In his new book, Race-Baiter, media critic Eric Deggans says modern media outlets trade in bigotry and bias to build audience and sell advertising.
Deggans dissects media coverage of events such as Hurricane Katrina, the Trayvon Martin case and the 2012 presidential election to build an argument that Americans lack the right vocabulary for having important conversations about race, and that the echo chambers of our fractured media landscape aren't helping. The fix, he says, is a more savvy audience that demands better conversations.
Deggans and psychologist Linda Tropp, who studies perceptions of racial differences, join NPR's Neal Conan for a conversation about media, race and what Deggans calls "a divided America."
On MSNBC anchor Al Sharpton and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly
Deggans: "The main thing that bothers me is that Al Sharpton is the most visible anchor on a cable outlet that still calls itself a cable news channel. He's the most visible anchor of color, and he's not only not a journalist, he's very much an advocate, leading a civil rights organization that advocates for specific legislation and advocates for specific electoral results.
"And, you know, that bothers me. ... At the same time, I talked about my own tussles with Bill O'Reilly on Fox News Channel. The book's title comes from the fact that Bill O'Reilly called me a 'race-baiter' on his show years ago for the articles I've written criticizing the way he talks about race, and also talking about conservative voices like Rush Limbaugh and other people on Fox News Channel.
"So I tried to look across the spectrum as much as I could while also acknowledging that my viewpoint is probably more friendlier to the liberal side of things, and I'm talking about talking about race in a way that a lot of liberals would find comfortable."
On what Deggans calls the "broad niche"
Deggans: "At one point we had a media universe where the goal was to amass the biggest audience possible. So the goal was also to avoid anything that might reject parts of that audience. You were constantly trying to figure out how to put together a presentation that would appeal to everyone.
"And of course, you know, TV got criticized for that sometimes, for being too milquetoast, for not taking enough chances. But now we're in a media environment where you succeed by targeting the biggest niche of viewers or the biggest niche of media consumers.
"And I call it in the book the tyranny of the broad niche. You try to find these slivers of the audience, the biggest slivers that might be interested in whatever type of media you're presenting, and you target them in a way that draws them to you and also encourages them to reject your competitors.
"And I think sometimes that's done by using prejudice and stereotypes, in everywhere from reality TV to these news and political presentations."
On where the conversation about racial differences breaks down
Tropp: "What I would see as part of the problem or issue that we currently face in this society is that talking about race is such a taboo topic so that we don't get much practice in doing so, and that by broaching the topic of race, it becomes more anxiety-provoking than it perhaps needs to be.
"And so it makes us perhaps more likely to respond defensively if someone expresses a view that's different from ours. So we basically spend our time focusing on how to get our viewpoint across, make sure that we're understood, rather than being open to hearing alternate viewpoints on this issue."
On how to restart the conversation about race
Deggans: "One of the things I do in the book is I talk about some concepts for how to have a discussion like this in a way that's nonthreatening and might achieve something. And, you know, whenever I talk about this in public, I sort of set boundaries, and one of the things is, you know, you don't attack people. One of the things is no one owns these subjects. ...
"I know sometimes white people can feel like black people or people of color have the ability to initiate conversations about race that they can't do without fear of being called racist. And, you know, one of the things I want to say is nobody owns these subjects. You know, white people, you have, as I said, you have a culture, and you should be able to talk about this as well as anyone, as long as you do it with sensitivity and an open heart."