Some Thoughts on the Failure of White Mainstream Media

And just like that, we have transitioned into the post-Macklemore phase of the “post-racial era”.  Most of us are way over talking about The Grammys, but racism has a way of remaining utterly relevant. Hegemonic, actually.  As one face of white pseudo-allyship falls, ten more emerge or reemerge with characteristic “good intentions” and often egregiously offensive results.

You may think that Macklemore’s post-Grammy apology to Kendrick Lamar was the poorest display of white allyship of the new year. Unfortunately, his antics were just one event in a series of gaffes that display a sad trend in white media’s attempts at appeasing LGBTQ/POC communities. Need some evidence? Here’s a quick run-down from the last two months:

The examples of failure in the white mainstream media are countless.  When taken together they present a clear message: we have a systemic problem. These events are not just blips of casual ignorance to gawk at for the typical five-day news cycle.  They are symptoms of a much larger project: a system of media that values and normalizes whiteness, heterosexuality, and the gender binary.  As each buzzworthy instance of racism or transphobia boosts media traffic and then fades away, the system that supports such behavior persists—and will inevitably produce yet another media disaster to grapple with.

From Couric to Morgan to Goldberg it is clear that white commentators are trying but struggling to include a diversity of voices in their analysis on television and the Internet.  But where and how are they falling short?  And in that process, who is really getting hurt?  (Hint: Not Piers Morgan.)

Together, these seemingly isolated incidents suggest that white mainstream media is dangerously lowering the standard for allyship, adulterating entirely what it means to support and give space to marginalized communities.

***

When Piers Morgan’s first interview with trans* activist Janet Mock aired on CNN, he was clearly proud of himself for making space in his daily talk show for a progressive voice. He repeatedly lauded Mock’s ‘bravery’ but continued to misgender Mock as a “boy” before her surgery.  Morgan also asked Mock questions about her dating life, inquiring into whether men feel duped when they learn about her transgender identity.  After the interview, members of and allies to the trans* community spoke out against Morgan’s sloppy and offensive questioning.  Morgan was stunned.  Then he got pissed. He took to his own Twitter feed to speak out against the ‘cisphobia’ he was experiencing. In the course of heated conversation, Morgan repeatedly attested that he is ‘100% supportive’ of transgender rights and the LGBT community. But his protests were shrouded in an all-too-familiar tone of superiority and defensiveness. He was performing ultimate white allyship failure – inability to admit wrongdoing when being called out.

Janet Mock's tag on Peirs Morgan misses the point entirely.
Janet Mock’s tag on Peirs Morgan misses the point entirely.

Why is this instance of WMM failure important? Only a quick read through any of Piers Morgan’s online presence or a five-minute viewing of his show will demonstrate that abrasiveness and bravado are part of his persona. So why shouldn’t we simply dismiss his antics as business as usual?

Morgan’s debacle is key because it represents white mainstream media’s failed attempts at allyship.  Morgan positions himself as a strong LGBT ally, before, during, and after the messy Mock interviews. But in the course of being called out on poor language, lack of nuance, and clearly not familiarizing himself with Mock’s work, he clings tighter and tighter to his ally title to defend his actions.  In reality, he steamrolls Mock, asking her to explain over and over again why she was not technically a “boy” before her transition surgery.

A key principle of allyship is the ability to listen to the very voices you’re attempting to support through your project of allyship. Listening is how allies can learn what role they can play in moving forward the social justice agendas of marginalized communities they seek to support. Listening is how allies can learn how these communities are experiencing emotional hurt, anger, and damage as a result of systemic oppression and even the actions of the allies themselves. But along the way, many attempted allies will fall short of fully examining their position in such a complex map of political and social realities, and they will cling to partial allyship as a safeguard against any future emotional or political work. As Audrey Thompson notes, sometimes in the course of “seeking out the voices of marginalized Others…[allies] are looking for reassurance, acceptance, and absolution.”

It’s easy to understand how a personal search for absolution does little to address the hurt, anger, and damage done to marginalized communities by structural oppression. Not to mention the addition harm done  in the process of performing poor allyship. And this is the situation we find ourselves in with Morgan. Because of his particular political position as a self-identified ally, he does more damage than good by clinging tight to his personal goals rather than evaluating whether his allyship is actually helping anyone.

And this high-profile performance of poor allyship has something of a trickle-down effect. Most longtime viewers of Morgan’s show probably still don’t quite understand why Mock was so upset about the way she was represented in the two interviews. And that’s a problem. If white mainstream media is committed to presenting (and capitalizing off of) stories of interest to LGBTQ/POC communities, they must also do the work of presenting their audience with models of strong allyship. The consumers of these nighttime talk shows may be learning about gender identity for the first time. Piers Morgan and others of his ilk are professional public educators. If Morgan slips up in his language and refuses to be corrected, viewers, accustomed to seeing him as a guide to issues of relevance to them, will take his side. White supremacist power structures don’t disappear when the network seeks to engage trans* activists. Morgan still holds the political upper hand, and when the viewer perceives his position as reasonable (and when he drowns out the counterargument) they will walk away believing him to be in the right. And this is arguably doing more harm than good to the project of representation in media.

Morgan’s interactions with Mock and her supporters are indicative of a particular moment we find ourselves in with white mainstream media. There’s no denying that issues relating to minority or marginalized communities are trending right now. And arguably, there is some benefit to a heightened awareness of and attention to such issues. But in a media climate that operates on a five-day news cycle, values splashy headlines and high click rates, and limits discourse to 140 characters at a time, we’re treading on thin ice when it comes to respectfully navigating the tricky terrain of discussing oppression.

***

If media is supposed to educate the American public, then it is absolutely crucial that members of the media educate themselves. They must do the work of presenting issues fairly, thoroughly, and respectfully.  Morgan’s interview with Mock could have succeeded if Morgan had worked to understand the nuances of her story and experiences as a transgender woman.  He should have learned about the difference between gender and sex; if he had done so, then he would understand why it is so offensive to tell Mock that she was a boy. Basically, he should have read her book. And Katie Couric failed in similar ways in her interview with Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrerra.  She should have been sensitive to the fact that media narratives about transgender people almost universally focus on their transition surgery rather than their experiences.  It should not be too much to ask for members of mainstream media to understand the impact of their work and see opportunities to break down rather than perpetuate stereotypes.

Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrerra in their interview with Katie Couric.
Laverne Cox and Carmen Carrerra in their interview with Katie Couric.

Morgan and Couric’s dust-ups should be seen as a call to action.  Poor representation of LGBTQ/POC community members in the media means that there simply aren’t very many nuanced conversations going on about issues related to those communities. In order to better understand issues affecting communities outside the white, cismale, heterosexual mainstream, there needs to be more representation of diverse voices in the media.  Not only do we need to hear more LGBTQ/POC stories, we need more LGBTQ/POC writers, producers, directors in charge of telling those stories.  Not surprisingly, Pierce Morgan’s show on CNN has been cancelled due to poor ratings.  CNN now has an opportunity to select a LGBTQ/POC news anchor.  Representation on mainstream media will not fix the problems, but they are an important step towards a more inclusive and anti-oppressive media system.

And even in instances where there is representation of these groups in traditional media, their achievements and accolades are often called into question. This happened notably in early January, when Ta-Nehisi Coates published a piece at The Atlantic describing Melissa Harris-Perry, MSNBC host and Tulane professor, as “America’s foremost public intellectual.” This piece started a Twitter firestorm, fueled by Dylan Byers’ assertion that Coates’ article “undermines his intellectual cred.” Suddenly the internet was aflame with arguments back and forth. What does it mean to be a public intellectual? And who qualifies for consideration?

Byers’ list of more respectable options for the public intellectual title was a predictable list of white men. Coates’ response to Byers’ list implicated his choices as “the machinery of racism” – Byers’ seemingly unbiased take on the question of the public intellectual was of course racially loaded and laden with political consequence. “The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It simply requires that Dylan Byers sit still.” With these words, Coates calls out the most pervasive form of media racism – failing to incorporate the voices of oppressed communities and to validate the achievements of those communities. Whether or not Melissa Harris-Perry is truly the country’s foremost public intellectual is almost beside the point. The question is, why do some people consider it so ridiculous that a black woman be considered for the title?

***

In the course of discussing these incidents, it’s important to remember who is adversely impacted by white mainstream media’s poor performances of allyship. Commentators, writers, and talking heads have measurable impact on public opinion. As thought leaders and educators, their opinions are taken seriously by their audiences. The stakes are high. So who gets hurt when white mainstream media fails at efforts to integrate dialogue around social justice issues?

We need to remember that members of the media have the upper hand when it comes to accessing a national platform. Morgan’s accounts of experiencing ‘cisphobia’ from trans* community members and allies are insulting and uninformed. In reality, the backlash against his interviews is just the type of self-preservation and collective organizing that so many marginalized communities must depend on for their voices to be heard. Perhaps Morgan thinks that Twitter is an irrational hotbed where POC/LGBTQ rant and fight with each other at the expense of white media. This isn’t an uncommon opinion; Michelle Goldberg implies as much in her piece for The Nation. But their sense of victimhood is misguided. Because who really has the power in these debacles? Who has unfiltered access to an international platform?  Who does not have to experience systematic discrimination because of their identities?

And who gets the last word? Morgan, Byers, and Goldberg may have access to thousands if not millions of consumers of white mainstream media. But POC/LGBTQ communities are not sitting idly by, waiting to be called upon to make their voices heard. When they find themselves on the outside of national conversations purporting to address their own experiences, marginalized individuals have the right to use Twitter–or any platform–to respond to the systematic erasure and stereotyping of their communities.  They are not bullying.  Their anger is well-justified.  And POC/LGBTQ are doing more than tweeting in response to mainstream examples of white failure.  They are having extraordinary conversations about race, gender, sexuality, class, and ability.  They are organizing around these issues.  And it’s time for white mainstream media to listen and do better work.

 

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