Does crime-happy local TV news perpetuate racism? One professor argues yes--and suggests some drastic measures to fix it.
EARLIER THIS MONTH, police in Long Beach, Calif., gunned downon live televisiona man who had led them on a high-speed 40-minute car chase which concluded with the driver stumbling out of his car, drawing a gun, dropping it, and seeming to reach for another. Two LA newscasts rode the chase, and the climactic shooting, to dizzying ratings heights in the 5 p.m. time slot. And the star of the grim show was a 37-year-old Hispanic man named Angel Galvan.
After Galvan's on-air death, there was the usual tsk-tsking from media critics about the voyeuristic coverage, followed by a quick return to the ''if it bleeds, it leads" school of TV news. But at least one observer in the LA area says the trouble with such spectacles goes beyond mere tastelessness: Local news shows, he argues, are doing nothing less than blocking progress in race relationsand the Federal Communications Commission is unwittingly helping them do it.
Obsessive coverage of urban crime by local television stations, UCLA law professor
Jerry Kang argued in the Harvard Law Review this spring, is one of the engines driving lingering racism in the United States. So counterproductive is local broadcast news, he says, that it is time the FCC stopped using the number of hours a station devotes to local news as evidence of the station's contribution to the ''public interest," which has traditionally been a requirement for a broadcast license. (The FCC does not have quotas on how much news must be produced. But Kang points out that the FCC defended its controversial decision in 2003 to loosen ownership rules governing who can own stations on the grounds that the new arrangements would lead to more hours of local news programming.)
More broadly, Kang's articletitled ''Trojan Horses of Race" is an attempt to jump-start a conversation about race and public policy by drawing on the latest psychological research. That conversation is currently stalled, with predictable divisions. ''I don't think most people above college age change their views about how the law should intervene to bring about racial equality," Kang said in an interview. For example, you're either for or against affirmative actionand that's that. ''What could break this deadlock is not new moral arguments but new information about how racism works."
The new information he has in mind comes from psychological studies of ''implicit racism"and how video imagery can trigger or mitigate it. The Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, for example, has shown that people who reveal no overt racism (including many people of color) still associate black faces more easily with words like ''violence," and white faces with words like ''smart." (You can test yourself at www.projectimplicit.org.)
In another study cited by Kang, white and black subjects played the role of a cop in a simulated video game, in which they were forced to make split-second decisions about whether to fire at a suspect on the screen. Both white and black subjects shot unarmed black men more oftenmistaking, say, an innocuous wallet for a handgun. Yet another study showed that white test subjects were more likely to favor the death penalty if they watched a news story about a black murderer than if they watched an identical story about a white murderer. (The two ''stories" were designed by researchers and differed only in that detail.)
On the other hand, white subjects who take an ''implicit racism" test after seeing footage of a respected black figurelike Bill Cosby or Martin Luther King, Jr.find that their measure of implicit racism drops significantly.
Far from contributing to the public interest, Kang argues, local news, with its parade of images of urban criminality, serves as a ''Trojan Horse" or ''virus" keeping racism alive in the American mind. And so, with its rules encouraging local-news programs, he writes, the FCC has ''unwittingly...linked the public interest to racism."
These days, local news is so popular and cheap to produce that stations would almost certainly air it even if the FCC didn't encourage them to. So what's the point of Kang's proposal? And wouldn't the news get even worse if you took away the pretense of public service?
Kang says his ideas could help prompt a national conversation about how local television really could contribute to the public interest. But he also offers two more specificand radicalproposals. First, since television stations have weaker First Amendment freedoms than those enjoyed by other press outlets (consider the indecency rules they must follow), he asks, why couldn't the FCC recommend a cap for crime coverage of 15 percent per hour? (Kang cites research showing that in one 13-month stretch, coverage of violent crime led LA newscasts 51 percent of the time and took up 25 percent of total newscast minutes.) The question of whether the cap was met would then be considered at license-renewal time.
Kang also floats the idea of having the FCC require stations to run public-service announcements condemning racism throughout the day. The research, recall, suggests that having Denzel Washington and Tiger Woods say such things as ''Be Fair. It's what MLK would do," followed by footage of civil rights marches (this is Kang's actual example) would help to disinfect the airwaves contaminated by crime reports on the evening news.
Even some colleagues who agree that local news is vacuous (or worse) have some doubts about his proposalsto put it mildly. ''A ludicrous idea," responds Geoffrey R. Stone, former University of Chicago Law School dean and a First Amendment expert there, via email when asked about the idea of a cap on crime coverage. ''That the FCC can regulate the use of [profanity] and Janet Jackson's breast is a far cry from determining what constitutes news."
Yale Law School's Jack M. Balkin, another First Amendment scholar, is more politic but still dismissive. ''The goal of the public-interest requirement is to make sure things are included"like children's programming''not that they are taken off the air," he says. ''It's a very basic principle."
While it's easy to make fun of Kang's First Amendment-challenged remedies, it's also hard to say he's not onto something in terms of identifying a problem. The authors of the FCC's public-interest standards didn't have in mind footage of running gun battles on LA's freeways. They were thinking along the lines of PBS's ''NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." What they got, instead, was ''Cops," narrated by better-looking people.
Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. Email email@example.com.