The Media and Racism: Time for an Accounting

A year ago around this time, I was returning from Durban, South Africa, where I attended the International AIDS conference. It was not a very hopeful event, except for the fact that global concern about a devastating pandemic was finally coalescing.

Now, the eyes of the world are back on Durban for a conclave on another hard nut to crack: racism. The World Conference Against Racism, a UN-supported initiative, will open its doors August 31. Its agenda is as broad as it is deep, touching personal nerves and deep-seated prejudices. Just for the record, the event is not only about racism per se but also deals with "Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance."

A consensus is remarkably hard to find. That is not say that anyone is openly FOR racism. Oh, no, not at all. It is unlikely that those media pundits who love polarizing debates will find advocates for "master race" ideologies like white supremacy, although you can never preclude a surprise appearance by some publicity-seekers like the left-turned-right anti-reparations provocateur David Horowitz or, moving even further right, some neo-Nazi or Klansman in full regalia.

Racism is not the kind of issue that can be reduced to easy pro and con sloganeering. The impulse behind the congress was to get the world on record agreeing that various forms of racism are pervasive and need to be eliminated with plans of action. But this goal is being sabotaged by a highly politicized process of power politics, UNspeak, diplomatic filibustering and single-issue diversion. Already certain topics have been "bracketed," a way of exorcising them from the agenda. Others, like the polarizing debate about whether Zionism equals racism, are certain to promote more division than healing. Arguments about who is or isn't an anti-Semite will be front and center. Wrangling over what is or isn't anti-racism may end up getting less attention.

I am sure earlier generations of human-rights crusaders, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama (and any number of their counterparts from many countries) would be delighted that race was finally being recognized as an issue on the world stage. At the same time, they might also be chagrined about how many obstacles have been placed in the way of honest debate, in part because race as a topic is so overlaid with historic economic, political and social factors.

Racism: An Emotional Issue

It seems unlikely that any new visions about how to fight racism globally will emerge, but a talkfest is certainly welcome. There is plenty to talk about. Almost every ethnic group nurses legitimate grievances. Every colonized and formerly colonized people, every persecuted minority, lives with the physical and mental scars of its experience. The memories of tragedies are deeply rooted in the soil of many countries. Less than 10 years ago Conference host South Africa was still ruled by a white minority government that oppressed the black majority with openly racist apartheid laws.

Journalists will be there in force (see right column for independent coverage), and it will be unfortunate if they focus on the controversies as points of battle rather than opportunities for understanding. Expect plenty of controversies, in any event: the Middle East conflict, slavery and colonialism, compensation for victims of past cruelties such as the Gypsies in Europe and caste in India and elsewhere. Still unclear is if the United States will even show up, since government officials say they will not take part in any meeting that discusses a text that condemns Zionism as racist. You don't have to look far for intolerance at a conference on intolerance.

Media Coverage

The polite debates among the official delegates in the formal UN sessions will likely be overshadowed by the angry rhetoric of the non-government organizations (NGOs) and those crusading for reparations and various other kinds of political and economic payback. Because media generally prefer to report simple polarization and volatility over temperate consensus-building, it is predictable that many outlets will cover the Conference in a stereotyped manner as a festival of extremism, with only the loudest and most strident voices likely to be heard.

What is clearly needed is more reporting on how human and civil rights are affected by racism; cultures of exclusion, police and prison policy, immigration and social exclusion deserve attention, along with many more issues.

It is long past time to recognize that these issues demand ongoing, in-depth treatments, not simply dismissal as the special pleading of the affected communities. A September 5 panel on racism and media coverage, with Mary Robinson, Reverend Jesse Jackson and others, will no doubt consider many of these points. We need more press attention on institutionalized racism and discriminatory practices. We need more media pressure on governments to insure equality before the law and to pass legislation or enforce laws already on the book. Media professionals need to recognize that covering the pains of racism, allowing the voices of the oppressed to be heard, is one small step in alleviating those pains.

Are the media up to this task? Not really! In many countries, governments control the media and block anything approaching a fair or honest exposure of these concerns. In others, newsrooms and editorial boards are dominated by a single racial group, with minorities often shut out and shut up. Year after year, surveys find minorities underrepresented on top programs on the television networks in America and often demonized in the news. As I write, Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, a major entertainment newspaper, has been suspended in part because of published charges that he made derogatory remarks about racial minorities. Incidents like these continue to surface. Not long ago, the editors of leading U.S. newspapers agreed that their goals for diversifying their newsrooms were unrealistic and backed away from them.

Racial oppression is often interwoven with class and poverty -- and often compounded by biases in reporting. For example, there are more whites than blacks living in poverty in the United States, more white families than black families on welfare. But images of the welfare poor in the press are disproportionately black -- a media-perpetuated false reality perhaps related to the lack of diversity in U.S. newsrooms. Apartheid-like practices keep minorities and refugees ghettoized and disempowered in many countries. Israel, Bosnia, Turkey and China offer but a few examples.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has held hearings on the role the media there played in upholding apartheid. The hearings were rancorous and controversial because issues of press freedom were at stake. The proceedings seemed politically driven, with the government out to discredit its critics and with many of the wrong people in the dock. But the process was healthy. Media institutions are anchored in the structures of societies, often reflecting the interests of the rich and powerful. Many downplay, and some condone racism because of insensitivity or disinterest. Hopefully, the delegates at the UN conference will learn something from South Africa's ongoing experience in challenging racism in the media and by the media.

There is a need for more accountability about race within and by the mainstream media. The independent media can do a better job, too, in diversifying their own ranks. Let's hope this week's conference will encourage self-reflection and self-auditing (and disclosure) of media practices vis-à-vis racism. The media are rarely as socially responsible as they might be. We need to guard against this Conference becoming a knee-jerk, politically correct exercise of confessional exorcism driven by guilt or intimidation. We need to be painfully honest too. Slogans won't satisfy the need for explanation or interpretation.

World journalists are descending on Durban, journalists from major outlets with a race beat, from minority and ethnic publications small and large, journalists of many races and nationalities with differing dedication to illuminating the complexities and solutions for racial politics. I can only hope that they -- we -- recognize that we can't stand outside and above this contentious battleground of ideas, prejudices and protests. The bell that is ringing in Durban rings for us too.

Perhaps a World Conference on Media and Racism is in order.

Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is "News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000," from Akashic Books.

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