Can the news media stop stereotyping America’s racial and ethnic groups? The latest Time magazine cover of Governor Chris Christie depicted as a mob boss is beyond offensive; it is beyond understanding in 21st century America. At a time when our nation should be celebrating its rich diversity, we find the “fourth estate” stooping to the worst characterizations of a large swath of our citizenry. By infesting society with such imagery, journalists are breeding contempt, hatred and mistrust; and eroding any sense of national unity. The result is ugly rhetoric, ignorant laced accusations and a convenient excuse to use violence to settle scores with groups deemed not legitimate.
After the outbreak of violence in American cities in the late 1960s in response to poverty and racism, the Kerner Commission issued a series of pronouncements on the news media that courageously identified how African-Americans were being marginalized in news reporting. In the aftermath of the Commission’s report there was some progress in creating access for African-Americans on-air, and we witnessed the development of public affairs programming that was inclusive of Blacks, and later Latinos. It was a short-lived epiphany though and newsrooms have remained mostly white and male, with some gains in recent years by women and now Latinos and Asian-Americans. Still, the reporting we read and see is often tarnished by biases that go unchallenged in the newsroom.
How could the Time cover of Governor Christie pass muster in the magazine’s editorial process? Did anyone think it might offend a state that has a significant Italian population and that has been tainted by organized crime, so vividly depicted in the cable television drama The Sopranos? Did anyone in the newsroom think that the cover could be construed as offensive to a governor of Italian-American heritage who has spent considerable time in law enforcement? When questions are not asked, when “perspective” is not present in the newsroom, the result is not-too-subtle biases creeping in reporting.
I cringe every time I see a report on immigration and the imagery used is of Mexicans crossing the border illegally. The frequent depiction of young Black men as criminals and thugs is a constant source of irritation and outrage. Similarly upsetting to me is the marginalization of American Indians as a debased culture and the denial of their unique claim to first-American status. One of the tragic outcomes of the events of September 11, 2001 is that Muslims have become the new bogeymen and subtle references equating Islam to terrorism are frequently found in print, either in reporting, interviews or commentary, and too infrequently goes unchallenged.
If we cannot expect journalists to get it right, there is little hope we can construct a truly inclusive society in America. While journalists drop the ball, these stereotypes are extended to entertainment programming as shows like “The Jersey Shore” and anything with “Wives” in the title and Black women as cast members further insults our intelligence and embeds negative imagery in the minds of many Americans. Too many Americans view each other through the lens of biased media depictions and the resentment we feel toward each other is the byproduct of a purposeful laziness in newsrooms. If Time magazine truly wanted to make a statement on this governor’s leadership style there are a myriad of other images than the picture of an Italian-American with the words “The Boss” in bold typeface. It brings to mind the darkened image of O.J. Simpson on the cover of Time during that sad saga.
It should not be asking too much for news publications that we depend upon for honest and fair reporting, to behave in an honest and fair manner. Some groups seem to be easy marks and I can only surmise that is the case simply because inside these institutions the absence of certain groups betrays the possibility of enlightened reporting. I cannot accept that in 2013 the Time cover could be printed without internal objection.
The challenge facing journalists and consumers of news is to hold each other accountable, to demand greater sensitivity in how we frame stories and depict subjects, and to elevate the discourse in America. We are doomed if we continue to dumb down our nation and fail to make the connection between how we depict people and how we treat each other.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.