Race and the Media
NPR TV critic Eric Deggans addresses the dilemma of people of color in television. Bigger numbers aren’t enough if the portrayals are stereotypes, he says. 

(February 7, 2014)

(L-R) NPR TV & Media critic Eric Deggans and WGAW members Ayanna Floyd, Abdul Williams and journalist/writer Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn.

The Cosby Show, which premiered in 1984 and ran for eight seasons, not only revived the beleaguered sitcom genre but in its genius showed America an image that had not been seen for the most part before on network television: the upper-middle class Huxtables, an African American family in which the mother was a lawyer and dad was a doctor. Until then, portrayals of African Americans on TV tended to lean towards characters that were gang members, drug addicts and poor inner city people.

It’s no secret, and no surprise, that while two decades have elapsed, there is still a paucity of people of color in television, both in front of the camera as well as in writers rooms. And while increasing the number of characters of color in shows is good, it isn’t good enough, says Eric Deggans, newly appointed TV and Media critic for NPR. “If they’re stereotypical it doesn’t help.”

Committee of Black Writers Co-Chair David Wyatt

Deggans, who spent 20 years as television critic for the Tampa Bay Times before being appointed to the prestigious NPR slot, was guest speaker at the Guild’s recent Committee of Black Writers event, moderated by journalist/author Janice Littlejohn and joined on the panel by WGAW members Ayanna Floyd and Abdul Williams. Having written extensively on race and the media, Deggans called for an end to TV’s racial profiling. “What you want are characters that live and breathe and counter stereotypes and don’t reinforce them,” said Deggans, whose new tome, “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” explores the impact of race on the media and how the media informs the discussion of race in America.

Deggans reiterated that images in the media can be incendiary if viewers’ real lives are absent of people of color. “Media images resonate especially if people have no practical experience with that culture. If you don’t get to know a Latino or black person or an Asian person, your only experience might be what you experienced through media.”

“Why should Hollywood care?” he continued. “Because all Hollywood cares about is money, right? But you get better stories, and you get hits, if you feature characters of color who are well-rounded and you take full advantage of their stories.”

Learn more about the WGAW’s Committee of Black Writers