The fake-sack, kill-him-softly, no-pay suspension of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was enough legally sanctioned and blatant white privilege to last us a lifetime of “say what.”
Chickens came home to roost, as the saying goes. As a result, maybe NBC executives could do a bit of paradigm shifting by simply giving a person of color the job. Lester Holt, current Nightly News seat warmer and proven black veteran broadcaster, would be a solid start.
Still, even as we’d expect a natural pivot in the conversation to include some conversation on media diversity, we might end up sorely disappointed. Perhaps satisfied that the allegedly post-racial black president was enough, and worn out from nonstop #BlackLivesMatter chatter, America is anxious to maintain a steady-as-she-goes lead-white-man model.
If history is any guide, there’s a justifiable worry that a six-month suspension is a time-buying ruse for the dust to settle, a way for NBC to sneakily rotate Holt out and—with the short-lived crisis forgotten—repaint the anchor chair white with another Walter Cronkite clone or, in a bid at artificial diversity, the next Diane Sawyer or Katie Couric.
That’s tragic, since white men are only 31 percent of the U.S. population. Still, broadcast history shows that networks have this frightening, almost medical aversion to making a person of color “the Most Trusted Man (or Woman) in News.” PBS NewsHour broke new ground when Gwen Ifill took the lead on its rather smart hourlong deep dive, joined by a convention-busting mishmash of diverse faces. But compared with big network ratings, who—beyond the comparative few hungry for an intellectual exercise—is even watching PBS?
This is important because even though the viewership for the evening news broadcast is about half what it was in 1980 (now 23 million) and the Sunday talk show circuit is declining in audience share, both venues still set the tone for domestic and international policymaking.
Until Williams’ scandalous grand exit, however, all three prime-time networks were filled with white men. Look to Comedy Central and HBO to push their wildly popular mock-news programs as rebellious, bash-the-industry alternatives, but you’ll find they aren’t all that different, either: Put all your eggs on Vegas that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show replacement will be—you guessed it—just another funny white guy who says whatever he wants.
And, ironically, just as Williams’ ousting was announced, Media Matters released its report on the “State of the Sunday Morning Political Talk Shows in 2014.” On top-of-week talk shows where the influencers openly huddle about the most consequential issues of the day, it’s the same old white guys dominating Sunday hosting, along with “white men representing a far larger proportion of guests … in every case more than double.” You have a greater chance of being abducted by aliens in a New Mexico desert than catching a qualified black or Latino journalist as a Sunday talk show guest host.
Interestingly enough, that is the exact opposite of what viewers want. A 2013 UCLA study discovered that “median household ratings were highest among those programs with casts that were 31 to 40 percent minority.” It proves that when most people turn their televisions on, they want to see a world that looks something like the one they live in.
Granted, the country is still nearly three-quarters white, but with demographics changing so fast and the national complexion blending so rapidly, logic would dictate that networks make a creative dash. Instead, the addition in September of David Muir as ABC’s World News Tonight anchor was heralded as something just short of stars aligning, as observers like New York Daily News TV critic David Hinckley aloofly described the all-white-guy lineup as “bolster[ing] evening news stability.”
But that does nothing to bolster media diversity, thus self-servingly reinforcing white male media supremacy despite the growing pool of black, brown and female talent that’s much more representative of where we are and where we’re headed. Just as Nielsen studies studies repeatedly show (pdf) that blacks “watch 37 percent more television” than any other group, African Americans appear consistently locked out of mainstream broadcast-news opportunities.
That’s unfortunate. But instead of reversing it, expect broadcast heads to continue hiding behind calls for more social media feeds and new-media infusion, when the diversity in their programs is as obvious and true as the stories Brian Williams told.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.