CBC: More Diversity Needed on Sunday Shows

Mike Soraghan, The Hill (Washington, D.C.), June 15, 2009

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) say there is a lack of diversity on the Sunday political talk shows.

The CBC is more powerful than ever. Its members are chairmen of four congressional committees, and a former CBC member is now in the White House. CBC contends that more minorities should be invited to appear on the influential shows.

“I’m not pleased at all with the diversity issue as it relates to talk shows,” CBC Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said in an interview with The Hill. “We have, what, 17 subcommittee chairs and four full-committee chairmen? These members are brilliant; they know their stuff. They’re powerful and they should be part of the Sunday morning talk shows.”

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), secretary of the CBC, calls himself a “fan” of the Sunday shows, but said he’d like to see change.

“The morning talk shows need to increase the number of African-Americans,” Butterfield said. “Not only for diversity, but it would also be good for the ratings.”

The comments come three years after a study found a striking lack of black participants on the shows. The original study was completed before Democrats took over Congress in the 2006 elections, which put many more black and Hispanic lawmakers into positions of power.

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The criticism comes as racial issues play an increasingly prominent role in Washington politics, with the first black president, the first Latina Supreme Court nominee and immigration reform on the national agenda.

The CBC’s statements are echoed by the original authors of the study at the National Urban League Policy Institute.

“We’ve seen incremental change,” said Stephanie Jones, the institute’s executive director. “They’re not where they need to be.” Jones’s institute found that black guests made up only 8 percent of the total appearances on the shows. The institute is in the midst of updating its study.

Titled “Sunday Morning Apartheid,” the 2006 report analyzed 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 Jan. 1, 2004 through Dec. 31, 2005.

Despite its conservative-leaning reputation, Jones noted that “Fox News Sunday” delivered much of the diversity, noting that National Public Radio’s (NPR) Juan Williams is a regular guest.

“There’s at least one show every Sunday where you’re almost guaranteed to see an African-American panelist,” said a Fox News source.

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Other African-Americans who have been on “Meet the Press” this year include Tavis Smiley of PBS, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and NPR’s Michele Norris.

Jones said she found it especially galling when conservatives blamed much of the economic meltdown on policies intended to help minorities get home loans, and there seemed to be no minorities rebutting the charges on screen. It prompted Jones to fire off a letter to the network presidents last October.

“It is unlikely that this and other such irresponsible comments would go unanswered if there were more diversity in your political and policy discussions,” Jones wrote at the time.

Roll Call tracks lawmakers’ appearances. The CBC member with the most appearances this year is Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), with two. The only other CBC member on the list is House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), who appeared once on “Fox News Sunday.” No Hispanic members are on the list.

This past weekend, not one minority lawmaker appeared on the Sunday shows. All seven of those who appeared are white and six are male. A majority of the Congress is composed of white males.

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Eric Deggans, the TV media/critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, doubts Butterfield’s claim that inviting more minorities would lead to better ratings.

“Those shows’ audiences are those shows’ audiences,” he said.

Deggans, who often appears on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” said it’s an issue of journalistic quality. Especially on racially charged issues, viewers don’t get a full picture when all the guests are white, he said.

“The Sunday after [Supreme Court justice nominee] Sonia Sotomayor was announced, I didn’t see any Hispanics on. There may have been one or two, but I didn’t see them,” Deggans said. “There’s a whole side of the issue you don’t get.”

But even if its members aren’t well-represented on Sunday talk shows, the CBC is well-represented in the corridors of power, at least on the House side. And they have a distinct take on the big agenda items for the year, including healthcare reform.

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