Colored News Network: Why can’t CNN seem to get black news right?

By Guest Contributor Dionne Walker

Even if CNN is winning more praise for its’ recent special on the Muslim community, the network’s overall track record in dealing with stories in black communities is so bad that other journalists of color still ridicule it. And I should know – my friends and I are among them.

That’s because every few months, the cable news powerhouse goes all “ethnic” and hilarity ensues. The network rolls out Soledad O’Brien on a handcart, to the chagrin of some black journalists who question why a Latina-appearing, biracial woman would become the network’s patron saint of Negro news. It unfurls the “Black in America” stage backdrop; it hustles some brown passerby into the studio for his “perspectives.” The result is usually a giggle-inducing attempt at documenting the black experience – too often involving unmarried black women, black youth struggling to go to college or some other stale topic.

That’s when we black journos swing into action.

We Facebook, tweet and blog the offending article; we post the videos on listservs and use them as fodder for days of eye rolling, tongue clicking and general chuckling about how CNN has struck black gold again.

We almost look forward to these masterpieces as a relief from the general stress that has become life as a journalist – AKA an endangered species – and devour them like Halloween candy: So good and yet, so very, very bad.

Only is it truly a laughing matter? Why is it that CNN, arguably the world’s most recognizable cable news network, seems unable to produce timely, on-trend stories about black America? Is it really funny that a network able to pirouette through major international stories fumbles over covering one of the nation’s most visible minorities, producing mostly stereotype-based eyebrow raisers in the process?

Recent headlines include:

  • Does the black church keep black women single? (August 2010)
  • Black preachers who whoop: Ministers or minstrels? (October 2010)
  • Held as slaves, now free (A December 2010 article about hair braiders)

These and similar gems consistently fall into predictable topic boxes: the revisited stereotype, the stale trend that whites just discovered, or the unremarkable-except-a-black-person-is-doing-it story.

Imagery often plays into the oldest cliches: The August piece opens describing a black woman, who “moves swiftly, with confidence, a weathered Bible clutched in her right hand” and declares firmly that “Jesus is the No. 1 man in my life and any man who wants me must seek me through Him.”

Didn’t Madea say that in one of those Tyler Perry films?

Reporting, meanwhile, may be lengthy but typically lacks depth. For instance, the December tale of two black teen girls forced to work as hair braiders dances around matters like establishing a solid time peg for the story, instead, propelling the piece with heavy-handed comparisons between their plight and that of Africans transported to America during slavery.

The subject hasn’t gone unaddressed by black media insiders, turning up in blog posts and columns like St. Petersburg (Fl.) Times critic Eric Deggans’ July 2009 piece, “Why can’t I find more love for CNN’s Black in America series?” In one of the more polite takes on the issue, Deggans summarizes the depth question with a question of his own: “After long minutes watching this story, I kept asking myself, ‘Why is CNN showing me this?’”

The folks at snarky website “This Week in Blackness” were less kind in a their recent summary: “Throw in a drug dealing big brother, a crying, clapping, praying Negro singing “hmmmmmm”, some old school gender issues … and you have the magic that is CNN’s Black In America.”

Plenty of networks fail at covering black topics well. But shouldn’t CNN have the know-how to excel? Does CNN just not care about black people enough to go beyond the superficial?

Ironically, I think the opposite is true.

The network’s wall-to-wall black coverage push began in earnest around 2008 with the unveiling of the first in its BIA series. With O’Brien at the helm, the network special examined black women and the family; that first installment would garner some 13 million viewers and lead to a second installation, numerous black-oriented specials revisiting such episodes as the Rodney King beating, and a slick website crammed full of commentary and articles on black-oriented topics.

The network is clearly interested in covering blacks and other minorities, as evidenced by its admirable investment of time and resources. What the cable network lacks, however, is a fresh eye for the issue affecting these communities.

Why revisit the cobwebbed topic of black women’s dating options (note to producers: I am SO good on black women will die fat, old, lonely and with 52 cats and/or children articles, thanks.) when there’s a perfectly good story on black gentrification and intraracial tensions unfolding right in the heart of Washington D.C.? Why dig up tales of highly churched black women when the blending of Latino and black religious communities is the updated, more relevant approach?

To be fair, the challenges to covering black news with a fresh eye are numerous.

For one, getting beyond the obvious in the black community isn’t often easy if you’re not black, and if CNN’s newsroom is like most (and I’ve been far enough into their Atlanta nerve center to confirm as much) the network isn’t exactly teeming with brown reporters.

Indeed, the American Society of News Editors found there were 929 fewer black journalists in a 2010 survey than in 2001 – a drop of 31.5 percent, the steepest decline among all minorities in the field during that time.

That means there are fewer of us working as reporters to pipe up with original ideas that are based on what we see in the community everyday. At the same time, black leadership in all mainstream newsrooms remains comparatively low, limiting the number of minority gate keepers putting the brakes on stories that need some heavy tweaking. Do you think a black editor would have allowed the plight of two hair braiders to be elevated to the status of Kunta Kinte? I doubt it.

The network heads, meanwhile, have little to indicate anything is amiss. For her BIA series, O’Brien earned the National Association of Black Journalists’ “Journalist of the Year” award in 2010, handed out at a San Diego convention where CNN had a heavy recruiting presence and no shortage of black job seekers lining up for interviews.

That places the responsibility on the readers, myself included, to push the network to dig deeper, and produce thought-provoking, forward thinking articles rather than treacle. We have a direct pipeline to networks via comment boxes – and we must use them. Take advantage of the opportunity to tell CNN when a story is old, data is sketchy or that you just don’t like the premise of a piece. It’s easy to complain, but harder to pitch in.

Recently, I perused CNN looking for the latest negro “expose” and it delivered – a piece on how the popular Atlanta-based hair illuminati, the Bronner Bros., had shone a light on natural hair, a “new” trend in the black community.

I texted a fellow journalist, who had already cackled about it heartily. I guess one can be glad CNN is throwing the community a bone.

But after a while you wonder, where’s the beef?

  • Ray

    When you do the Black America focused show on Sunday I want you to challenge the leadership as to why Blacks are always undermined and under represented. For example in the State of Texas contracting Black Businesses 0.6 percent of contracts awarded and nobody says anything. The City of Houston isn’t any better. In spite of representing 22 % of the population they received less than 2% of contracts awarded

    These aren’t my numbers, they were produced by the local entities. FYI: these studies can be found at http://www.blackamericancommunity.com. What would white America (America) look like if they trying to operate off of 8 percent instead of the over 80 percent that they enjoy.

    Are you with us or not? Lets end the economic exclusion of blacks in America

  • http://makeitplainonline.wordpress.com Dr Arrington

    It is the same old thing about perpetuating stereotypes under the guise of legitmate media, which keeps the mainstream and the others in a very narrow space when it comes to any real or in depth understanding of the African American experience.

    My favorite was the Doll Studies. CNN aired a redo of the famous Doll Study done in the 40s and 50s in an effort to say how African American self-esteem was suffering because of segregation. The more recent pilot study (they didn’t even wait for the full study to be done) said that African American self-esteem is still suffers. Aww, those poor poor Black people. There was no intelligent discussion about these results or discussion of African America resilience. This is really dangerous stuff if you are not a critical thinker.

  • Facebook User

    My favorite part, besides the lawyer–who wears striped bow ties with ugly suits– making the case that Islam isn’t a religion, was the older white woman who Soledad looked like she wanted to slap the entire time.

    Soledad asked the woman if she knew any Muslims. She replied, “Lots! My sister lived in Saudi Arabia and my brother lived in Iraq.” OK, That wasn’t YOU. You cannot “know” people through osmosis! And when Soledad asked the woman if she knew any of the Muslims in Mufreesboro, THE TOWN WHERE THIS WOMAN LIVES, she says, “No. But they haven’t reached out to me and I haven’t reached out to them. They think I’m a bigot!” OH REALLY, DO THEY!? I CANNOT IMAGINE WHERE THEY GOT THAT IDEA FROM!!

  • Val

    I don’t think CNN cares what actual Black people think about its Black (dysfunction) In America series. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of blog posts criticizing the series and O’Brien. I really think the BIA series are made for White viewers which is why they are so basic and stereotypical.

  • sc

    i’m not sure the quoted headlines are any different than the black media i hear every day on the radio at work. they’re basically exactly what i’d hear on the steve harvey morning show and the doug banks afternoon show. and if i have to hear one more doug banks “adult conversation” on whether black men on the down low are the scourge of the black community/whether all the “good” black men are gay….

  • http://twitter.com/natthedem nctodc

    Complaints about Soledad O’Brien ring a little more hollow after discovering that MSNBC will broadcast a show on “The Black Agenda” hosted by Ed Schultz.