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The Myth of Post-Racialism in Television News
Libby Lewis has provided an essential tool in giving agency and voice to the many Black journalists who have tirelessly worked to provide complex representations of people of color in their stories and news organizations.
—Akil Housten, Ohio University, USA
This book explores the written and unwritten requirements Black journalists face in their efforts to get and keep jobs in television news. Informed by interviews with journalists themselves, Lewis examines how raced Black journalists and their journalism organizations process their circumstances and choose to respond to the corporate and institutional constraints they face. She uncovers the social construction and attempted control of “Blackness” in news production and its subversion by Black journalists negotiating issues of objectivity, authority, voice, and appearance along sites of multiple differences of race, gender, and sexuality.
Libby Lewis is a Lecturer in African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, USA. She earned a Ph.D. in African Diaspora Studies with a Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, USA.
Routledge Transformations in Race and Media
Series Editors: Robin R. Means Coleman University of Michigan, Ann Arbor Charlton D. McIlwain New York University
1 Interpreting Tyler Perry Perspectives on Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality Edited by Jamel Santa Cruze Bell and Ronald L. Jackson II
2 Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press Framing Dissent Sarah J. Jackson
3 The Cultural Politics of Colorblind TV Casting Kristen J. Warner
4 The Myth of Post-Racialism in Television News Libby Lewis
The Myth of Post-Racialism in Television News
First published 2016 by Routledge 711 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10017
and by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN
Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business
© 2016 Taylor & Francis
The right of Libby Lewis to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Lewis, Libby, 1967- The myth of post-racialism in television news / Libby Lewis. pages cm. — (Routledge transformations in race and media ; 4) Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Racism in the press—United States. 2. Television broadcasting of news—Political aspects—United States. 3. Mass media and race relations—United States. 4. African American journalists—Social conditions. 5. Race discrimination—United States. I. Title.
PN4888.R3L49 2015 070.4'493058—dc23 2015015167
ISBN: 978-1-138-81241-3 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-74883-2 (ebk)
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This book is dedicated to journalists struggling against the powers that be who tell them that their voices are not valid. Your vigilance is our greatest asset.
List of Figures Preface Acknowledgments
1 Professionalizing and Palatable “Blackness”
2 Branding and Marketing “Blackness”
3 From Stumbling Block to Stepping Stone
4 Owning the “Ghetto” Shows
5 Rules of Engagement: The Politics of Race, Gender, and Sexuality
6 Barack and Michelle Obama as Signs of Progress and Threat
List of Figures
4.1 Percentage of Black Journalists Employed by Selected Television News Agencies in 2012.
4.2 Percentage of Black Journalists in Senior Management Positions.
I got my start in journalism as an intern for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles and decided to pursue a Master’s degree at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Once there, I experimented with different news mediums. I worked as a photographer for the small, graduate, student-run newspaper at U.C. Berkeley. I was hired as a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, which was then owned by the Hearst Corporation. I later earned a position as an intern for the San Francisco NBC affiliate television news station working for the Target 4 Investigative Unit. Working in television felt right; I enjoyed researching information and decided to pursue reporting. I later worked as an anchor/reporter, producer, and in other capacities for CBS, and much later I came back to NBC but in another state. At the time, I came to understand the importance of the sales department in the news business, particularly for media managers whose job security relies on maintaining and exceeding the bottom line of higher ratings and revenue. I soon discovered that before I could receive acceptance from corporate television news management, I would have to conform to their vision of “professionalism.” I learned that objectivity translated into an emphasis on everyone checking difference at the door. It also became painfully obvious that some of us were under more scrutiny than others.
Despite these circumstances, the explanations given for checking one’s difference at the door always seemed to make sense. We were told that stories mattered, not the reporters who tell them. We were told that our bodies must not become distractions, and therefore we must maintain continuity in our “look” and “image” because the audience is easily confused and distracted. As a result of my attempts to fit into this environment, I became interested in how other Black journalists met the challenges of their careers in the face of management imperatives and an ongoing politics of representation within television news. In turn, I began networking with other Black journalists as an attempt to understand what I had thought to be unique to my experience.
I soon found out that my experience was not unique at all and that it is indicative of a dilemma shared by many Black journalists attempting to
remain employed while maintaining some degree of authenticity in their work. Following my review of media studies literature, I became increasingly interested in situating the experiences of Black journalists within television news because the literature at the time lacked attention to how journalists who are operating from positions of difference produce, circulate, and enact (Gray 1995, 2) a particular genre of the human (Wynter 2006, 119) within these social institutions. Contrary to the conventional story in the Media Studies literature, this study does not take the position that journalists approach the news in the same way because the United States consists of complex individuals who do not experience North America in the same way. I chose to take a different approach in my analysis of the television news industry. By analyzing how Black reporters and anchors meet the challenges of their jobs, I uncover the disruptive moments and innovation that emerges in their responses to what is at times described by journalists as a hostile work environment.
While I do so, I illustrate in this study how Black journalists make escape routes, contingency strategies, and cultural moves while engaging in a struggle over representations of “Blackness” in television news. The significance of this study is that it offers a glimpse of the inner workings of corporate television news media that privileges marginalized perspectives. The experiences of Black journalists are also telling because they expose an ongoing struggle over representations of “Blackness” that betray the myth of meritocracy and objectivity that the journalism profession so desperately clings to in its attempts to mass produce television news for the public good. Gray, Herman S. Watching Race – Television and the Struggle for “Blackness.” Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
Wynter, Sylvia. “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re- Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre Black Studies Toward the Human Project.” In Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, edited with an introduction by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon, Boulder, London: Paradigm Publishers, 2006.
This book in its original conception would not have been possible without the support and generosity of the Graduate Opportunity Program Fellowship, the Academic Year and Summer Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, Graduate Division Travel Grants, and the Dean’s Normative Time Grant at U.C. Berkeley, as well as the Fulbright-Hays Fellowship from Yale University. The Institute of American Cultures Postdoctoral Scholar Program and Professional Development Fund at UCLA were instrumental in the completion of this book. The California Social Welfare Education Center showed interest and support for the project in its infancy. Faculty with the Bournemouth University Media School in London, England, offered opportunities to present my research through guest lectures, talks, and panel discussions, which proved very useful to further developing the ideas of the book.
A variety of sources contributed to the book within and outside of academe and across the African Diaspora. I observed interview participants fighting for hard-earned careers while working to improve the journalism profession. I witnessed moments of personal and professional crisis for highly qualified journalists being pushed out of well-earned positions. I have also seen journalists across the country meet the challenges of working in television news. This book would not have been possible without the individuals who contributed their experiences and sharing histories and insights on the television news industry, which further developed my primary archive. Your help in further developing the interview questions, as well as your candor, patience, and generosity of time humble me. Know that I struggle with you and for you; my deep appreciation cannot be stated enough for what you contribute to this book. You are courageous, hard- working, and most of all loved! It has been an honor to record your experiences so that we may remember your tenacity, wisdom, and grit in the face of power. A sincere thanks to the National Association of Black Journalists; UNITY Journalists of Color, Inc.; the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association; the Online News Association; the Media Image Coalition; the American Studies Association; Society for Cinema and Media Studies; the Institute for Media & Communication Research; and National
Association for Women’s Studies; the Brixton Library; Stuart Hall Library; and the Sir Michael Cobham Library, Bournemouth University.
Warm regards to my UCLA family—the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and the African American Studies Department—I very much appreciate the faculty, administrators, and staff whose continued support sustained me during challenging times. Darnell M. Hunt, thank you for your mentorship during my tenure as an Institute of American Cultures Postdoctoral Scholar hosted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. The chair of the African American Studies Department, Dr. Cheryl I. Harris, and former chair, Dr. Robin D. G. Kelley, your support was right on time! Claudia Mitchell-Kernan and M. Belinda Tucker, thank you for supporting this project by offering words of encouragement when needed the most and attending my talks on campus that helped the research and writing process. I am also very grateful for my CSULA support network that encouraged me during the editing process.
I am deeply thankful for individuals who mentored me and assisted with framing the research questions of this study, they include: Herman Gray, Paola Bacchetta, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Robert Allen, Margaret Wilkerson, and Jocelyn Guilbault. I cannot possibly mention all of the scholars who have made a major impression on my work, but I would like to acknowledge some of the scholars who have influenced my work and life including: Barbara Christian, June Jordan, Roy Thomas, Sylvia Wynter, Cornel West, Stuart Hall, and Catherine Hall. I had the honor of meeting Catherine Hall and had engaging conversations with Stuart Hall at their home in London, England, to discuss this book and Dr. Hall’s contributions to it. The late Dr. Stuart Hall is much appreciated and missed.
Many thanks to my U.C. Berkeley cohort. I also owe a debt of gratitude to the faculty and staff of Gender and Women’s Studies, the Designated Emphasis in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program, the Beatrice Bain Research Group, and the Affiliated Scholars from all over the world with whom I had the joy of collaborating on projects that helped with the research of the book. I am thankful to the African American Studies Department for the education I received inside and outside of the classroom as an undergraduate and graduate student. A very special thanks to the U.C. Berkeley staff of the African American Studies Department and the Graduate Division for your tireless assistance. Carla Trujillo and Cassandra Hill, I will never forget your efforts and assistance along the way. My very best regards to the Graduate Division’s former Associate Dean Joseph Duggan, Dean Andrew Szeri, and Dean Pello-Fernandez. USC Associate Senior Vice President of Civic Engagement & Economic Development,
Craig Keys, Esq., thank you for the encouragement! My Grandmother Vivian Smith tells me, “A heap see, but few know.”
Writing a book is more than a notion. Thank you for your oral history lessons about life from 1919 onward! You fought so hard to be here in a world hostile to Black independent audacious women! Your battle scars are unseen, ever present, and an education in surviving and thriving the Jim Crow South. Many thanks to my mother, Catherine Lewis, for showing me early in life how to unflinchingly stand in the face of power and to my father, Tommie Lee Lewis, whose sense of humor and beautiful spirit helped keep the tough times in perspective. To my brother, Miles A. Lewis and sister LaMesha Lewis, who helped me develop a thick skin, which is much needed in this world! Helen Butler and family, you helped shape me into the woman I am today. Thank you for being my home away from home! Your unconditional love is very much appreciated. Joseph Antonio Page, Saundria Page, and family, we are persuaders as we’re known to be, continuing the pursuit to be free. Your love sustained me. Special thanks to family and friends who are constant reminders of what is important in life and the imperative of perseverance.
Dr. Antoinette & Randy Chevalier, your generosity of time and space helped me in the thick of the writing process. I will forever be in your debt. Dr. Katrinell M. Davis, what a joy it is to have a sister with whom to share the journey! You supported me through the toughest of times, and I am Blessed to have you in my life! In acknowledgment of my ancestors: constant reminders of our fortitude in the face of adversity.
“A heap see, but few know” is what my now 96-year-old Grandmother used to tell me when I was a child. Her wisdom and oral history have supported me through years of a formal education that relies too heavily on seeing as evidence of knowing. The informal education in the form of “life sharing and consciousness raising”1 that my Grandmother offered generously taught me an epistemology that does not privilege the notion that seeing is believing—a concept that scholars struggle with in academe today. Researching for this book was challenging, precisely because of the difficulty of uncovering that which is in plain sight.
Television newsrooms across the country experienced a major shift between 1995 and 2005 in the proliferation of new media that forever changed the way we see the journalism profession. People who see television news media as monolithic and powerful are missing how relations of power operate in newsroom culture. Journalists working from the margins of North American newsrooms during this ten-year period were caught in the throes of shrinking budgets; they witnessed a mass exodus of predominantly Black journalists while the rest worked more for less pay. Black journalists experienced intensified policing of the network affiliate brand, their image, work schedules, career mobility, and the rules of objectivity. Increased policing and surveillance motivated new strategies, tactics, and spatialities of resistance to navigate the already hostile terrain of the television news industry. In Acting White: Rethinking Race in Post- Racial America, Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati argue that there is a broader phenomenon called “Working Identity.” Carbado and Gulati’s work is used to discuss the double bind of racial performance that is used to screen out African American applicants deemed “too Black”2 or being expected to have interests limited to concerns of Black communities. Intensified policing to ensure Black journalists fit the network news image toward a “palatable Blackness” as argued in Chapter 1 would not be practiced if the media was monolithic and colorblind as the rules of objectivity suggest. As one journalist in the study put it, you have to “play that game or find another industry.” The game includes negotiating race, gender, and sexuality and using dress, image, speech pattern, hair style, etc.,
to achieve “palatable Blackness.” I understood early in my training as a television news journalist that there
are written and unwritten rules of engagement involved in getting a job in corporate television news. The smell of burning hair remains even after I stopped straightening my hair with a hot iron comb for the sake of employment in television news; it is a constant reminder of what the powers that be deem wrong with me. As part of my “working identity” I also made sure to take an employed position of my speech pattern—often talking more White (Carbado and Gulati 2013, Chapter 2) than the whitest White person which means a White mid-Western speech pattern. The alternative was to work in fear of being sent to a voice coach or worse, fired for breaking one of the unwritten rules of adopting the White mid-Western speech pattern. The Black American tongues that re-member and trace their Southern roots are treated as problems needing to be fixed. Furthermore, it always struck me as strange how differently journalists with British accents are treated from journalists with Spanish accents in television news. I was told by management that the Midwestern (read White) speech pattern is preferable and that foreign accents are unintelligible and distracting. Failure to adopt or to ignore signifiers of Whiteness in order to secure a more stable position of employment in the television news industry is a luxury that only White men and women can afford. White privilege (Wise, 2008; 2010) allows White individuals to be read differently from Black individuals. I take a close look at the unwritten rules that relate to challenges Black anchors and/or reporters face in negotiating race, gender, and sexuality difference within corporate television newsroom culture during these volatile economic times. In doing so, I explore how Black journalists negotiate difference from the dominant culture in their stories, newsrooms, and bodies in ways that contradict discourses of “the media”3 as monolithic and powerful. The debates in newsrooms surrounding Barack Hussein Obama’s presidency are particularly interesting, and the book therefore addresses how Black journalists intervene in coverage that reinforces the stereotype of President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. In Chapter 6 I examine the strategies and tactics employed to include other perspectives on the ways in which the Obamas were typically represented before, during, and after the 2008 and 2012 Elections.
In the pages that follow, I identify three frameworks for understanding television news media today. One uncovers the fallacy of an omnipotent corporate television news media, focusing instead on the contentiousness of power through observations and interviews of Black journalists from across the country. Moving away from an all-powerful media paradigm that some
media studies scholars depict brings a better understanding of the intricacies of the television newsroom culture. Another part of the framework of this volume takes up the issue of resistance and agency from within television news media and examines the complexities of negotiating race, gender, and sexuality in their stories, newsrooms, and body language. The third part of the framework further disrupts the notion of Post-Racialism4 in exploring how journalists engage selected news media content, Internet images, and consumer products that constitute President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama as both a sign of progress and as a threat to the dominant culture order. Conjoining the contentiousness of power through forms of resistance and agency with how journalists grapple with the notion of objectivity that relies on the fallacy of a colorblind society is critical to understanding the misguidedness of thinking of the media as monolithic. Uncovering the challenges faced by Black journalists who are part of the often-evoked descriptive, “the media,” speaks to discursive practices of memory and counter-memory and shows that such practices alternately mask and expose racist narratives of journalists and the world in which we live. This book explores the production process of television news and possibilities of intervention including various perspectives ‘raced’ Black journalists have to offer. The use of the term ‘raced’ refers to the ways in which humans are placed in particular race categories, whether or not they identify with the particular group in which they are placed. While this study does not seek to define “Blackness,” it does interrogate how “Blackness” is represented and written upon the bodies of journalists who are “raced Black” (Hunt 1997, 23; 1999) and participate in newscasts, marketing, and promotions that are involved in the production, circulation, and enactment of Blackness (Gray 1995, 2; 2005, 10, 18, 29).
Zora Neale Hurston describes research as “formalized curiosity” (1942). Interviews and field observations are major factors in uncovering the politics of race, gender, and sexuality both on-camera and behind the scenes of television news. I also wanted to know if my experience as a television news anchor/reporter for CBS and later NBC was anything unique or whether my experience was something shared by my colleagues across the United States. Transcribing interviews was rigorous because I did not want to simply transcribe the spoken word and moments of verbosity. In order to convey the true meaning, I needed to include body language communicated by facial gesture and expression, tone of voice, and laughter, which is often used to change the meaning of what is being expressed. Individuals communicate on many levels, making it necessary to accurately transcribe interviews. Laughter and other sound expressing emotio
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