Back in April, the controversy over racially and sexually insensitive remarks made by radio shock jock Don Imus toward Rutgers University's women's basketball squad made all too clear the lack of sensitivity accorded people of color over the nation's airwaves and the lack of diversity among the broadcast media's ranks.
In a nation where 33 percent of the population is of color, which has seen the civil rights movement open doors for minorities in corporate America, government and the halls of academia, the picture reflected on the public airwaves is far from realistic.
"Cable news remains an overwhelmingly White and male preserve. The Don Imus controversy put a momentary dent in this pattern as a result of the increase in appearances by African Americans over that week - but only a dent, and not a particularly large one at that," concludes a report by the Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog group Media Matters. "When an issue involving gender and race/ethnicity dominates the news, the cable networks do bring on a more diverse lineup of guests than they ordinarily do. The question, then, is why their guest lists are so overwhelmingly White and male the rest of the time?"
The group, which monitored cable news network shows in April, found that even during the week of the Imus controversy, Whites - especially men - tended to dominate. They accounted for between 54 percent (CNN) and 72 percent (Fox News Channel) of guests booked. That's down from the week before, when Whites accounted for 71 percent (CNN) to 93 percent (MSNBC). After the Imus incident, White representation, which fell during the controversy, made a comeback of sorts to a range of 74 percent (CNN) to 82 percent (MSNBC).
What is telling is that minority representation on MSNBC, which simulcasted Imus, skyrocketed more than 700 percent to 30 percent of guest appearances during the week of the controversy- compared to the week before. After Imus, the percentage settled down to 14 percent.
It's not any better on the Sunday morning talk shows, either, Media Matters found in its "If It's Sunday, It's Still Conservative" report. The study follows up on research conducted by the National Urban League in our 2005 Sunday Morning Apartheid report, which found that only 8 percent of guests were Black over an 18-month period in 2004 and 2005. The Media Matters report, which covered guest appearances in 2005 and 2006, found that Whites tended to outnumber minorities by 7 to 1, and that two out of every three guests were White men. At NBC's Meet the Press, White men accounted for more than three quarters of guests followed by CBS News' Face the Nation with 72 percent. Fox News Sunday had the "best" track record with 62 percent.
The picture at America's daily newspapers is a little bit brighter in terms of newsroom employment of minorities but less than stellar. Nearly 7,800 minority journalists -- or 13.62 percent of all full-time journalists -- worked in the nation's newsrooms in 2006, down slightly from 13.87 percent in 2005, according to the American Society of
Newspaper Editor's annual newsroom census. It is only the second decline to have been observed since 1978, when the organization, which helps newsrooms increase their diversity to better reflect the communities they serve, began conducting the survey. Then, minority journalists made up nearly 4 percent of the total newsroom workforce.
"Diversity isn't just about numbers, it's about making our news reports better," said ASNE President Dave Zeeck in a press release accompanying the survey. "Diverse staffs lead to better journalism."
The number of newspapers with no minorities on their full-time staff grew by 15 -- from 377 to 392 but a majority of them had small (10,000 or less) circulations. Of newspapers with more than 500,000 circulation, 17 percent of full-time journalists are minorities. The percentage rises to 22 percent for dailies under 500,000 but over 250,000, and 27 percent for those over 100,000 but under 250,000.
When the National Urban League released our Sunday Morning Apartheid report in 2005, we encouraged cable and network outlets to take positive and productive steps to provide their viewers a broader perspective of public policy issues. Since then, not a lot has been done -- until after Imus.
NBC News, which carried Imus on MSNBC, took three bold steps toward diversifying its ranks in the weeks following the controversy. The news organization hired former Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker to be second in command, appointed weekend Today Show host Lester Holt to serve as weekend anchor of NBC Nightly News, and promoted weekend Today Show executive producer Lyne Pitts to be vice president of NBC News and the division's point person on diversity issues.
I must give NBC News some props here but it shouldn't take an unfortunate controversy such as the one surrounding Imus' insensitive remarks for news executives to understand the importance of diversity to the journalism process for the constituents it serves. At the National Urban League, we're not just advocating media diversity for the sake of diversity but for the substantial benefits it delivers to the public at large. Broadening the pool of guests and anchors and reporters improves the tenor and quality of the debate, offers a richer and more varied array of information to viewers and helps fulfill the responsibility of news outlets to educate the American public to make them better equipped to make informed political and policy choices.
Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.