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Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation Hardcover – October 30, 2012
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"(Deggans is) the nation' premiere commentator on matters relating to race in the media...(Race-Baiter is) a troubling read, needless to say, but Deggans has done a thoughtful, sober and intelligent analysis." - Verne Gay, Newsday.
"Deggans, the first-rate media and TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times...makes a smartly-resented call for more civil discourse." - Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly.
"(An) incisive take on the state of our media culture. Mr. Deggans writes about race with clarity and wit." - Tene Croom, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
From the Author
The story of how I came to write my first book, Race-Baiter, also outlines why the book is so necessary, and how its lessons can help legions of consumers cut through the toxic messages clogging modern media.
I was searching through my email one evening years ago, when I stumbled on a message from a reader I'd never met.
"Any idea why Bill O'Reilly called you a racist hate monger tonight?" he wrote. "Congratulations!"
To be honest, I wasn't that surprised. Ever since I criticized the Fox News Channel star for using code words and unfair tactics to demonize black rappers in a 2002 prime time special, O'Reilly had always reserved a special bit of televised bile for me.
After I dropped a column in the St. Petersburg Times newspaper highlighting the racially-charged language he used in describing Hurricane Katrina victims, he'd called me "a dishonest, racially motivated correspondent writing for perhaps the worst newspaper in the country." And this latest attack, aired as part of O'Reilly's Talking Points Memo segment on April 7, 2008, was no different.
"One of the biggest race baiters in the country writes for the St. Petersburg Times newspaper," he thundered to an audience of millions. "Eric Deggans also serves as the chairman of the Black Journalist Media Monitoring Committee. Deggans takes delight in branding people racist. Senator Joseph McCarthy would love this guy."
Besides getting the name of my group wrong - it's the National Association of Black Journalists, a group which has advocated for accurate news coverage of African Americans since the mid-1970s - O'Reilly revealed a time-honored tradition in his response to my work.
Bullies such as O'Reilly often try to silence those who criticize their clumsy words on race by accusing the critics themselves of racism.
What really stood out here was his larger message; that people in his audience -- largely, older, middle class and white - could trust him to cut through the clutter of talk about racial oppression in America.
In O'Reilly's world, this outrage only works one way; his outrage was focused only on allegedly unfair accusations of racism against white people.
He had no words or sympathy for when people of color might balk at seeing then-Fox News colleague Glenn Beck accuse the nation's first black president of having a "deep-seated hatred of white people" or radio pundit Rush Limbaugh might laugh at a parody song he created called "Barack the Magic Negro."
O'Reilly's true goal: drawing his audience closer to him by leveraging his own unfair accusations of racism and prejudice. Even as the nation was preparing to elect its first black president, the Fox News anchor was taking advantage of any feelings his audience might have of discomfort and fear to encourage viewers bond with him by rejecting those who might talk about racial oppression.
This is, in part, how O'Reilly has become the most-watched host on cable TV news; a towering figure who often scores high in viewer polls listing America's most influential journalists, despite the fact that he isn't a journalist and twists facts like taffy to serve his purposes.
And anyone who opposed his efforts was likely to be slapped with a term whose pejorative power shuts down all debate: race baiter.
Flash forward a few years, and you see that tactic spread across an entire chunk of major media outlets.
Once upon a time, media outlets earned revenue by gathering the biggest crowds, selling advertisers access to them. But in today's fragmented media environment, many of the fastest-growing platforms pursue the biggest pieces of that audience - I call it the Tyranny of the Broad Niche - and they have found leveraging prejudice and stereotypes effective in drawing audience.
My book, Race-Baiter, offers a handy road map to decoding these tactics and defusing them. The topics include: Fox News' use of scary black people to motivate viewers; the history of how corporations turned angry white men on radio into a moneymaking formula; the uneasy questions raised by activist Al Sharpton's dual role as MSNBC anchor and advocate for the family of slain teen Trayvon Martin; the way a lack of poverty coverage has allowed politicians to demonize the poor for under-informed audiences.
In a tribute to how far we have already come on these discussions, it is generally accepted that mainstream society rejects outright racism and prejudice. Which means the best way to defeat such techniques in modern media is simply to expose them; drag implicit messages meant to work on the edges of your mind into the light, as explicit themes the audience must consciously accept or reject.
Of course, by doing that, you risk being accused of bringing up stereotypes and prejudice unfairly.
You risk being called a race baiter.
But sometimes, having that title hung on you by the right people means mostly one thing: You're on the right track.
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Mr. Deggans gives away the magician's secrets, whether those magicians are news anchors, radio talk show hosts, screenplay writers or"reality" shows actors, he tells you what to look for to understand what's really happening and how they make it look or sound like something else.
He talks about the problems people have with discussing race, suggests ways we can get past those problems. He talks about drawing attention to racism masked with key phrases and probably most importantly about talking about race before something racial explodes rather than waiting for things to explode.
Another interesting point is that "color blindness" isn't the answer because it ignores differences in culture that really do exist.
A lot of this should be in schoolbooks somewhere. Learning it when your 9 would probably be a lot more helpful than learning it when you're 39.
My only problem with the book is Deggans obvious respect for Al Sharpton, probably because Deggans is too young to remember that Sharpton himself uses race to advance his own agenda. Deggans does not mention the pogrom he started in Harlem that had a killed a couple of people. A review of the early NY Times stories on Sharpton might help.
Over all, though, the book should be read by everyone.
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