BY JEANETTE LENOIR
Jeremy Kappell, the long-time Meteorologist at WHEC-TV in Rochester, NY lost his job after a slip of the tongue. Dropping the word “coon” albeit by accident, while uttering the sacred name of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t go over well with the public, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and eventually his bosses after some time lapsed and the public outcry didn’t quiet down as they hoped it would. I get it. People say things they don’t mean to say all the time. We take comfort with this phenomenon and Freudian slips when someone is usually drunk, angry or otherwise lucid and feeling unconstrained. In the age of Donald J. Trump, the 45th president of the U.S., these types of happenings are not just scrutinized; they’re scrutinized with suspicion of bold racism.
The lack of diversity in newsrooms, especially in small town America like the home of NBC affiliate WHEC, highlights the importance of hiring people of color. And WHEC actually reflects that compared to other local stations like WROC, WUHF and WHAM. Just take a look at their rosters; most of their employees are White. This, in a city where a 2017 snapshot by Suburban Stat reflects a diverse community; 43 percent White, 41 percent Black, 16 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. If diversity wasn’t seen by some as what conservative talking bobble-head Tucker Carlson calls an attempt to make America “dirtier,” newsroom staffers would be more familiar working with non-white American journalists. Yes, we do exist. And, please spare me the, “but what about Al Roker, Deborah Roberts, Lester Holt and Tamron Hall” rebuttal on the lack of diversity in media. Unless there’s a quota on minority hires, it behooves news directors everywhere to consider hiring more POC deserving of a chance to build successful journalism careers.
I grew up watching my local anchors and learning from them. English, my 4th language, was primarily taken up from watching Linda Lorelle, Marlene McClinton, Dave Ward, Don Nelson, Jerome Gray, and even Jacque Reid as a teen in Houston, TX. Their work helped shape my own dreams of becoming a television news anchor. And, I would make a great TV news anchor in the small town I moved to in 2008 for the chance to build this dream…if only my skin color wasn’t my Achilles’ heel. You see, to even be granted an interview during my early attempts to work for the only local station at the time, WKTV, required me to go to the local NAACP chapter for support. Yes, you read that correctly. It took the head of the NAACP to force the news director at the time to begrudgingly consider my application. Every other attempt was simply dismissed. He didn’t offer me the job and during the interview demanded I tell my current radio employer that I’m looking to move on. The struggles I’ve had to endure in my skin, in this business, in this small town are real.
The media landscape has been changing for years thanks to advancements in technology and the birth of digital media. Broadcast companies have had to adjust accordingly. And that’s by cutting people, the most vulnerable ones; minorities and older journalists. Media companies want more for less. And they prefer it from a certain demographic; young, white and preferably a petite blond woman. Experience, diversity and the significance of journalism in our society are dying ideals. And the lack of diversity in media has other consequences in addition to the obvious ones. The media apology circuit is not new. It’s a communication strategy; apologize and hope it goes away; don’t apologize and hope your audience moves on to the next shiny thing; terminate, educate or circle the wagons. Big media companies are on a path that solidifies their power and devalues people. It’s a page ripped from Trump’s own playbook, and recent FCC changes reflect this inhumane shift.
Many violations have been made on and off the air similar to the mistake made by Kappell. And it won’t be the last blunder they’ll apologize for either…as long as we keep accepting it. Guess what that comes with? More of the same. Diversity in media is the key to resolving these long-standing cultural issues that divide us, but as long as those holding the key refuse to use it to open the door for minority journalists, they’ll just keep offering apologies. Sorry. Not Sorry.