As CNN announces new morning anchor team, I note onscreen diversity often comes down to simply counting heads
It’s a sad reality that, in a media world where racial equality seems far away as ever, judging success often comes down to counting heads.
MSNBC host Chris Hayes admitted as much in an interview with Columbia Journalism Review in which he acknowledged that his show Up maintained a wide diversity of guests – bucking the trends of many other Sunday politics shows – by simply making sure they didn’t feature too many white males.
“We just would look at the board and say, ‘We already have too many white men. We can’t have more.’ Really, that was it,” Hayes says in the story. “Always, constantly just counting. Monitoring the diversity of the guests along gender lines, and along race and ethnicity lines.” Out of four panelists on every show, he and his booking producers ensured that at least two were women. “A general rule is if there are four people sitting at table, only two of them can be white men,” he says. “Often it would be less than that.”
What surprises me most about this quote is that it seemed so newsworthy to other media news outlets. One thing I’ve learned in my years of writing about the need for diversity in media, is that substantive change doesn’t come without sustained, focused effort.
That often means insisting on a slate of guests, sources or story subjects that cover a wide range of cultures, with ethnic and gender balance. Which means counting heads.
I'll be talking about this subject at 11 a.m. Sunday on Howie Kurtz's media anaysis show for CNN, Reliable Sources. I'll be joined by former ABC anchor Carole Simpson and I'll likely be referencing material from my new book, Race-Baiter.
Last week, I wrote a couple of stories about such head-counting among cable TV news anchors. Because, as cool as it is to have a balanced mix of guests, it is the anchors who set the tone for each show and who, in a loose aggregate, form the face and focus of the news organization.
Today, CNN announced the new team who will lead the morning show it has developed to replace Soledad O’Brien’s Starting Point at 9 a.m.: Chris Cuomo and Kate Bolduan, joined by news anchor Michaels Pereira. Judging by the photos and bio information circulated by CNN, Cuomo and Bolduan are white, while Pereira, who is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists, is not.
My earlier pieces noted that, if you were counting heads, it was tough to avoid noticing that CNN was eliminating a regular presence by its highest profile anchor of color, O’Brien, only to hire two correspondents and now a newsreader who are also people of color.
Various reports already quoted new CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker pronouncing former ABC News-man Jake Tapper as the new face of CNN. And considering that Tapper and Cuomo are currently the channel’s highest-profile new hires, both white men, it’s worth asking whether anchors of color are destined to be supporting players in CNN’s new incarnation.
This is about more than hurt feelings or social justice. As I noted in my book Race-Baiter, crucial contributions by journalists of color helped add important context to news stories ranging from the death of Trayvon Martin to the life, death and funeral of pop star Whitney Houston.
In the end, a diverse newsroom, practicing the highest standards of journalism, can bring greater accuracy and context to new stories.
TV news faces the same demographic shifts which are forcing political parties to face issues f importance to people of color, from non-sensical voter ID laws to non-sensical immigration procedures.
At some point, it’s time to ensure that our newsrooms and TV newschannels reflect the country’s growing diversity; both in the guest and anchor chairs.
And I’m not sure how you make any of that happen without simply counting heads.