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Racial bias affects both news, opinion pages.

The question straightforward: Why are the media so racist toward Detroit in general and African Americans in particular?

There was no point debating the premise with my host on a radio talk show. It was obviously a deeply held conviction, and not by him alone. It's been my experience that for most African Americans it's an article of faith--even among black journalists and African-American academics, much less politicians and public policy experts.

This belief is fed by a daily bombardment of stories in the paper, on radio, and on TV about black crime and other failings, along with a perception that the media do not give whites or even other racial minorities the same scrutiny.

Indeed, there is a common lament among African Americans that we are the only people where "99 percent of the population is judged by one percent of its people."

It is simply intellectually dishonest for journalists in particular not to concede a relationship between the media's almost obsessive focus on the perceived pathologies of black life and the creation of some very mean-spirited public policy based largely on distortions of the African American reality. Harsh social welfare rules, reactionary criminal justice policies, and relentless attacks on affirmative action by white politicians and their supporters in the media and academia are rooted in imagery of African Americans as some sort of sub-Americans, held back by low morals and ambitions.

This bias stems from the fact that racial minorities are so severely underrepresented in the media, comprising only 12 percent of newsroom employees while making up 30 percent of the population. (The Free Press staff is 23 percent minority, according to a recent report by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.) As a result, stories about African Americans, their communities, and issues relevant to them are generally driven, reported, and framed by people whose perspectives are alien at best to the experience.

A study of ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, and NBC Nightly News last year showed that 92 percent of all U.S. sources interviewed were white, 85 percent were male and, where party affiliation was identifiable, 75 percent were Republican. The study was conducted for the New York-based media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), by the international media analysis firm Media Tenor.

Sources almost unanimously white

The study also found that among sources quoted on minority policies, whites made up a stunning 87 percent, far ahead of blacks at eight percent. Even in news reports specifically about racism, nearly 60 percent of quoted sources were white, 29 percent African American.

This should be of particular concern to opinion writers since most of our work is generated from local media reports, where the numbers are even more skewed and news in general is so often driven by cliches connected with crime, poverty, and race. For African-American journalists who work in the trenches of editorial and opinion pages, this skewed perspective on race is reflected on the opinion pages of most daily newspapers.

The common use of such syndicated columnists as Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and to a lesser extent, Armstrong Williams, along with the writer Shelby Steele, as some sort of conservative balance to "liberal" black columnists like William Raspberry, Clarence Page, or DeWayne Wickham, is absurd.

People such as Raspberry, Page, and Wickham are not mirror opposites of Sowell, Walter Williams, or Steele. They are nowhere near as liberal as those men are conservative. In fact, by black political standards the former are very much mainstream establishment and moderate, if not relatively conservative, compared with the political views of most African Americans.

Nether Sowell nor Walter Williams nor, in particular, Steele reflects a black conservative perspective at all. In fact, their political, social, and economic thought is more reflective of the extremist perspectives--especially on race--offered by the likes of Pat Buchanan, John Leo, and Dinesh D'Souza.

Such conservative black columnists as Stanley Crouch, Cynthia Tucker, Jonathan Capehardt, and Gregory Kane may not be as edifying for those editorial page editors who prefer Sowell, Walter Williams, and Steele because they write so provocatively on racial matters. But they certainly have more legitimacy than the latter--who are not even journalists, but right-wing ideologues.

Dr. Ron Walters from the University of Maryland, Dr. Manning Marable from Columbia University, and Dr. Earl Ofari Hutchison, a noted California writer and commentator, all are mainstream, highly respected, and oft-quoted African-American scholars who write syndicated columns. Yet they are not on the radar screen of any mainstream editorial page editors.

Editorial page and op-ed editors are free to construct their pages as they see fit. Those choices, however, reflect the political bias of those editors who seek to define what constitutes black conservatism based upon their personal politics, not the black community's political sensibilities or reality.

Thus, the breach between black America and the mainstream media.

Of course, that does not mean white editorial page editors and other journalists are consciously racist or that they deliberately attempt to undermine the dignity or integrity of African Americans. But it does mean the bias perceived by African-American journalists and other minorities is not just a product of their collective imaginations.

Trevor W. Coleman is an editorial writer for the Detroit Free Press. E-mail
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Author:Coleman, Trevor W.
Publication:The Masthead
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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