— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) January 14, 2019
4. Sarah Glover, NABJ president
Will you be adding additional team members? https://t.co/jW92w2B7I2— Sarah Glover (@sarah4nabj) January 12, 2019
5. Marlon A. Walker, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Obvious explanation? Do your research.— Marlon A. Walker (@marlonawalker) January 14, 2019
More than 20 percent of j-school graduates are people of color. Less than half of them find jobs in the field.
More than two-thirds of white j-school graduates find jobs. #MediaDiversity #DiversityMatters https://t.co/RvEDZoD9O5
6. Jamilah Lemieux, cultural critic
Y’all are arguing about Black people and journalism with someone who probably calls us “niggers” daily, please stop— Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux) January 14, 2019
7. Tiffany Cross, The Beat DC
Honestly, it's not just #CBS. People of color are frequently challenged in ALL news spaces. How many ordinary non-POC enjoy large platforms while EXTRAORDINARY POC fight for a seat at the table? From cable news outlets to newspaper bylines. It runs deep. https://t.co/yJS5jfmPkp pic.twitter.com/3mfkAZRBC2— @tiffanydcross (@TiffanyDCross) January 14, 2019
8. Soraya McDonald, The Undefeated
9. Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker
So... what you’re saying is that in a campaign in which voter suppression and racial attitudes are expected to play a huge role you will have zero black journalists covering it? https://t.co/6Sh2LQl2Xs— jelani cobb (@jelani9) January 13, 2019