When The Topic Is Race, Media Turns Uneasy Lens On Itself

Not long after Russ Mitchell was named co-anchor of "The Early Show," he got a call from Eric Deggans, a media critic at the St. Petersburg Times. Deggans was working on a piece about diversity at CBS News, a story spurred by a spate of recent news involving African-American CBS News correspondents. First came the death of longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent Ed Bradley, who passed away on Nov. 9. Less than a month later, CBS announced that René Syler would be leaving "The Early Show," where she has been co-anchor since October 2002. A few days after that came word that Mitchell would become the hard news anchor of "The Early Show," starting in January.

Deggans, who is black, asked Mitchell if he felt his race had something to do with him being offered the anchor job. Mitchell, who says he has never been asked such a question,* later characterized it as "insulting."

"You'd like to think once you hit a certain level that your credentials stand on their own," says Mitchell. "Nobody's denying who they are. I'm proud of being a black journalist. What I have a problem with, and I think anybody would have a problem with, is someone making an assumption that the only reason you got something was because of the color of your skin."

Deggans' piece, "When it comes to color, CBS News pales," discussed what he called "the network's ongoing struggle to develop new talent" when it comes to journalists of color. (The other news networks, he claimed, have the same problem.) After noting that Bradley and other journalists were hired in the 1970s to "answer criticisms over the lack of race and gender diversity in network news," Deggans lamented the fact that "[t]hree decades later, CBS has not found the next Ed Bradley."

"It is very difficult because as I explained to several people that I talked to for this column, I'm not trying to denigrate anybody's achievements," says Deggans. "These are questions that I feel have to be asked." Deggans argues that African-American journalists cannot "totally remove themselves from the notion they're a symbol."

CBS News National Correspondent Byron Pitts says he is "clear and comfortable with the notion that many people, when they see me, they will see my race first." Still, the media's treatment of race can get to him. "When Ed Bradley died, I was struck how in many of the national articles written about him, in the first sentence was the fact that he was an African-American man. I was stunned by that. When Peter Jennings died, nobody said one of the premiere white journalists, or one of the premiere Canadian journalists. They didn't point out in the first sentence that he didn't finish college. No one said that."

Diversity in the media can often be covered in a perfunctory way because many journalists are uncomfortable confronting the issues brought up by Pitts. Bradley's legacy is tied to the fact that he was an African-American who succeeded in a field long dominated by whites, but too much of a focus on his race can trivialize his achievements. There are those who say that no one, regardless of race, could ever replace him. "First and foremost anybody that's a journalist wants to be recognized for their abilities," says Crystal Johns, CBS News director for career development and diversity recruiting.

Richard Prince of Journal-isms says that journalists need to put aside their discomfort when it comes to race. "You have to get over it," he says. "It's just like covering anything else. You don't have to be a Frenchman to cover France. You just educate yourself."

According to Pitts, the media does an "awful job" dealing with issues of race and class. (He adds that "the only people who are treated worse on television than black people are poor whites.") Part of the problem, he says, is that those making decisions and setting agendas lack diversity themselves – racially, culturally, and socio-economically.

"There are few people of color in front of the camera, and even fewer behind the camera," says Pitts. "I don't want to diminish the significance of seeing people of color on camera. That is invaluable. But also having people of color and women behind the scenes adds value. Because if the mission of journalists is to seek truth and tell truth – and there are different shades of truth – you need a wide range of people to go find that truth."

Pitts says that while there are "tons" of people of color at the lower rungs of the news business, there are few in positions of power. "You can flood the lobby with as many people as you want, but until people are allowed on the top floor, nothing is going to change," he says.

It's a sentiment echoed by National Association of Black Journalists Vice President Barbara Ciara.

"It's not just one layer. It's not just 'I want to see black faces,'" says Ciara. "I want to hear black voices in editorial meetings. I want to hear a diverse opinion about what should be covered."

Mitchell says media outlets need to cover issues of race within the media better than they do now. "Unfortunately, because there are so few of us in this business, it is a legitimate issue," he says. But he cautions against reading too much into recent movement at CBS News.

"People need to find out statistics, talk to people in the industry, talk to folks who have been around for a long time, and talk to executives," says Mitchell. "Don't just look at a couple things that have happened in the last few weeks and draw conclusions from them."

*Clarification: Mitchell writes in: "You said in the article that I said I have never been asked a question regarding getting a job and race. Of course over the course of my 25-year career I have been asked that question many times. It comes with the territory. What I should have been clearer about is no one besides Deggans...no critic, no friend, no enemy, no one...has asked me that question in regard to my new position at The Early Show."