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Why CNN, HLN and MSNBC Won’t Have a Black Prime Time Anchor for a While


by Dr. Boyce Watkins

I recently noticed that the NAACP joined the call of other civil rights public figures (I’m not sure how I feel about the word “leaders”) in asking CNN and other networks to open the door for African American representation in nightly prime time news slots. I was happy to see them speaking out, and it’s difficult to debate the merits of their argument. The number “zero” is nearly impossible to defend as it pertains to diversity and it’s also the ultimate insult to black people (CNN couldn’t have a worse figure if David Duke were running the network).

So, in response to the NAACP’s statement about the glaring lack of diversity on CNN’s channels (including HLN, owned by the same parent company), they said the only thing they could: Absolutely nothing. No apology, no explanation, no plan for the future…..nothing. The network’s reaction is similar to that of a man whose girlfriend asks if he’s ever going to marry her, when both of them know that he just doesn’t respect her enough to do so.

The obvious conclusion from the deafening silence of the major networks on this matter is that there simply isn’t enough at stake for CNN (or MSNBC for that matter) to make major changes. They know that they can get black viewers without adjusting their lineups. They know that it is probably more profitable for them to maintain their stance on racial exclusion than it is for them to show the courage necessary to move toward true racial equality. The occasional appearance of a Don Lemon, Richelle Carey or Roland Martin represents a polite little donation to the “I Have a Dream” Charity pit, which helps their shareholders to sleep at night. Let’s not forget the Time Warner/NBC colonization of several black-owned media outlets, including Essence Magazine, among others.

Let’s be honest: There are few groups worse at organizing for a collective cause than the African American community. CNN and other networks pursue obvious racial double standards, not because they are trying to be racist, but because they only care about the needs of those who give them a reason to be concerned. Without significant outrage from the black community or any serious financial consequences, CNN will likely continue business as usual. Their decision to use Shaunie O’neal as the delegate to speak on the serious and sensitive issue of black female images in media shows just how little interest there is in presenting commentary that reflects any meaningful representation of the African American community.

Another reason that the networks won’t change their policies in the near future is because many black journalists and CNN employees are afraid to stand up. ”Kitchen table activism” is very popular in the black community: That’s where black folks secretly talk about the issues that bother them when they are around the kitchen table or in their offices with the doors shut. But when it comes to confronting the powers that be, the “yes sir, thank you sir” response is most popular, along with (as my friend Yvette Carnell calls it) the “watermelon smile.” That’s what us “corporaty, educa-macated” black folks call “playing the game.” So, anyone who has the audacity to stand up is left abandoned like abolitionist John Brown at the Harper’s Ferry Federal Armory, who was captured and executed while waiting for slaves to join his revolt. The truth is that black folks just aren’t that radical – we train our children to be timid in corporate settings, out of fear that white people just won’t like us anymore.

One thing that some of us must learn is that it’s difficult to engage in real activism while simultaneously hoping that you can be the beneficiary of that activism. Most of the men and women who fought in the Civil Rights movement didn’t get a chance to become Congressmen or historical icons; many of them are dead. On a less dramatic note, if I am the CNN employee who confronts company management about the lack of diversity in prime time news, chances are that I won’t be the one they choose for the job. Activism can be analogized to a football game, where the person who clears the path for the offense is almost never the one who gets to dance in the end zone.

When I spoke publicly about Syracuse University’s racist hiring and promotion record, I knew my days would be numbered, and all the years I spent studying 10 hours a day to become a Finance PhD would be in jeopardy. As expected, I was removed from the Business School (as had every nearly every other black faculty member in their 100 year history), but I took tremendous satisfaction from watching guilt-ridden and embarrassed administrators rush to hire as many black scholars as they possibly could. Although I’d been labeled the “radical negro on campus,” I can name several faculty at my university who would not have jobs today had I chosen to be selfish and not sacrifice a piece of my academic reputation to confront an obviously racist system of hiring and promotion.

My actions at Syracuse don’t make me into any kind of hero – my ancestors lost a great deal more. I was simply continuing the tradition of those who sacrificed before me, since they paved my way to a better life. Whether we talk about the Civil Rights Movement, the American Revolution, or the recent liberation of Southern Sudan, the truth is that those who fight for freedom rarely benefit from the hard fought spoils of liberty. So, it is imperative that those who receive the benefits of those before them carry the baton and move the collective dream to a better place. Change takes courage, and as Attorney General Eric Holder said back in 2008, we really do live in a nation of cowards.

If the networks are going to hear our voice on this issue, we must make our voices heard. Black journalists, including those at the major networks, must take the lead in fighting for this cause. Those who watch CNN and believe that there should be more diversity must turn their vision to black owned media outlets (I personally get my news online). Those of us who’ve appeared on CNN in the past who speak up on this matter must fully expect that the network is never going to give us a job. It’s hard to bite a hand and eat from it at the same time, but all forms of change require a commitment from all of us.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.


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