Time for media's 'coalition of conscience'

The whole supply chain, from brand to publisher, needs to be better

On April 14, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech at Stanford called “The Other America” laying out the inequities of American society.

Fifty-four-years later, its relevancy and specificity in and of the American consciousness is a lesson the media industry still needs to learn.

To use a philosophical analogy here, racism is not based on some empirical generalization; it is based rather on an ontological affirmation. It is not the assertion that certain people are behind culturally or otherwise because of environmental conditions. It is the affirmation that the very being of a people is inferior. And this is the great tragedy of it.

I submit that however unpleasant it is we must honestly see and admit that racism is still deeply rooted all over America. It is still deeply rooted in the North, and it's still deeply rooted in the South.

In the shadow of 1/6 and in the footprints of the Black Lives Matter movement from the summer, this speech carries a resonance that, should we fulfill as listeners, but also active participants in society, we would be wise to not only heed, but act upon.

As an industry, we wield a tremendous amount of power in how society operates, but also sees itself.

Advertising creates an image; of a brand, of a company, of a set of values. Commercials can create an understanding of the world — moms take kids to soccer; dads work late in the office, etc. Over time, these images create structures of how we see things. It’s why certain people, for example, lost their minds in 2013 when Cheerios aired a commercial with a Black dad at the center of a biracial family.

From The Today Show:

Discussing the development, TODAY’s Donny Deutsch brought personal perspective to bear: Twenty years ago, the chairman of advertising agency Deutsch Inc. featured an interracial couple in an advertisement. While he applauded Cheerios’ decision to include a mixed-race couple in its commercial, he understood why some companies would shy away from it.

“What’s unfortunate is that I still think 97 percent of companies would stay away from this because they would say, ‘I don’t need the letters.’ Which is a shame, because in reality when you do an ad like this, yes, there will be some fringe crazy people,’’ Deutsch said on TODAY Monday. “Fringe crazy people go crazy about everything, but in reality you’re making a statement about your company: ‘We’re progressive, we’re inclusive, we are about today.’

It should be telling that on national television, an ad exec is telling America that the main reason why companies (in 2013) aren’t inclusive is because they don’t want to get letters from angry racists. Companies bow to pressure all the time; they shouldn’t shy from doing the right thing.

Our online mechanisms of serving ads are also racist.

In 2019, for example, Facebook was hit with a class action lawsuit alleging age and gender discrimination in financial ads it served. That came on the heels of a settlement between Facebook and civil rights groups that “Advertisers will no longer be able to exclude users from learning about opportunities for housing, employment, or credit based on gender, age, or other protected characteristics.”

Stereotyping target audiences is another way racism rears its ugly head in the digital advertising industry.

From Campaign Monitor:

An order came through one day for mouth grills. The image for this ad was a mouth grill that featured gold teeth in front of a black background. The ad ran as a mobile ad, which meant it would be displayed only on cellphones and other mobile devices. What made this racist? It specifically targeted Black barbershops and people who had a household income of $40,000 or less per year.

When advertisers showcase items like mouth grills to people who frequent Black establishments or don’t make a lot of money, it reaffirms certain stereotypes. The client likely missed out on sales because of this bias. There are plenty of people who own a mouth grill and make significantly more than $40,000 a year. In today’s climate, wearing a mouth grill is similar to wearing other accessories like earrings, necklaces, or watches.

Of course, representation in entertainment also matters. According to GLAAD’s 2020 ‘Where Are We on TV’ report:

  • Of the 773 series regular characters scheduled to appear on broadcast scripted primetime television this season, 70 (9.1 percent) are LGBTQ. This is a decrease from the previous year’s record high percentage of 10.2 percent, and the first season to see a decrease since the 2013-14 report. This number was expected to drop due to the COVID-19 pandemic halting production on several shows and impacting the green-lighting of new series. There are an additional 31 LGBTQ recurring characters on broadcast, for a total of 101 LGBTQ characters.

  • On scripted primetime cable series, the number of series regulars has decreased to 81 characters, with 37 recurring characters, bringing the total number of LGBTQ characters to 118.

  • On the streaming services Amazon, Hulu and Netflix, there are 95 regular LGBTQ characters on original scripted series, a decrease from last year, as well as 46 LGBTQ recurring characters. This brings the total to 141 LGBTQ characters. 

UCLA looked at Black representation on TV, and found that, according to USA Today:

Although the study shows shows that Black characters have become better represented on TV, it points out that other minority groups are far from proportionally represented onscreen and elsewhere.

And unsurprisingly, behind-the-scenes tells a different story:

  • Network heads were 92% white and 68% male as late as September 2020

  • Women held 28.6% of show creator titles for digital programs, 28.1% for broadcast and 22.4% for cable

  • People of color were 10.3% of digital scripted show creators, 10.7% of broadcast scripted show creators and 14.5% of cable scripted show creators 

  • People of color were just 24% of credited writers on broadcast, digital and cable

  • People of color directed only 22% of all episodes airing or streaming (and men directed twice as many of those as women of color)

News media, we know, plays a not insignificant role in shaping how we view the world. And we have decades of research to show this: Cultivation Theory, Uses & Gratifications Theory, Agenda Setting Theory, Symbolic Interactionism.

We see the world through reporting. It’s why frames of stories are important; it’s why who you quote in stories matter; it’s why representation matters.

For example, according to 2020 research from RTDNA and Syracuse University:

The percentage of people of color in local TV news reached a record high for the 3rd year in a row.

However, the percentage of people of color in the local TV workforce is up just 0.7 percentage points, and the gap in representation is down just 0.2 percentage points. In the last 30 years, the percentage of people of color among the U.S. population overall is up 13.4 points, but just 8.8 among the local TV new workforce. The representation gap, which widened after 2005, has been shrinking slowly the last 4 years.

It’s also why Politico giving its crown jewel to Ben Shapiro yesterday was a thing.

Eric Boehlert writes in his newsletter, Press Run:

On the morning after Trump made history by being impeached for the second time, Politico handed over its influential Beltway morning newsletter, Playbook, to Ben Shapiro a bigoted, bomb-throwing media defender of Trump. In his Politico contribution, Shapiro lied about Democrats in an effort to suggest they're being hypocrites about impeachment. Shapiro also stressed that Trump supporters were the real victims in the wake of last week's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Promoting someone who has a decade-long history of trafficking in lies and deliberate misinformation, created an uproar both inside the publication and outside, as critics lambasted the outlet for glorifying and legitimizing voices like Shapiro's one week after a pro-Trump insurrectionist mob tried to stage a coup. "Whether it be promoting an us versus them mentality, or dismissing the murder of protesters and innocent children, Shapiro helped lay the foundations for today’s political violence," noted Media Matters.

How can readers then make sense of the world when we have an unreliable narrator, one that peddles garbage wrapped in psuedo-philosophy, telling the story?

The last year has been one of reflection. For the industry and for society. And there are solutions—hiring, work policies, language usage, sourcing, etc—but it all boils down to: how can we help each other be better?

Dr. King wraps up his speech to this effect:

Let me say another thing that's more in the realm of the spirit I guess, that is that if we are to go on in the days ahead and make true brotherhood a reality, it is necessary for us to realize more than ever before, that the destinies of the Negro and the white man are tied together. Now there are still a lot of people who don't realize this. The racists still don't realize this. But it is a fact now that Negroes and whites are tied together, and we need each other. The Negro needs the white man to save him from his fear. The white man needs the Negro to save him from his guilt. We are tied together in so many ways, our language, our music, our cultural patterns, our material prosperity, and even our food are an amalgam of black and white.

So there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white groups. There can be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster. It does not recognize the need of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and justice. We must come to see now that integration is not merely a romantic or esthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure. Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where black men and white men share power together to build a new and a great nation.

In a real sense, we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. John Donne placed it years ago in graphic terms, "No man is an island entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." And he goes on toward the end to say, "Any man's death diminishes me because I'm Involved in mankind. Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee." And so we are all in the same situation: the salvation of the Negro will mean the salvation of the white man. And the destruction of life and of the ongoing progress of the Negro will be the destruction of the ongoing progress of the nation.

Now let me say finally that we have difficulties ahead but I haven't despaired. Somehow I maintain hope in spite of hope. And I've talked about the difficulties and how hard the problems will be as we tackle them. But I want to close by saying this afternoon, that I still have faith in the future. And I still believe that these problems can be solved. And so I will not join anyone who will say that we still can't develop a coalition of conscience.

One of the phrases of 2020 was “We’re all in this together.” We wanted to believe that, but it’s not true. If you have the ability to work from home and order your groceries through an app, for example, you are not in the same position as the person who has to work at the grocery store.

There is much work to be done, and it can start with the media industry—from advertising to reporting—precisely because we have the influence. We need our own “coalition of conscience.”

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Some interesting links:

For inside Fox News:

  • Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott’s Job Is in Jeopardy, Insiders Say (Daily Beast)

For inside look into the siege of The Capitol:

  • How the rioters who stormed the Capitol came dangerously close to Pence (WaPo)

For deepfakes:

  • Yes, deepfakes can make people believe in misinformation — but no more than less-hyped ways of lying (Nieman Lab)

For new ad formats:

  • Startup Pushes Picture-in-Picture Ads for Streaming TV (WSJ)

For exits:

  • Walmart’s e-commerce chief is leaving to build “a city of the future” (Recode)