Race-Baiter update: Great Entertainment Weekly review, cool Left of Black videocast and troubling black forecaster firing
Here's the thing about writing on race, media and society: Once you see how prejudice and stereotypes fit into the fabric of our modern communications, you realize these issues pop up anywhere and everywhere.
The latest case to resonate is the story of meteorologist Rhonda Lee, a forecaster in Shreveport, La., who says she was let go after replying to a person who posted a racially-insensitve remark about her short afro hairstyle on the Facebook page of KTBS-TV. After initially declining comment, the station issued a statement saying Lee was fired for violating the station's informal social media policy, which required employees to tell a company official about troublesome posts.
Lee, whose story was first featured on Richard Prince's Journal-isms online column, told Prince before the station released its statement that she never had a written copy of a social media policy, hich was discussed during a meeting she did not attend.
But the real question here for those of us who watch media is: Did the station worry more about handling an irate viewer than defending its staffer against racist comments?
At issue were two posts: in one, a viewer suggested Lee's short afro made her look like a "cancer patient," laster asking "if you come from a world of being poor, are you going to dress in rags?" In another, a different person objected to seeing so many children of color featured in a station project, implying it made KTBS look like the black Entertainment Channel. Lee said she informed management of the postings and her replies but was not supported, only punished.
As her story gains wider exposure, I wondered why the station had expressed no concern publically about the racially insensitive comments which started the issue. I remember being surprised when a reporter told me a few years ago that he had been called the n-word for the first time on the job; I've had that word slung at me so many times in letters and occasionally on assignments its hard to keep count (first time was in my first year as a professional journalist, covering the Easyriders motorcycle rodeo in 1990).
But I always felt my employers were super supportive about such issues, in the same way WKBT-TV in Wisconsin allowed an anchor to take on a critic who said she was too fat in an on-air commentary.
As Prince column noted, I brought it up in an interview about my book Race-Baiter: "On Washington's WPFW-FM Wednesday morning, Eric Deggans, media critic for the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times, compared the case with that of Jennifer Livingston, a TV news anchor at WKBT-TV in La Crosse, Wis., who responded on the air in October to a viewer who said she was too fat. "She went on the air and stood up for herself and was supported," Deggans told "Morning Brew" host Askia Muhammad. "I find it interesting. The station managements reacted totally differently. Rather than condemning the viewer's racism, they got rid of her."
I have no doubt there is more than one side to this story, though it make take time to hear it all as the station faces public ridicule and rthe threat of legal action.
But the value of having a diverse newsroom -- which I discuss at length in my book's sixth chapter -- doesn't mean much if management doesn't respond with support when prejudice and stereotypes are directed at them from the public.
On a related subject, my book has gotten some wonderful attention recently, including a great interview on The Wall Street Shuffle, a show airing from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays on KXFR-AM in Dallas/Ft. Worth. The host asked great questions and really offered thought-provoking perspectives.
And Entertainment Weekly gave Race-Baiter an A- rating, with critic Ken Tucker calling it a "smartly-resented call for more civil discourse."
Check out my appearance below on the video podcast Left of Black, where Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal and I have a lot of fun dissecting the book's serious themes.