So I’m sitting around watching "Meet the Press," one of three Sunday morning talk shows I record each week. Moderator Chuck Todd is hyping this amazing piece of journalism — a report from behind prison walls. Sounds great right?
It’s an enterprising idea in the midst of the sudden and perpetually fruitless gun control debate. He’s introducing a series of interviews with murderers. We want to engage in the gun control debate, so why not hear from those who’ve actually used guns to take a life? Why not hear from the likes of white supremacist Dylann Roof to better understand what goes through the mind of a killer before and after the trigger is pulled?
The entire nation seems to be trying to come to grips with this horrible racist act and NBC’s Meet The Press is doing what? They are exclusively showing black men as murderers, thereby feeding into the optics of inequality that many in the African American community, right or wrong, have been consistently pointing out.
Roof is, after all, what the news cycle is all about these days — a place he shares with only two others, and coincidentally, they too are white. Richard Matt and David Sweat are not your usual escapees. They’ve now been on the run going on 17 days after breaking out from a New York Correction Center. One was doing life for killing a sheriff's deputy on a Fourth of July. The other killed a 76-year-old businessman by breaking his neck, and then cutting up the body, which was thrown into a river.
Meet the Press’ mission seemed to be about examining dangerous men like the triumvirate of power killings now making headlines. It failed. Why? Because instead they introduced us to three black men from some random prison.
That’s right, three black men! While the news cycle screams the stories of three white men – Roof, Matt and Sweat – Meet the Press brings us interviews with three convicted murderers who are all black. Tone deaf? You bet! Intentional? I don’t think so. Neither my colleague Chuck Todd nor his staff meant any harm, but let's not kid ourselves: harm was done!
On Twitter and other social media sites, the blasts of indignation were immediate and with good reason. Even though the number of convicted murderers in the U.S. by race is about 50-50, on this Father’s Day, for the kid watching TV with his dad, it became 100 percent black.
It’s a point that wasn’t lost on at least one black journalist, who to NBC’s credit was on the panel. Eugene Robinson, who is also Washington Post columnist, politely mentioned that there was “one small thing” wrong with the report. How delicately sardonic is that?
"Right now, we're talking about a horrific crime committed by a white man. We're talking about the search for two escaped murderers who are white men,” said Robinson. “So, we should point out that this is not just an African-American problem." Duh!
Here, the entire nation seems to be trying to come to grips with this horrible racist act and NBC’s Meet The Press is doing what? They are exclusively showing black men as murderers, thereby feeding into the optics of inequality that many in the African American community, right or wrong, have been consistently pointing out.
These are just some of the comments and complaints raised by writers and African-American leaders.
First, Dylann Roof’s image as presented in the media has included childhood photos looking cute and cuddly while no such images have been released of his victims.
Second, Roof is consistently being referred to as a “kid” who was simply confused. Yet previously, many in the African-American community were chastised for calling Trayvon Martin a child who was walking home with candy on his way to his father’s house. Which was by the way, the truth.
Third, many on Urban Radio have complained throughout the country about the appearance of Roof being arrested without incident. There was no aggressive takedown, no shots fired. While just last a week before that a 14-year-old girl in a bikini at a pool party was repeatedly thrown to the ground.
These are all optics, and optics are not always rational. It comes from a place outside of logic. It comes from pain and from hurt. But it’s the kind of pain and hurt that needs to be both understood and respected.
Many of us in and out of the news and information business have argued for years about the media’s inability to understand, or sometimes even respect, the cultures of those who are not like them. Even if not intentional, it’s there and we see it — even when they don’t.
Whether it’s a New York Times reporter and child of privilege writing critically about Senator Marco Rubio’s money problems, cable pundits and news presenters unable to challenge Donald Trump's Hispanic insults or Chuck Todd’s tone deafness, it occurs much too often. And much too often it’s only noticed by members of communities who are not a part of the media elite.
Here’s the real question: Shouldn’t Meet the Press have known better? Do they just not pay attention to what they’re writing or airing? Or, as we’ve argued for years, when it comes to people who aren’t like them, do they just not get it?
All it takes is that one person in the editorial meeting to stand up and say, "Hey, do we really want to put a piece on the air depicting only blacks as killers in America while we’re covering a story about a racist killer?" Why wasn’t the question asked? And if it was, why did the story run as is?
Todd sold the interviews from behind prison walls as “remarkable.” What we think is remarkable in many ways depends on our point of view, our upbringing, our culture and the people with whom we surround ourselves. Chuck Todd hyped a great idea, but he failed or was failed by his staff, his friends and his own cultural upbringing in not recognizing the perspective of others. Many others and I have argued again and again for more inclusiveness and understanding in our nation's national conversations to avoid even well-intended, yet harmful oversights. This report is yet another example of why we’re right.