'Race-Baiter': Media Feed On Fear And Prejudice Author Eric Deggans dissects coverage of events such as Hurricane Katrina, the Trayvon Martin case and the 2012 presidential election to build an argument that Americans lack the right vocabulary for talking about race. And the echo chambers of our fractured media landscape, he adds, don't help.
NPR logo

'Race-Baiter': Media Feed On Fear And Prejudice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/164115452/164113452" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Race-Baiter': Media Feed On Fear And Prejudice

'Race-Baiter': Media Feed On Fear And Prejudice

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/164115452/164113452" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. With less than a week to go before the presidential election, a Pew poll released this week suggests the election may be the most racially divided in history. A lot of reasons for that, but it's symptomatic of what media critic Eric Deggans called a divided America, where almost every group can find media outlets that play to its interests, including some that exploit racial fear and prejudice.

Yes, he includes cable news and reality TV but goes on to argue that it shows up in the casting of scripted shows on the big broadcast networks. Tell us: How do you see yourself represented on TV? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the perils and purpose of presidential humor. But first, race and the media. Eric Deggans is a TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times. His new book, "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation," came out on Tuesday. He's also a regular contributor to NPR and joins us now from the Tampa Bay Times. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

ERIC DEGGANS: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: And we want to broaden this conversation beyond politics, but it's hard not to start there. Let me begin with a clip from just last week, where Romney co-chair and former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu appeared on CNN to downplay an Obama endorsement from retired General Colin Powell - a Republican, of course - who served as secretary of state for George W. Bush.


JOHN SUNUNU: And frankly, when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that's an endorsement based on issues or whether he's got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What reason would that be?

SUNUNU: Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you're proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.

CONAN: And Governor Sununu walked back that statement a little bit, but Eric Deggans, that's one of the moments in this campaign where racial attitudes have come out quite starkly.

DEGGANS: Yeah, and it also gets at this thorny area that we enter into when we try to talk about the things about people's race and culture that may affect how they see politics and how they see the world and how that connects to decisions that they make about politics.

I talk about something in the book called linked fate, and it's this idea that some academics talk about that says that people of color, black people in particular have done this, make some choices based on the welfare of the entire group and not necessarily their own welfare, right?

So someone like Colin Powell, who is a Republican, calls himself a conservative, and has served under Republican administrations, also is very sensitive about the issue of affirmative action and very sensitive about making policy choices that relate to the welfare of African-Americans in general in this country.

And so how do you talk about that without sounding prejudiced in the way that John Sununu did? That's a big challenge.

CONAN: We also have the affirmative action policy up for review in front of the United States Supreme Court even as we speak. Don't know when we're going to get a decision on that. But nevertheless, this goes back to a feeling that after all those years - I think it was the last time the court addressed it, it was Sandra Day O'Connor, then the justice who wrote the deciding opinion, said after another 25 years, we ought not to need this anymore.

DEGGANS: Yeah, and again, it gets to the idea of institutional prejudice and racism and how do you gauge that and how do you judge when it's subsided enough that you don't need programs like affirmative action. And the other thing that strikes me about affirmative action is that's a blanket name for a lot of different programs and a lot of different ways of trying to squeeze out prejudice and stereotypes from institutions.

So you know, you look at something like the Rooney Rule in the NFL, where they basically ask NFL teams to seriously interview at least one person of color when they have a head coaching job or a major job open in their front office. And that's been credited with increasing diversity amongst head coaches just because they're pushed to consider people that maybe they normally would not have considered.

And do you equate that with a program where you have quotas, and you say you must hire, you know, 12 percent of a certain type of person? That, you know, our terms are so imprecise, we have such a hard time talking about this, and one of the things I wanted to do in the book is just pull some of these ideas out into the light, add a little bit of consideration, and really talk about them so that we understand what we're talking about.

CONAN: Well, it was interesting, me reading the book, that I wondered if there might not be a - well, a lot of criticism - let's not put too fine a point on it - about commentators on Fox News. But you took care to point to the Trayvon Martin case and an apparent conflict of interest in MSNBC, the left-leaning cable news outfit, where of course this is - you have Al Sharpton, who's a host of an hour-long program there in primetime, but also as we hear here in this clip from Florida, an advocate and a representative of the family of Trayvon Martin.


REVEREND AL SHARPTON: Don't talk to us like we're stupid. Don't talk to us like we're ignorant. We love our children like you love yours. Lock him up.

CONAN: And lock him up, meaning Mr. Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin. But then he turns around and hosts his program from the rally site.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And you know, I've talked about this in the past, and I've talked about this on NPR, and I've written about it. You know, MSNBC's defense is that all of this is happening out in the open, and everyone knows who Al Sharpton is, everyone knows what his priorities are and what his activities are, and the audience can sort of judge for themselves how they want to deal with the message.

The only thing that - or the main thing that bothers me is that Al Sharpton is the most visible anchor on a cable outlet that still calls itself a cable news channel. He's the most visible anchor of color, and he's not only not a journalist, he's very much an advocate, leading a civil rights organization that advocates for specific legislation and advocates for specific electoral results.

And you know, that bothers me. And I've tried to talk about that while at the same way - at the same time I talked about my own tussles with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel. The book's title comes from the fact that Bill O'Reilly called me a race-baiter on his show years ago for the articles I've written criticizing the way he talks about race, and also talking about conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh and other people on Fox News Channel.

So I tried to look across the spectrum as much as I could while also acknowledging that my viewpoint is probably more friendlier to the liberal side of things, and I'm talking about talking about race in a way that a lot of liberals would find comfortable.

CONAN: But part of the development of this, you site at the beginning of the book, is a transition from a day when we had three - and we're just talking television here for a moment - three major broadcast networks that tried to appeal to everybody and to transition to a world where we have an atomized media landscape.

Yes, the networks are still the big boys on the block, but there's a zillion cable TV channels, not to mention, well, the Internet.

DEGGANS: Exactly. You know, we have - at one point we had a media universe where the goal was to amass the biggest audience possible. So the goal was also to avoid anything that might reject parts of that audience. You were constantly trying to figure out how to put together a presentation that would appeal to everyone.

And of course, you know, TV got criticized for that sometimes, for being too milquetoast, for being - for not taking enough chances. But now we're in a media environment where you succeed by targeting the biggest niche of viewers or the biggest niche of media consumers.

And I call it in the book the tyranny of the broad niche. You try to find these slivers of the audience, the biggest slivers that might be interested in whatever type of media you're presenting, and you target them in a way that draws them to you and also encourages them to reject your competitors.

And I think sometimes that's done by using prejudice and stereotypes, in everywhere from reality TV to these news and political presentations.

CONAN: We want to get you involved in the conversation. Where do you see yourself represented on TV and how? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Adam, and Adam's on the line with us from Cincinnati.

ADAM: Hi, thanks for having me on. I love the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ADAM: And I love the topic. I'm a gay man, and when I see my community represented in the media, like reality TV shows, it's always - or on the news or through a politician, it's always - they're always showing the stereotype, the bad stereotype, of my community, whether it's that we're completely promiscuous and disease-ridden or that it's, you know, just the stereotypes of being completely effeminate and all that kind of stuff.

It's not - you never see a true representation of my community, I don't think.

CONAN: And do you see - you see that's true in the news, as well as on, well, reality TV and scripted TV?

ADAM: I feel it's true in the news. It depends on the news source, but - and some news sources, like you're talking about some of the cable TV news, I definitely think that they do that. But I think maybe more reputable news sources don't do it as much.

But definitely on TV, whether it's scripted or reality TV.

CONAN: And is that better or worse than the situation not so many years ago when gay people were scarcely represented at all, if at all?

ADAM: I don't know if it's better or not. I think it probably is better because we're in a much better position than we were, say, 20 years ago, but there's still all of those stereotypes out there that I don't know what it's going to take to get those to go away.

CONAN: And stereotypes, Eric Deggans, well, gay people certainly suffer from that representation, but they're not alone.

ADAM: No, exactly.

DEGGANS: No, they're not, although I would say I think things are changing for the way that gay people are portrayed on television. And I would suggest a few shows - for example, "The Real L Word" on Showtime is a show that's centered on the lives of lesbian women in an urban city.

And I think you do get to see a lot of shades of how gay people live their lives. One of the things I've written about recently, and it's not necessarily in this book, but I've written about the modern stereotype on television and scripted programming about gay men, which is that they're all white, they're all middle-class, and they're - when they're shown as couples, there's the one gay man who is more stereotypically a gay caricature, where, you know, a love of theater, very flamboyant, very effeminate, and then there's a type-A gay man who is much more straight-laced, much more conventional.

CONAN: "The Odd Couple" comes out of the closet.

DEGGANS: Yeah, has an upper-middle-class job like a lawyer or an architect or something like that. And we've seen that on the CBS show "Partners," we've seen that on the ABC show "Modern Family." We see that on the NBC show "The New Normal," and that's something that I've encouraged them to get beyond.

But it's a step better than the stereotypes that the caller was talking about.

CONAN: Adam, thanks very much for the call.

ADAM: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Eric Deggans about his new book, and it's called "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." Up next we'll talk with a psychologist about some of the reasons race remains so difficult to talk about. We'll also get to more of your calls. How do you see yourself represented on TV? 800-989-8255. TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. An Associated Press poll released last week found that racial prejudice has increased since 2008. It showed that a slight majority of Americans express prejudice towards blacks and towards Latinos. More about that survey in a moment.

Our guest today is media critic Eric Deggans. We're talking about his new book "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." Tell us: How do you see yourself represented on TV? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Eric Deggans, that AP poll asked people, among other things, to indicate how much they agree or disagree with statements like: Irish, Italians, Jewish and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up; blacks should do the same without special favors. What do we make of a question like that?

DEGGANS: I think it's trying to get at that sentiment that somehow black people remain aggrieved about the oppression they've endured in way that other groups who came here as oppressed minorities did not. But of course, you know, none of those groups were brought here in chains as slaves. None of those groups were officially defined as non-humans for hundreds of years in this country.

And those groups didn't have to deal with the brunt of official segregation, legal segregation, legal subjugation - even as late as the 1960s. So we're talking about a very different circumstance. And, you know, one of the things I try to talk about in the book is this idea that black and white race difference is, sort of, a special scar in America because of those things.

We have so often defined the struggles over race difference as the struggles between a black culture and white culture and trying to bring those two things into harmony. Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that there are other groups in this country that also struggle.

I just got a Twitter message from a Muslim who is talking about some of the problems that he faces with stereotyping, and certainly that's an issue. Hispanic people of varying ethnicities are also dealing with their own special types of prejudice and stereotypes. But the book does talk a lot about black and white, because I think that's a very special circumstance that America constantly is struggling with.

CONAN: Part of what makes talking about and reporting on race so complicated is that different groups see race and prejudice in such different ways. Linda Tropp is a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she heads the Psychology and Peace and Violence Program. Her work focuses on how groups of people communicate across races and cultures. She's mentioned in Eric Deggans book and joins us now from New England Public Radio. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

LINDA TROPP: Thanks so much for having me. Good to talk with you, Eric, as well.

DEGGANS: Linda, what's up? How are you doing?


CONAN: One of the things we should mention, Linda, is that you went to school, elementary school, with Eric Deggans. Did you know that he would later grow up to be an opinion shaper of national importance?

TROPP: No, I always knew that he was very smart, but I would have never predicted that for myself or for him.

CONAN: It's interesting, when we try to talk race across racial differences, where does communication tend to break down?

TROPP: Well, I think in part it's that we haven't yet accepted that members of different racial and ethnic groups often just have different perceptions of racial and ethnic relations. So, you know, there's academic research and national polls that suggest that on average, black Americans tend to perceive greater racial discrimination in the U.S. compared to white Americans.

And they - black Americans also tend to perceive less progress towards racial equality than white Americans. And, you know, there's a couple of reasons for this difference. On the one hand, I think it's the frames of reference that they're using in making these judgments, that whites tend to make these judgments in relation to how far we've already come, not necessarily seeing what we need to do in the future, whereas blacks tend to see and make these judgments in relation to how far we still have to go.

And, you know, I think oftentimes, you know, kind of parallel to the debates that are on colorblindness and multiculturalism, where whites tend to show a preference for colorblind ideologies, perhaps not understanding why race should matter so much, whereas members of racial and ethnic minority groups tend to prefer more multicultural ideologies, perhaps resonating with their experiences of being seen as different from a white majority.

And so you often hear these differences come out in dialogues between white people and people of color, where whites are essentially saying why can't you accept that I don't see you in terms of color, that race doesn't matter, whereas people of color are saying how can you not see the role that skin color plays in my life, that race does matter.

And they might actually both agree that race shouldn't matter, but they have different views about the current state of affairs.

CONAN: There's also the reality that those - some white people say if you're not colorblind, you're acting against me.

TROPP: Right, and I think that's what I would see as part of the problem or issue that we currently face in this society is that talking about race is such a taboo topic so that we don't get much practice in doing so and that by broaching the topic of race, it becomes more anxiety-provoking than it perhaps needs to be.

And so it makes us perhaps more likely to respond defensively if someone expresses a view that's different from ours. So we basically spend our time focusing on how to get our viewpoint across, make sure that we're understood, rather than being open to hearing alternate viewpoints on this issue.

CONAN: Is there any group anywhere in the world large enough or prosperous enough not to see itself as an aggrieved minority?

TROPP: Unfortunately, I think any group has the potential to see themselves as aggrieved, or disadvantaged or disempowered in some way. It depends a lot on the context. And I think it's useful for us to recognize that any group, or members of any group, can see themselves both as the targets of prejudice and discrimination or perhaps those who engage in prejudice and discrimination against others.

CONAN: And Eric Deggans - I didn't mean to interrupt, but I was going to say, part of what you write about in your book is the fact that some people seem to be playing on these perceptions, well, to increase profits, not to put too fine a point on it.

DEGGANS: Yeah, exactly, and I wanted to point out a couple of things. Number one, I hate the idea that discussion about race is focused on this idea of aggrieved minority status, because I think one of the things that people of color react to when other people say well I don't see color, is this idea that, you know, we're proud of our culture, and we're proud of the things about our ethnicity that make us who we are. And we don't see that as being aggrieved.

We see that as sort of fully inhabiting who we are, and so I think part of the struggle is to have a discussion where our differences are valued, and our differences are appreciated and savored, and not seen as some platform where we can fight with each other.

The other thing here is that we're trying, also delicately, to talk about white privilege. And this idea that white people do have a culture and white people in America do have a culture. And they have to acknowledge and talk about that in a way that's constructive while also not raising it up above other ethnicities and other cultures.

So the struggle is to say, hey white folks, you do have a culture, and it's not racist or prejudiced to acknowledge that and talk about it. It's just that we all have to figure out a way to, sort of, value what's special about each other while not subjugating or downplaying what other people are about and what makes them special.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in, this is Keith(ph) and Keith with us from Sacramento. Keith, are you there?

KEITH: Yeah, I'm here. I'm sorry, I was breaking up. But thanks for having me on the show.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

KEITH: And I would just like to say I'm a white, middle-class guy. I think the - I mean, there's plenty coverage about us on the media, but I don't see enough showing whites in poverty, you know. There's plenty of people in that situation, but, you know, even on NPR there was a segment this week where you were talking about people in different classes and how they got there.

And the NPR focused on three minorities. I think a couple of them are immigrants. I mean, "Honey Boo Boo" might be the only show that's seen on network covering families in that situation, but...

DEGGANS: Oh boy, that's troubling.


DEGGANS: I'll tell you that right now. But - and it also sounds like, you know, you may have been thumbing through my book because there's a whole chapter on how poverty is under-covered by the media, and I totally agree with you in what you're saying.

And, you know, I was asked at a recent presentation about the book if there's some things that - some disadvantages that white people have that I could talk about. And I think one of them is the fact that I think the white working poor and the white poor often get overlooked.

You know, when we talk about poverty, we often talk about it in racial terms, and we talk about people of color in that context. One of the things that we don't do enough, I think, is talk about the white poor and the things that they go through, as well, with stereotyping and prejudice, because race is often used as a shorthand for class, anyway.

So a lot of the negatives that are classically attributed to people of color are often classically attributed to the poor.

CONAN: Keith, thanks very much for the call.

KEITH: OK, thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Linda(ph) in Brooklyn: The best picture of race relations today was on "The Daily Show," when Jon Stewart was talking to the senior black correspondent Larry Wilmore. They both swore to have a serious talk about race. They tried very hard, but it ended up talking about sports. Even though it was probably scripted, they did a very good job of personifying our discomfort.

And that discomfort, Linda Tropp, it extends to all levels.

TROPP: Yeah, I think it does. And I have to say, I think it becomes more uncomfortable the less we do it. The more we actually give ourselves opportunities to engage in those types of discussions and really accept, from the get-go, that we're not likely to agree on everything, we're not likely to have the same views on everything, I think that can actually help to reduce the anxiety that we have approaching these types of discussions.

And so what I think we really need to do is use that as a strategy, saying, you know, some degree of anxiety is going to be natural to help reduce people's defensiveness and help them, you know, help them to construct situations where they feel and can trust that they're going to be heard and listened to so that they might, in turn, be willing to listen and acknowledge other points of view.

CONAN: Let's go next to Cynthia(ph), Cynthia on the line with us from Jacksonville.

CYNTHIA: Hi. I just came from Obama - Michelle Obama's speech in Jacksonville, and we waited in line for a long time. And I'm white, but the majority of people were black. I would say probably 80 to 85 percent were black. And when we got inside, we were standing, waiting, waiting, waiting. And they brought in a group of people that apparently had been out there to sit on the stage behind where Michelle Obama was going to speak.

But the group behind her did not look like the audience. They had apparently, in my opinion, kicked out people that look like America. In other words, it was very diverse. It wasn't 80 percent black back there. And so I thought how odd that they want to show, they want to give the impression that the support is equal for all races, which I suppose there's a reason for that strategically. But I - it just struck me as very calculating, and I wondered if you have any thoughts on that.

CONAN: Am I being too cynical, Eric Deggans, to say I'm shocked - shocked - to hear that politicians might jigger the background?

DEGGANS: Yes. Speech a few days before, tightly contested election that's divided by racial lines, and they were manipulating what the background looked like. I - you know, that's sort of job one at political rallies.

CYNTHIA: I guess I'm naive. I kind of was surprised they did that.

DEGGANS: Well, what I will tell you - and one of the messages of the book - is that media messages are almost always, at that level, very highly thought about and manipulated and controlled. Even when you talk about something like a reality TV show that - where there's supposed to be some level of unpredictability, they're supposed to be showing real life in some sense, all of those images are very closely controlled and manipulated.

So when you see a political rally on television or even when you attend one, the background behind the candidate has been very carefully selected because they know those images are going to go beyond that community where that person is talking and reach the entire world.

I'm surprised to hear so many black people were at this rally in Jacksonville because, you know, Jacksonville is not predominantly black as a city. So I wonder if it wasn't located somewhere where that tilted the mix of people. I know in Florida, there's - you know, obviously, the president has a huge amount of African-American support, but he also has a lot of support in other ethnic groups as well.

So I'm curious as to why that particular rally was weighted that way because we haven't seen that kind of mix, for example, in rallies here in the Tampa Bay area in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota.

CONAN: Cynthia, thanks very much.

CYNTHIA: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Eric Deggans about his new book, which is - let's see if I get the cover here - "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." And also with us is psychologist Linda Tropp at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Annie, Annie on the line with us from Des Moines.

ANNIE: Hello?

CONAN: Hi. Go ahead, please.

ANNIE: Hi there. I was just calling because I read the AP poll, and I tried to get my friends to bite on Facebook. And nobody would comment except my friends that have brown skin, and the white-skinned friends just like - you know, they looked at my other things, pictures or whatever, commented on those, but just went right on past the AP poll information.

CONAN: So you were trying to start a conversation about race, and your friends did the equivalent of how about those Bears?

ANNIE: Yes, exactly. Very frustrating to me.


DEGGANS: I know. It's tough. It - it's - it is - I think it's tough to have those kind of discussions, too, in a - in social media, where so much of the conversation can be very contentious, and people don't necessarily feel safe letting their guard down and letting their boundaries down.


DEGGANS: One of the things I do in the book is I talk about some concepts for how to have a discussion like this in a way that's nonthreatening and might achieve something. And, you know, I - whenever I talk about this in public, I sort of set boundaries, and one of the things is, you know, you don't attack people. One of the things is no one owns these subjects.

So even though - I know sometimes white people can feel like black people or people of color have the ability to initiate conversations about race that they can't do without fear of being called racist. And, you know, one of the things I want to say is nobody owns these subjects. You know, white people, you have, as I said, you have a culture, and you should be able to talk about this as well as anyone, as long as you do it with sensitivity and an open heart.

ANNIE: Well, that's what I was trying to do, was talk about white privilege...


ANNIE: ...and what that means. And, like I said, I only got comments from my brown-skinned friends, but not my white-skinned friends.

DEGGANS: Yeah. I think Facebook should (unintelligible) this conversation.

TROPP: If I may add...

CONAN: Go ahead, Linda.

TROPP: Sure. I just - I really want to follow up on this point that Eric's making that no one owns this type of dialogue on race, and this is something that comes up often. I teach an undergraduate course on prejudice, and I often find that students of color in my class feel very ready to enter into discussions and the white students in my class are very concerned about saying the wrong thing.

And so one of the things that I found that I do, and I think this is also common practice in interracial dialogue programs, is to basically set ground rules for those types of discussions and try to help people feel confident and be able to trust that everyone has something legitimate and valuable to say about race because we all live in a society obsessed with race. We may not necessarily all agree or have the same views, but we all at least have the right to have our own views and to express them. And it often helps move that dialogue further.

CONAN: Annie, thanks very much for the call.

ANNIE: Thank you.

CONAN: I wanted to end with these two emails. This is from Jennifer(ph): As an Asian-American, I see overly positive stereotypes of my culture. What's unsaid is that we, despite being extremely diverse - hundreds of different languages, dialects in over 50 countries - are expected to - held to higher standards as the average white American. I find this frustrating as my peers' mothers expect me to bust out some tiger mom parenting technique.

This from Katy(ph) in Powell, Wyoming: As a conservative white married female, I often feel marginalized and even villainized in the media. Well, Eric Deggans, thanks very much. Linda Tropp, thanks to you too. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.