The Park School November, 1999
Race and Media
TYRONE D. TABORN
Chief Executive Officer
Career Communications Group
Thanks for having me here this evening. As a father of two, I'm learning to appreciate every single opportunity I'm given to speak to people who actually care about what I have to say. I'm also happy to be here this evening and meet so many of the Park community.
Race and Media
This evening I'm going to explore some pretty sensitive issues involving race. Since I've been told that I either enrage my audience or, worse, bore them to tears, I'm going to tell you exactly what I will repeat over the next 20 minutes or so. That way, if you have to excuse yourself or you find yourself catnapping, you will be able to quote me with some sense of authority next week.
Before I do this, however, I want to warn you that I am going to use some terms that make us all uncomfortable.
I'm going to use the word Black. I'm going to use the word White.
Now, here's what I am planning to say:
We Americans have two very different perceptions of Black people. All you have to do is compare my magazine, US Black Engineer & Information Technology, with most daily newspapers.
Reading the newspaper, you wouldn't think Black people had ever heard of a computer, or that Dr. Mark Dean, an African-American engineer, had the majority of patents on the IBM personal computer.
You wouldn't think Black people worked in the space program, people such as Katherine Johnson, whose orbit calculations put the first men on the moon.
You wouldn't think Black people like Jesse Russell, the father of the cell phone, designed state-of-the-art telecommunications systems or have contributed greatly to our national defense.
Instead, relying on most media, you would come away with the perception that Blacks were very dangerous people, that the jungles of Vietnam were far safer than the streets of Baltimore and that most Black women like having babies and living on welfare.
Now, if you read my magazine, you come away with a completely different image of Blacks in America. You will come away believing that women such as Jackie Streat, Bell Atlantic's manager of Network Engineering, make concrete contributions to the workplace and society in general.
You will believe that the engineering programs at Morgan State University and our other historically Black colleges are valuable and that their faculty are competent enough to have provided more than 40 percent of the African-American master's degree and Ph.D. candidates at Hopkins, Cornell, MIT, and our other leading research institutions. Reading USBE&IT gives the perception that Blacks are capable, that they have ability, and that they can succeed given the opportunity.
How, then, can so many people experience such different realities? The answer is easy. Unlike the fine Park community, Americans are "informationally challenged." We watch too much television. We don't read enough or from a diverse enough set of sources. And we don't question enough. We are easily manipulated by politicians and the media. We fail to understand that most of mass media have abandoned journalistic integrity and the pursuit of meaningful and thoughtful coverage and instead pursue programming and news coverage that adhere to corporate priorities and not to the public interest.
If the media's lofty goal of education ever existed, it doesn't now. The media are far less concerned about educating their audience than in selling newspapers and scoring ratings. The creed of my profession is to shock them, give them sex, and scare them. The quickest way to the front pages is to break a story about a drive-by shooting or a scandal.
While the Bill Clinton affair grabbed the headlines and made good copy and great ratings, almost nothing appeared about U.S. Senate findings that uncovered evidence that U.S. firms supplied to Iraq the very biological material that the UN inspection teams are now seeking. Or that the U.S. supported sanctions against Iraq that have taken the lives of more Iraqi citizens than did the war itself.
What truly amazes me is that most of us dismiss this clear pattern of media abuse. We don't question the images, because, quite frankly, we believe them to be true or not important.
Black Americans, on the other hand, continue to be shocked that these abuses go by unnoticed.
Nothing in the last few years illustrated this more than the O.J. Simpson verdict. Just for the record, I believe he did it, because I believe the husband always does it. Or the butler.
The O.J. Simpson verdict reminded us that Blacks and Whites in this country have very different experiences. Our sense of fairness, justice, and value mean very different things. For the majority of Americans, the O.J. verdict represented a failure of our system. To many minorities, the verdict was a victory in a mostly unjust system: a system in which, according to Amnesty International, L.A. law enforcement officials resorted to excessive force and police dogs largely in Black and Latino communities; a system in which 44 percent of detainees are African American and 35 percent are White, yet 70 percent off all juveniles arrested are White, and only 25 percent are Black.
For me, the real issue was never O.J.'s guilt or innocence but our failure to reconcile such radical differences in the attitudes of our citizens. How is it possible that two segments of our republic could have such different perceptions of the truths that bind our country and our sense of worth? How is it possible that so many Black Americans couldn't see the guilt of O.J., and so many Whites couldn't see the injustice?
Well, at least part of the answer, and I underscore "part" of the answer, rests in the coverage of Blacks in the media. Another part of the answer is that Blacks and Whites have very different experiences in America. And these differences are not minor.
For the majority of Americans, the perception is that the system works. Work hard, keep clean, and things will work out. But for far too many in the minority, no matter how hard you work, no matter how well you play by the rules, the system will find a way to get you.
An actor as famous as Danny Glover still can't get a taxi in New York. A major hotel gives a million-dollar settlement to Bob Johnson, the billionaire owner of Black Entertainment Television, for having him detained by security guards.
Take the comments of the good Reverend Jesse Jackson. Jesse has claimed that no matter what he does, the news media will also find a way to get him. Jesse claims that he could get out of a boat, walk over ten-foot-high waves, and the headline the next day will read: "Jesse can't swim!"
The different reactions to the Reverend Jackson's comments again underscore part of the reason our country remains as polarized as ever. Some of us will shake our heads in disbelief that an issue could be found in any of this. After all, who doesn't complain about the press? When do they get anything right? Hey, we're talking about an occupation that ranks right up there with lawyers, politicians, and used-car salesmen.
But the Reverend Jackson isn't a raving, paranoid lunatic. He's talking about balance. Whether it is intentional or not, the press and media have systematically created and perpetuated a consistent image of African Americans. It is an image that limits the aspirations of our youth. It limits our professional opportunities, and it has a profoundly negative influence on the behavior of White Americans towards us.
The majority community often views these complaints as minor grievances, but make no mistake about it: For the minority community, the media and the press are hostile, demeaning, and unfair beyond reason.
To many people, O.J. Simpson represented a breakdown in the system. For far too many others, it represented something completely different. It represented someone beating the system at last.
In the aftermath of the O.J. verdict, we have spent more time talking about judicial reform than about police reform. Majority America struggles with the African Americans' reactions and remarks like that of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, because, quite simply, those in Majority America have not been the victims, and it is far too easy to dismiss the concerns of America's minority by refusing to accept our experiences. Because it never happened to me, it couldn't have happened to you.
When I was in Israel, taxis refused to pick me up with Channel 2 reporter Sandra Pinkney and another journalist. After a while, I insisted that the women go at it without me. While they protested my decision, it took my leaving before a taxi would pick them up. In discussing the incident with one of Israel's leading journalists, our experience was dismissed as simply rude Israeli behavior.
Perhaps our country could start the healing process by first accepting the reality of the minority experience or, at the very least, attempting to understand that reality. If we do this, perhaps we can see each other clearly for the first time. Perhaps we can create a new reality. But before we can move toward a new reality, we must understand how the old reality has managed to hold on.
Media (For the sake of this discussion, I am talking about broadcast programming and news coverage.) do shape our attitudes and behavior. If we don't accept this, there is no way we can ever begin to understand why we accept certain beliefs about one another. While social scientists continue to battle it out about television viewing and the correlation to violent behavior, we have tons of examples of the influence of media on our behavior. We hear a story about a tourist being murdered in Jamaica or New York, and tourism drops. An unfortunate air crash; ridership drops. And how many of us plan to fly on New Year's Eve? Our kids watch the "Power Rangers," and then they practice their karate at school. Let's face it: Media, particularly television news, impact us and our actions.
We also get the majority of our views from this industry. From this source, we find out whether our favorite sports team has won or lost, whether or not we can go to the beach this weekend, or, in my case, based on the morning traffic report, whether I will take Falls Road or Greenspring Avenue to I-83, or stay in bed another half hour.
Most of the time, we accept the images. Numerous studies indicate that the majority of Americans, who rely on TV for news and information, tend to have the lowest levels of political knowledge and assign more importance to the candidates' personal qualities. The 10-second sound bite, like those about "zero tolerance," can account for a political landslide.
It should not surprise us that a University of Chicago survey disclosed that almost 70 percent of White Americans develop their attitudes about African Americans through television and newspapers. Given that, it should not shock us that the same survey found 60 percent of the respondents thought African Americans were more likely to be violent, less intelligent, and not very hard working.
Let's look at affirmative action. After a generation of progress, America's commitment to equal opportunity, not only for Blacks but for other minority groups and for women, is at a crossroads. A well-financed, politically powerful movement dedicated to ending affirmative action has made significant gain. Somehow, this group has perpetuated the premise that discrimination is a thing of the past and that affirmative action gives benefits to less-qualified minorities, thereby denying opportunities to Whites.
When we think about affirmative action, the debate, incorrectly presented in the press, is centered on less-qualified Black people taking away jobs, college seats, and financial aid from deserving White people.
The outcome of that struggle, and the media's role in it, will have a profound impact on the career opportunities of millions of Americans. Yet who perpetuates this nonsense? The media, one of the most segregated industries in the world, with more than50 percent of its members making well over $100,000 per year (News stations were quick to run the Texaco Tapes and the Mark Furman tapes, knowing the language would get a reaction. But how many dealt with the real issue of racism by writing about the $3.1-million New York Daily News settlement over the use of some of the same words Furman used?). By simply reporting distorted information, news writers and television reporters give life to a lie. And it's working. Imagine this: over 20 percent of American Whites claimed to have been penalized for not being Black. Another 43 percent said they were certain other Whites had been penalized.
Now where is this reverse discrimination? The U.S. Labor Department reports that in looking at 3,000 discrimination case opinions in federal district courts, there had been fewer than 100 in which "reverse" bias was at issue. And even in these cases, the courts found that most of them involved a White person less-qualified than the minority or woman applicant.
But this is not the image we have of affirmative action. The Labor Department's "Glass Ceiling" report made news on the day it was released, but its findings are seldom quoted during reporting on affirmative action. I have never heard my former "Square-Off" panelists, who spout their dogma over WCBM Radio 680, cite any part of this report. So the truth lies victim to the 10-second sound clip.
In this context, it is not very difficult to see why a Colin Powell is embraced by our nation: He is the exception to the image, like many of the Black families here at Park who are well-connected and don't blink twice at the cost of admission.
While Powell's achievements are exceptional for any American, his values, intellectual ability, and other attributes of success are shared by countless African Americans. The problem is that for every Colin Powell that is paraded before America, or Tyrone Taborn presented at Brain Thrust, millions of television sets flash with images of drive-by shootings, drug dealing, and welfare fraud.
If you tell a lie long enough and often enough, it becomes the truth. And the sad truth created about African Americans is that we are a people without values, hope, or morals.
This and other variations of my remarks are what many Americans believe. And when policy-makers cry for welfare reform, no one questions the picture of welfare recipients being able-bodied adults living in luxury on our tax dollars.
When a White man in Boston claims a Black man shot him and murdered his pregnant wife, no one doubts his word, nor do they protest the police action of rounding up Black men from a local housing project and somehow even forcing a confession out of one of the youth. No doubt, the young man would have been on death row, like hundreds of other innocent minorities, had the husband not killed himself.
A human tragedy of two White babies being carjacked by a Black man launches a multi-state hunt, while the nation watches in horror. Later, the police and the FBI acknowledged that they never believed the story, yet it didn't stop them from arresting countless numbers of young men and raiding homes of innocent families. Again, no national protests.
Carloads of African Americans pulled onto the side of I-95 by state troopers. Only now does the vice president stand as one our national leaders willing to say "Driving While Black" is not a crime.
One country, yet two radically difference perceptions of fairness.
If these perceptions were only just that — perceptions — then perhaps the damage would not be as great. But it doesn't end there. These lies, that have become "truths," influence policy, hiring, promotions, and police actions.
If we accept Colin Powell's observation that President Reagan wasn't indifferent to Blacks because of racial attitudes but because he never truly knew any, then we can begin to understand how powerful the impact of media can be. In the absence of real and meaningful experiences, stereotypes fill in the gaps of our understanding. How much of Reagan's policies toward minorities was shaped by his secondhand knowledge based on media reports?
I want to take a moment here to say the media did not create all of the stereotypes. But it is responsible for keeping them alive. The images we see and the articles we read are often based on the same misconceptions held by millions of Americans. The difference, however, is that the misconceptions of a writer can influence millions.
In addition, media buyouts and consolidations have made the marketplace of ideas and information increasingly limited. So what we consider truth and what becomes reality will be decided by fewer and fewer people. We are entering a new era in which transmission of news and ideas falls into a very few hands. Fifty-six percent of journalists believe we must reform entitlements, compared with 35 percent of the public. Only 18 percent of journalists want taxes increased, while 72 percent of the public supports it. Again, not surprising that at earnings over $100,000 compared to the median income of $35K, journalists have the most to gain in maintaining the status quo. Most go to homes in areas where very few minorities live.
A recent University of Pennsylvania report supports much of what I have said about unfair coverage. According to this report, in the vast majority of news reports Blacks are presented as criminals and Whites as victims. Seldom are stories about Black victims ever presented. These stories, according to the University of Pennsylvania study, blow out of proportion the realities.
The media can be a powerful tool that unites our country. But, I must confess, I see little promise of the media filling any such role. Despite all of the talk about education and quality programming, one look at this year's programming geared toward Blacks leaves little doubt that things in Hollywood are the same. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume rightly has taken on the networks for not having any Blacks in this year's lineup of new shows. Of returning shows with Black cast members, most are comedies. Black doctors, lawyers, and educators are shown as incompetent and sex-crazy buffoons. Their characters hip-hop and dance themselves through meaningless roles.
What frustrates me is the difficulty in changing this type of programming. For the past six years, my company has produced the only educational television program that promoted minorities in science and engineering for commercial television. Yet advertisers such as McDonald's felt MTV was the place to advertise to minority youth. That's a large part of the reason all we see on commercial television is Blacks singing, dancing, and making us laugh.
Public television is not much better. Of 8,400 hours of yearly programming, PBS carries about 10 hours of programming portraying Blacks in meaningful roles. One show, "Eyes on the Prize," was created almost 10 years ago.
It is not just how the media portrays minorities that causes damage, it is often what they don't show. Even when they have the chance to do right, somehow the opportunity is lost. Take the special on PBS called "The Making of the 777." No doubt, Boeing's 777 broke new ground in aircraft design, using computer technology to maintain Boeing's lead as an aerospace giant. The special told that story very well over several nights. It was what it didn't tell that disturbed me.
Boeing has a Black vice president named Walt Braithwaite. Walt has been on the cover of my magazine and was named by us as the 1995 Black Engineer of the Year. We wrote about his contributions to the 777 design and about the industry and world-wide recognition he received for his development of the computer modeling software used to design the 777 and, now, most other aircraft. But, somehow, an entire special was produced and aired without once mentioning him or showing any African American.
Jesse Jackson can't swim.
Can the media clean up their act? Yes, but not without some serious structural changes. The recent telecommunications reform act doesn't help, simply leading to further big business control of broadcast properties.
Work force diversity is another hope. I want to believe that if people of color are in positions of authority, someone will at least raise the issues. But, today, that is not the case. While we see minorities anchoring news shows and appearing in television shows, very few of them have the authority to decide what we actually see.
Look at news directors for example. While minorities make up 18 percent of all news staff, they are only 7.7 percent of the news directors. Programming is not much better: Only one or two minorities are in position to influence the green light on a television show or movie production.
Minority ownership, like that of my company, at least provides the ability to document and point to the many outstanding contributions of African Americans for this and future generations. Financial redlining and discrimination in advertising placements are two problems that limit this area of growth.
Let me now try to wrap this all up for you. That in America Blacks and Whites have two different perceptions of reality is no surprise. This evening, I have attempted to explain how one group finds itself victimized and forced to live with images that are largely created by other people. We Americans want to believe in fairness. Our system depends on that belief. When our value structure is challenged, we need to dismiss it or consider it abnormal. This willingness to dismiss other people's experiences creates a delta of ill will.
The painting of a face of violence and nonproductivity on Blacks by the media is not accidental. It is calculated and systematic. It has been done because pandering to the worst of America increases readership and viewership. And African Americans, with limited power, make easy targets for this type of coverage.
The relaxing of ownership laws has allowed monopoly media companies to be formed. These companies continue to limit the marketplace of ideas and information by controlling multiple news outlets regionally and nationally. Because of these growing media giants, the corporate interest of increasing advertising and subscriber rates to pay for the mergers has replaced what little existed of journalistic standards.
How do we move ahead? How do we bring down the walls?
One way is to show as much outrage about Black teenagers being paraded in handcuffs on the 11 o'clock news as we did about the O.J. verdict.
A new reality for us is in fact our current reality. Young boys and girls of all races should be able to turn to media outlets and be lifted with positive and inspiring stories about all of our citizens. Adults shouldn't have to live in fear when a Black teenager appears within their sights or a Black man steps into an elevator. The reality is that, when given the opportunity, all of our citizens are equally capable of succeeding. The limitations are those that come from our minds.