UCC’s Parker lecturer insists media’s ‘race filter still exists’

UCC’s Parker lecturer insists media’s ‘race filter still exists’

September 25, 2008
Written by Staff Reports

Johnathatn Rodgers speaking at the UCC's 26th annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture--George Conklin Photo
Television Executive Johnathan Rodgers, who graduated high school and college during the 1960s, can remember when he subscribed to the popular sentiment of the decade: "Don't trust anyone over 30."

"The media just didn't see the world or our activities the way we did," Rogers told about 200 attendees at the UCC's 26th annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture, Sept. 24, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

But while the media's misrepresentations of young people frustrated him, he wasn't surprised. As an African American, Rodgers said he and other black young people of his generation understood the media's "age filter" because they also knew about its "race filter."

"For decades, we black Americans have been the victims of the media's race filter and we knew the debilitating effects that it was having on our people," Rodgers said. "From the newspapers to the newscasts, from the sitcoms to the dramas, our images were inaccurate and distorted, and we were powerless to do anything about it."

Rodgers, a 40-year veteran of CBS, the Discovery Network and TV One, presented the 2008 Parker Lecture, sponsored by the UCC's Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.) — the denomination's historic media justice organization —  and the Telecommunications Research and Action Center.

The event annually brings together a diverse audience — including communications industry executives, FCC commissioners and staff, governmental and religious leaders, and grassroots activists — to examine the ethical and moral issues related to the ever-changing world of telecommunications. It is the only event of its kind in the industry.

Rodgers, President and CEO of TV One, a cable network launched in 2004 for African-American adults, said there was a need for African Americans to have "control of our own images" and it's why he felt called to lead the TV One network into cable prominence.

"The race filter still exists," Rodgers said. "We, the black citizens of the United States, still do not have control over own media."

While he applauded increasing diversity within television at every level — from senior level management to entry level positions — Rodgers said African Americans still must contend with two ages-old questions that white Americans do not wrestle with: "What do we think of ourselves?" and "What do we want others to think of us?"

These two questions, Rodgers said, have been contemplated by African American leaders for decades — from W.E.B. DuBois to Zora Neale Hurston to Bill Cosby. And television channels, such as Rodgers' TV One, are "an opportunity to see ourselves as we see ourselves."

Two-thirds of African Americans, Rodgers said, believe that ethnic identity is more important that national identity. "And that's also how we watch television," he said.

Rodgers cited lists of what blacks and non-blacks watch on television, "and rarely did they cross over."

Although some programs, such as "Monday Night Football" and "American Idol," do attract diverse racial-ethnic viewers, Rodgers pointed to shows like "Girlfriends," which ranked #1 among African-American viewers but ranked #147 among non-blacks. Or "All of Us," the #2 ranked show for black viewers that ranked #148 for non-blacks.

"What's great about TV and what's great about cable is that we have choice. So the question is, for African Americans, where do we go to see ourselves?" Rodgers said.

While black viewers do not have monolithic programming tastes,  he said, "the experience of living as a black person is a common experience to us all."

A recent Yahoo/AP poll found that over 20 percent of white Americans view blacks to be "violent, boastful or complaining." Thirteen percent of whites see blacks as "lazy" and 11 percent say blacks are "irresponsible." The medium income for black households is $29,000, compared to $45,000 for white households. One-third of black males will either be dead or in jail by the age of 21, Rodgers said.

Still "many are adamant that there is not a race problem in American," he said.

"Based on what they see on television, they wonder why all black Americans have any complaints at all," Rodgers said. "They point to the successful images they see on television. … The reality is that the world is not color blind and television should not be either."

Media heroes honored

At the Parker Lecture, he UCC also presented awards to those who serve the public's interests in the media.

-- The Prometheus Radio Project was honored with the Everett C. Parker Award for its leadership in building dozens of community-based, low-power FM radio stations.

-- William J. Bresnan, chairman and CEO of Bresnan Communications, was honored for his lifelong leadership in advancing opportunities for women and people of color in the media.

-- Caroline Mayer, retired consumer journalist for The Washington Post and blogger for Consumer Union, was recognized for the body of her work on behalf of consumer education.

 Learn more about the UCC's historic work in media justice at ucc.org/media-justice.


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