'Race-Baiter' says it loud

Eric Deggans offers 'an incisive take on the state of our media culture'


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If you ever wanted to see behind the curtain of talk radio, cable TV news shows and political websites, pick up Eric Deggans' "Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation." The TV and media critic at the Tampa Bay Times (and former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter) shows how hosts from various cable and network TV news shows bend information and manipulate audiences. Fox News, for one, emerges with its "fair and balanced" slogan quite askew.

One night in April 2008, Bill O'Reilly of "The O'Reilly Factor" saw fit to attack Mr. Deggans on air, calling him "one of the biggest race-baiters in the country." The digs continued over the years, but Mr. Deggans could never engage the cable news host. Finally, he confronted him in early 2012 at an O'Reilly book publicity event in Florida, but failed to get a satisfactory answer about why he deserved the label "race-baiter." Their uncomfortable encounter provides an illuminating anecdote -- and a useful title for this incisive take on the state of our media culture.


"RACE-BAITER: HOW THE MEDIA WIELDS DANGEROUS WORDS TO DIVIDE A NATION"

By Eric Deggans.
Palgrave/Macmillan ($28).


Mr. Deggans writes about race with clarity and wit. He understands and explains the politics of the broadcast and cable networks and the logic of its programming decisions without letting them off the hook for falling short of their own goals. These could have easily been predictable screeds about racial exclusion, but Mr. Deggans is eminently fair-minded, a quality that serves him well in his side gig as a media critic and guest on NPR, PBS and CNN.

In the chapter "Fox News Channel's Focus on Scary Black People," Mr. Deggans looks at the cable network's coverage of several hot-button stories involving race. Fox's shabby treatment of former USDA official Shirley Sherrod takes center stage.

Several of the network's anchors aired videotape footage of Ms. Sherrod's speech at a 2010 NAACP event in which Ms. Sherrod, who is black, is portrayed as having admitted to having discriminated against a white farmer who came to the USDA official for help. It was an attempt to embarrass the Obama administration for tolerating a "racist" in its ranks and the NAACP for giving her a platform. "And one reason these tactics worked so well is because the biggest outlet for conservative news and opinion, Fox News Channel, had used such stories of scary, dysfunctional people of color to build an audience skeptical of the NAACP," Mr. Deggans writes. "Fox viewers had been trained: Those who believe prejudice against racial minorities remains an important social issue are often simply hustlers looking to push their own political agendas."

As inspection of the unedited footage later proved to much of the media's embarrassment, Ms. Sherrod had tried to help the farmer. By the time it became obvious that the footage had been doctored by the notorious right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart, Ms. Sherrod had already been fired from her job. It turns out Mr. Breitbart (who died last year) had shopped the video to other broadcast and cable networks, but only Fox bit.

While Mr. Deggans takes on conservative media, he also questioned why civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton was hired over more seasoned journalists to host "Politics Nation" on MSNBC. Mr. Deggans sees it as a troubling trend, along with CNN naming Eliot Spitzer, who resigned as New York governor after a lurid prostitution scandal, as a co-anchor of a prime-time news show.

"When you see somebody like Eliot Spitzer even get a show, then he has to cover the peccadilloes of a politician who is caught in a sexual scandal, all of a sudden there is a resonance there you wouldn't necessarily have if you had someone with a straight journalism background in that job," Mr. Deggans writes.

In the provocatively titled chapter "From Supernegroes to BBF's," Mr. Deggans explores the roles of people of color in the 21st century. He takes the creator of CBS's comedy "2 Broke Girls" to task for egregious stereotyping.

The only thing missing from this book is an in-depth exploration of news and entertainment by African-American-owned media, particularly TV. I would love to have read his astute analysis of TV One/Radio One owner Cathy Hughes and her prime-time lineup. What does he think of "Washington Watch with Roland Martin" on TV One? What about BET's lackluster programming? Where is the critique of T.J. Holmes' talk show?

Despite these oversights, Mr. Deggans' work gives everyone a better perspective on race and journalism.

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Tene Croom, a former news director at American Urban Radio Networks, operates Tene Croom Communications in Pittsburgh (tene.croom.tc@gmail.com).


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