Media Prejudice & Stereotypes: 10 Thoughts from Tampa Bay Times Media Critic & Author Eric Deggans

Eric Deggans is a race-baiter.  Bill O’Reilly called him one on TV– but not in the same way Deggans has defined it.

Deggans, a Tampa Bay Times TV and media critic, provided his definition of the term and a wider glimpse at prejudice and stereotypes within modern media during a spirited conversation Wednesday evening with journalism students at the University of Tampa. The main talking points were culled from his buzzworthy fall 2012 book Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.

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Below is a top-10 highlight reel of the perspectives and tips Deggans shared related to journalistic prejudice practiced in print, online, and, most prominently, on cable news.

1) Radically Different Interpretations.  Deggans said journalism on cable news especially has been downgraded to a contest aimed at winning political fights or ratings points.  The result is that every story nowadays– whether it’s about the sequester or North Korea– contains “radically different interpretations.”  All the mishmashing and left-right end-runs cause audience confusion and an erosion of faith in what they are reading, hearing, and seeing.  As Deggans explained, “[The public] thinks ‘Gee, can I trust anybody?'”

His rundown reminded me of a “Daily Show” clip from late January featuring a breakdown of cable news coverage of Obama’s second inaugural.  It is a great example of the cable news cognitive dissonance on display daily.  Watch it, laugh, shake your head, and sigh ASAP.

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2) Super-Serving the Most Popular Piece.  “Modern media monetizes niches,” Deggans said.  The media admit they can no longer pull together big, diverse audiences like in the past.  So instead “they try to find the most popular piece of the audience and super-serve them.  So if you’re a young white male, Comedy Central is going to tell you everything that’s funny. . . . If you’re a middle-aged woman, Lifetime is your source for women-in-peril movies.”  To be clear, he said the latter with a smile, eliciting an audience laugh.

According to Deggans, you can usually judge a media outlet’s target audience by looking at the most prominent people they feature– for example the anchors on news channels.  But you can also at times gain glimpses of audience demographics and views by the ‘other’ they feature.  An example, inspired by a similar one he noted: The strangely obsessive Fox News coverage during the past presidential election of “a lone New Black Panther Party member standing outside a Philadelphia polling place.”

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Deggans politely described the Fox News audience as “older, white, a little more male than female . . . [and] one of their greatest fears is radical black people who may be supported by the black president.”  So what does Fox News do?  It super-serves them, even when the stories are not genuinely newsworthy or when their interpretation of the stories are stereotypical at best and blatantly racist at worst.

3) The Same Tactics.  Along with employing prejudices, stereotypes, and even outright racism, a growing number of niche media channels also rely upon “the same tactics used to mobilize political parties.”  So they not only trumpet their own strengths, they simultaneously decry opponents’ weaknesses, overtly or underhandedly (with asides about them being corrupt or, say, liberally biased).  All this knifing makes viewers’ heads spin and, as Deggans put it, “we lose faith in all media outlets”

4) Dog Whistles.  In August 2011, Fox Nation ran a story about a White House gathering for President Obama’s 50th birthday headlined, “Obama’s Hip-Hop BBQ Didn’t Create Jobs.”  It featured photos of the president, Charles Barkley, Chris Rock, and Jay-Z.

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As Deggans notes about the header’s ridiculousness, there was only one hip-hop artist in the photos and at the event.  And since when is a birthday bash expected to create jobs?

The headline is an example of what Deggans calls dog whistle messages.  They are full reports, images, quotes, heds, and story hooks that attempt to make a point without overtly saying something– sort of like the whistles dog owners blow that only their K9s can hear.  As Deggans put it, “The goal of a lot of these messages is not to have you think about them, but to just react to them.”

5) Katrina Effect.  The Katrina Effect is really a LACK of effect.  Deggans spoke about the positive work of NBC News anchor Brian Williams during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  He said Williams worked with genuine passion and grit to make Katrina his signature news story– including basing his newscasts there and reporting on related developments nonstop for weeks.

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According to Deggans, “You could tell he was really jazzed about covering the most important story in the world at that time.”  As Deggans recalled, Williams told him at the time that if Katrina didn’t prompt a sustained national conversation about race and poverty in America we will have failed.  Deggans caught up with Williams five years later and mentioned that he must have missed the conversation Williams so passionately advocated.  Williams acknowledged its absence, noting without irony, “It’s because my viewers would rather watch ‘Entourage.’”

The point of the anecdote: The mainstream media do not cover race and poverty that much.  “We cover poverty and we cover race as an event,” Deggans said.  “If you pick up the paper or turn on the news, you’ll see a story every day about the Dow, the president, about Congress. . . . How often will you see a story about poverty, about race issues?  [News organizations occasionally] spend weeks on large investigative projects that lay race or poverty issues on you for a week– then we leave it behind.”

6) Many Itches We Can’t Scratch.  Media bias goes far beyond race.  While racism, according to Deggans, is “America’s central inch we can’t scratch [and] the crucial divide,” prejudicial injustice in the end is about power.  “People who are in power control the media,” he said.  “People who are marginalized are always fighting to get their voices heard.”  So it’s about race but also gender, sexuality, class, and many other areas.

7) Image Absorption.  In the middle of the presentation, Deggans popped a quiz on the assembled students– asking them basic facts about race in America.  A sample question: “True or False: There are more black males in prison than in college.”  On the PowerPoint slide, the photo above the question showed a young black male staring out barred windows.  More students opted for True.  The correct answer is False– more black men are enrolled than locked up.  The lesson: Don’t discount the effect images have on our perceptions of what is true, even when it’s false.  As Deggans noted, “Images are very important because that is the content your audience is going to absorb.”

Tampa Bay Times media and TV critic Eric Deggans speaks to students at the University of Tampa about stereotypes and bias in modern media.

Tampa Bay Times media and TV critic Eric Deggans speaks to students at the University of Tampa about stereotypes and bias in modern media.

8) Loving, Fully-Functional, and Non-Threatening.  When not laying the seeds for stereotypes, the media do at times work toward the greater good– including making us comfortable with ideas, sentiments, and minority groups to which we have previously had limited or negative exposure.

Example: Politicians are currently falling over each other to show support for gay marriage.  Deggans said with a smile one question he has for all of these new supporters: “Where were you in 1997 when Ellen Degeneres was losing her television show?”  According to Deggans, one of the reasons gay rights are being so publicly championed now is because media have made us increasingly comfortable with the LGBTQ community and enabled us to view gay couples as loving, fully-functional, and non-threatening.  He cited characters and plot points on shows such as “Modern Family,” “The New Normal,” and “Glee.”  The bottom line, in his words: “We’re used to it in a way we just weren’t used to 10 years ago.”

9) Seductive Stereotypes.  One truth we need to get used to: “Bigots aren’t the only people who act on or fall prey to stereotypes.”  Many of us cop to stereotypical thinking as a way to make sense of– or feel at peace with– unknown individuals, groups, and cultures.  “The disturbing thing about stereotypes is that they are seductive,” Deggans said.  “I can just make judgments about you.  They don’t have to be accurate.  They don’t have to be fair.  But they are comforting to me.”

Where do these (rush to) judgments come from?  Often, the media.  “Media messages and images are powerfully seductive,” Deggans explained.  The stereotypes the media present often become our first, only, and lasting impressions of a large majority of the world and the people in it.

10) Race-Baiter Redefinition.  In closing, Deggans asked students, “How did my book get its name?  ‘Race-Baiter.’  It’s a pretty provocative name.”  He flashed a photo of Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly on the screen.  “It’s this guy.”

In a segment on a past show, O’Reilly railed against what he dubbed “racist accusations” pervading society– apparently to the point that “many white Americans won’t discuss race with blacks anymore.  It’s too dangerous.”  He then pivoted to Deggans, flashing his headshot on the screen and calling him “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country. . . . Deggans takes delight in branding people racist.”

So to O’Reilly, race-baiting is a form of fire-starting aimed at shutting down any race-based dialogue through a mix of intimidation and hate-mongering.  To Deggans, by contrast, the baiting is a dialogue starter, not a shutdown.  He is trying to have a conversation about related issues and bringing them to people’s attention– in part so that when the images flash and the dog whistles sound people will be better able to grasp what they are seeing and hearing.

“Every media presentation is like this,” he said, speaking about the O’Reilly clip.  “There are underlying values they are playing off and encouraging you to buy into.  The key to media literacy is being aware of those things, making the implicit explicit. What I’m trying to do in a weird way is redefine what it means to be a race-baiter. . . . I feel like if I can find these things that are going on and bring them to people’s attention, we can get people to think about this stuff more directly, more explicitly.”

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