Sunday talk shows look to diversify
NEW YORK - During a "Meet the Press" round table earlier this month, NBC's David Gregory turned to Rutgers University economist William Rodgers for an assessment of President Barack Obama's overseas trip. Rodgers said he'd give the president a grade of either A-minus or B-plus.
There was nothing remarkable about the discussion. Yet Rodgers's presence, his first time on "Meet the Press," illustrated a quiet effort at improving diversity on the Sunday morning political talk shows.
Rodgers's appearance marked one of 40 times a black American had been on one of the four broadcast shows this year, through April 12. During the same period two years ago, there were 25 appearances.
"We wanted to try to broaden the voices that we have on our round table, and that includes more diverse voices in terms of race, gender, and inside and outside of Washington," said Betsy Fischer, executive producer of "Meet the Press."
Even at a time the United States has elected a black president, these things are noticed. Michele Norris, host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," said she hears some "attagirls" on the street after she's been on a Sunday morning round table. Ian Cameron, executive producer of ABC's "This Week," gets e-mails from the public about diversity.
The National Urban League Policy Institute was critical of the programs in a report issued four years ago that it called "Sunday Morning Apartheid."
"There is nothing more galling than having white people sitting around talking about black people, and that is often what happens during these shows," said Richard Prince, who writes regularly on diversity for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.
Cameron said he first became conscious of the issue while working at a Canadian TV network in 1989 and a columnist mocked a program for being little more than "three white guys talking about the economy." Cameron was responsible for booking the show's guests.
Beyond offering different perspectives, Rodgers said one of his teaching assistants recently reminded him of the unspoken impact of diversity.
"In African-Americans' absence, there may be this subtle perception that African-Americans, or women, or Latinos don't think at that level or are not able to articulate," said Rodgers, a former chief economist at the US Department of Labor and recipient of a Ph.D from Harvard. "From a standpoint of images where perception is reality, it is important."
The election of a black president probably makes producers more aware of the need to make the effort, he said.
"If you have an individual who can be president, then there are all kinds of people who can be just as effective," he said. "How much you can quantify it, it's too early to tell."
Two of the 40 appearances were by Obama himself, on "This Week" in January and CBS's "Face the Nation" in March.