Is Obama the only black official in D.C.? On Sunday shows, it seems so

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 25, 2009 

US NEWS TV-NEWSSHOWS 2 MCT

TV One, a cable channel that reaches 50 million homes, looks to add more diversity to the Sunday news shows mix with its launch this Sunday of "Washington Watch With Roland Martin.

CRAIG T. MATHEW / MATHEW IMAGING / MCT

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama sprinted through appearances on five consecutive news shows last Sunday, but other African-American lawmakers and opinion-shapers have a hard time getting face time on those programs.

Although an African-American is serving as the third-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, four African-Americans are chairing important House committees and 17 other Congressional Black Caucus members are holding subcommittee chairs, they haven't made many appearances on the Sunday talk-show circuit.

"There hasn't been much change," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., the chair of the black caucus. "You need a diversity of opinion, of thought, and we're not getting that on the (Sunday) talk shows."

TV One, a cable television channel that's geared toward African-American viewers, aims to add more diversity to the Sunday morning mix by launching "Washington Watch with Roland Martin" this Sunday.

The hourlong show will feature a "Meet the Press"-style format with Martin — TV One's political editor and an analyst for CNN and radio's "Tom Joyner Morning Show" — conducting interviews with newsmakers.

A rotating panel of journalists and experts, anchored by April Ryan, an American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent, and Comcast Network host Robert Traynham, will discuss the top news stories of the week.

The show's main mission is to give an African-American outlook that's absent from the Sunday programs on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and Fox News Channel, said Johnathan Rodgers, TV One's president and chief executive.

"The timing of the show couldn't be better," said Angie Chuang, a journalism assistant professor at American University. "The discussion on race — particularly around Obama — has reached a critical mass and we're having trouble figuring out how to talk about it. Someone like Martin might be able to push it through."

TV One, which reaches 50 million households nationwide, hopes to generate buzz from Martin's star power and by booking heavyweight guests.

Vice President Joe Biden and House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., a central figure in the House's decision to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., for shouting "You lie!" at Obama as he addressed a joint session of Congress two weeks ago, are scheduled to be the show's first guests.

"It's interesting that on the Sunday shows, Joe Wilson was put in the context of Kanye West and Serena Williams, which many African-Americans found unfair," Rodgers said, referring to public verbal outbursts by the African-American rap artist West and tennis star Williams. West and Williams made public apologies, but Wilson didn't apologize to the House for violating its rules.

"We need to balance out the debate in this country," Rodgers said. "I'm not saying we're the left wing, but we'll add a different perspective, a different voice."

The lack of diversity on the network shows has been well documented.

The National Urban League examined appearances on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," CBS's "Face the Nation," CNN's "Late Edition," "Fox News Sunday" and NBC's "Meet the Press" from January 2004 through December 2005 and found that 61 percent of the shows featured no African-American guests. Only 8 percent of more than 2,800 guest appearances were by African-Americans.

The 2006 report, titled "Sunday Morning Apartheid," found that one person — Fox News commentator Juan Williams — accounted for 40 percent of the appearances by African-American guests.

Three guests — Williams and Bush administration Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice — accounted for 65 percent of all appearances by African-American guests.

Chuang attributes the paucity of African-Americans, Hispanics and women on the shows to producers and bookers on the programs relying on a time-tested stable of guests.

"People who have been 'go to' people — the usual suspects — are easy to find," Chuang said. "The usual suspects are usually white males. You have to work a little harder to find someone who isn't the usual suspect."

Television executives say they've been doing just that since the Urban League study.

Minority newsmakers and experts such as Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Democratic political analyst Donna Brazile, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, commentator-author Tavis Smiley, National Public Radio anchor Michele Norris and conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, who's Asian, turn up regularly on Sunday telecasts.

Rodgers agrees that things have gotten better, but not by much.

Only two African-American members of Congress — House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. — have appeared more than once on the five major Sunday shows so far this year, according to Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper that tracks news show appearances by lawmakers.

Rangel has made four Sunday show appearances this year, Waters three. No Hispanic senator or House member has appeared on a Sunday show this year, according to Roll Call's tally.

"Washington Watch" host Martin said his show would give African-American lawmakers a venue but that they shouldn't expect an unfiltered microphone to advocate their policies.

"It's not like we're going to just talk to CBC (Congressional Black Caucus) members. We're going to have conservatives, liberals, Democrats and Republicans," Martin said. "People can make assumptions if they want to. Because we are a black cable network, and I'm African-American, they're going to be in for a surprise."

Rodgers is hoping for surprising ratings from "Washington Watch" during a tough period for African-American-oriented media.

NPR canceled "News and Notes" last December, and Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor and social critic, left his self-titled nationally syndicated radio show this month, replaced in the host's chair by Tony Cox. The Bay State Banner, Boston's African-American weekly newspaper, accepted a $200,000 loan from the city to keep its presses running.

TV One will air Martin's show twice on Sundays — 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. — to catch churchgoing and football-watching viewers.

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