The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

NBC plays Uncle for the race police

Rousseau said Man was born free and is everywhere in chains. Similarly, in the US, speech is constitutionally free and is everywhere crushed by self-appointed organisations of shakedown artists and bullies.

Brent Bozell and his Comstock Choir are well known in these parts for their sterling work in this field. But the American house of conformity has many mansions. College adminstrations across the land stifle campus comment in the cause of a quiet life and avoiding offence to moneybags.

A particularly putrid example in another area from the Baltimore Sun today, with this chilling lede:
After meeting with NBC News President Neal Shapiro to discuss concerns about anchorman Brian Williams and the newsroom's attitude toward diversity, the National Association of Black Journalists yesterday issued a statement expressing confidence in the network.

NBC anchor Brian Williams was so unwise as to comment for an in-flight magazine (throwaway, therefore a false sense of impermanence of content) in the following exchange:
"There are few women and people of color in top jobs at news organizations. How do you address that lack of diversity?"

"We have bigger problems," Williams is quoted as replying. "There are no black members of the Senate. We should keep some perspective on this ..."

Uh oh. Rank failure to prostrate himself at the feet of the Great God Affirmative Action!

The shakedown machine duly cranked itself into action, resulting in the meeting mentioned above.

I've commented before on the fact that the enforcement of racial etiquette in the Jim Crow South was largely secured not by lynching (judicial or regular) nor even by non-lethal violence (though there was plenty of that, of course) but by a complex mechanism of everyday intimidation and submission; where the rules were kept fluid enough to keep the Negro in doubt whether he was about to transgress all the time he was in white company. Where the Negro was, in the Stephen Potter, phrase, perennially one down, and the white man one up.

Without stretching the analogy to breaking-point, it seems to me something of the sort now applies in reverse: there is a mortal dread on the part of every sort of organisation of being tarred by the shakedown guys as racist. All sorts of indignities are deemed worthwhile if only the tag can be avoided.

(Since the object of this kow-towing is protection of the interests of stockholders, it would need, by definition, to be of a token nature: when margins are fat, a little padding of the payroll would do no harm, redistributive largesse on a grand scale - Mark 10:21-like - for the benefit of the less favoured races would clearly be out of the question!)

And just like the more violent measures of popular racial discipline in the old South, the object was educational. Lynch one, cow ten thousand.

No doubt Brian Williams was 'spoken to'. I can find no reference to him undergoing any sort of Pol Pot-style re-education on racial matters, but I wouldn't be surprised if he did. And the furore will act as a reminder to news folk behind and in front of the camera: Careless Talk Costs Shareholder Value - not to mention jobs...

The mechanism intrigues me: once upon a time, there was a jazz pianist called Nat 'King' Cole who found he sold better as a singer, and crossed over easily at a time (early to mid-1950s) when white folks listened to race music surreptitiously, if at all.

So popular did Cole become that a TV network decided to give him his own show. That network would just have to be NBC, of course.

The Peacock persevered with the show; but corporate America mostly would not touch it. The fear factor went the other way: few wanted to be brave even so far as endorsing this most white-friendly of acts.

(In the bad nigger/good nigger iconology of the time, Cole was clearly in the latter class: but he duetted with white women - and Southerners (and plenty in the North too, I'll be bound) found that altogether too great a liberty.)

Somewhere between 1957, when The Nat King Cole Show lost its slot to a Western series, and 2003, when corporate America produced an avalanche of cringing amicus briefs in the Michigan University affirmative action cases of Grutter and Gratz, the whole thing flipped 180 degrees. Now, the fear factor militates in favour of a vigorous embrace of multi-cultiness (or, at least, the appearance of it).

I'd be fascinated to see an analysis of how and why the flip happened; partly, it'll be legal and regulatory changes, but I doubt that that provides the full explanation.

In broadcasting, regulation means FCC; notably (but not so as I had noticed, until just now!), in 1998, the DC Circuit Court threw out the then Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) rules in Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod v FCC [1]. I gather that the process of making replacement rules has been somewhat tortuous, and auditing under the replacement rules of broadcasters' compliance has only started in the last few months.

My supposition, therefore, is that only a small part of the potency of the threat of the NABJ to NBC lies in its ability to stir the FCC to enforcement action against NBC. But a good deal more research would be needed to test that supposition.

This is yet another tentacle of the FCC octopus that I had not imagined existed [2]: how many more?

  1. Links to the decision and refusal of an en banc rehearing; the FCC's EEO page details the process whereby replacement rules were developed and adopted.

  2. Around 75 earlier Plawg pieces namecheck the FCC, I find.

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