How MSNBC’s ‘The Black Agenda’ Became The ‘White’ Agenda

April 14, 2011  |  

by Charing Ball

The other day I watched a YouTube clip of Dr. Cornel West and Al Sharpton feverishly debating each other on a show called “A Stronger America: The Black Agenda,” which was hosted by Ed Schultz.

I don’t know exactly what the two men were screaming at each other about, although I imagine that it must have had something to do with Obama and his focus (or lack thereof depending on whom you ask) on the black community. Truth be told, I actually found it hard to pay attention to any part of the discussion. Instead, I was particularly fixated on my internal question: why would a white man host a show about the black agenda?

Surely, I can’t be the only one who found this odd, if not comical. Here was a noted black activist on one side and a heavyweight of black thought on the other sniping and snarling at each other like two rabid dogs in a cage fight while Schultz sat in the middle like a concerned, yet delighted ringmaster. It makes me wonder how a program such as this was able to get the green light. Moreover, I wondered why there weren’t any black anchors or reporters at MSNBC who could have monitored the debate to at least give it the appearance of a true platform on black issues.

Well, maybe not. Although MSNBC is known to lean to the left, when thinking about the line-up of shows on the network, it’s obvious that the one thing missing is color. Hypocrisy is thy name and unsurprisingly, MSNBC is not the only diversity-challenged media outlet nowadays.

According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual diversity study, the number of journalists of color in daily newspaper and online-only newsrooms declined for the third consecutive year. Although American newspapers have showed a very slim increase in newsroom, the percentage of minorities in newsrooms totaled 12.79 percent, a decline of .47 of a percentage point from a year ago. Asian Americans dropped from 3.27 percent in 2010 to 3.10 in 2011; African Americans from 4.88 percent in 2010 to 4.68 in 2011; Hispanics from 4.63 percent in 2010 to 4.54 in 2011; and Native Americans remained constant at .48 percent.

What do these numbers ultimately mean? Well, it translates into the frivolous and whitewashed way that mainstream media covers “our issues.” Instead of the Ed Shultz-hosted program providing a thoughtful conversation on diverse perspectives within the black community, it turned into a knock-down, drag-down debate around so-called “black” topics.

Worse yet, the topics discussed on these programs are not presented in a way that examines the fragile quality of life black Americans have become accustomed to. Racism and systematic oppression are rarely mentioned. Yet, universal themes such as crime and poor education are presented solely as black issues. It’s no wonder that so many people of color distrust the media to tell their stories, or at the very least, dig deeper on issues and their impact on diverse populations.

The good news is that communities of color have not waited around for mainstream media to find their stories. If we did, we’d probably curl into a ball and cry ourselves into oblivion by now.  No wonder we collectively suffer from race-based battle fatigue.

As for these “black” specials that the 24-hour news networks have been running ad nauseum since Obama first announced he was running for president, my belief is that these shows are less about appeasing black viewers as it is about making white liberals feel good about their faultless sensitivity on race issues. I am also thoroughly convinced that even Schultz, a self-proclaimed leftist liberal, felt delighted that he would be chosen to moderate on behalf of the minority class. He probably thought that he was a white man that “gets it” when in fact, he really didn’t. If he really did “get it,” then he would have passed the gig on to a journalist of color.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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