Race, race and more race.
From CNN's Situation Room late Friday afternoon, to D.L. Hughley's Breaks the News on Saturday and CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday, television was filled with talk of race this weekend.
I have been celebrating the promise of this discussion on TV since July when CNN debuted the penetrating documentary, Black in America, with Soledad O'Brien. The catalyst, of course, was the candidacy of Barack Obama. And given his election Tuesday, it is no surprise that the airwaves were filled with talk of race this weekend.
But while I have been thinking and writing the last three months in the belief that pretty much any and all talk of race on TV would be a good thing that made us smarter and more sensitive as a nation, I am starting to see that this is a far more complicated matter. And already there are a raft of questions begging to be asked – and answered.
For example, is it all right for anyone to explore race on TV? Or are only certain people allowed to have the discussion? And are there any approaches or aspects that are out of bounds?
And how about channels – can it happen anywhere, or only on certain channels? And who decides – who has the authority to police the discussion? And what should be done with racial discourses we don't like on TV? Should they be censored?
There was plenty of food for thought this weekend – and I am sure a banquet in days and weeks ahead. How about the lineup of four white men and one white woman discussing Obama and race on 60 Minutes Sunday night? Is it OK that there was not a person of color in that informed and illuminating discussion on one of TV's Top 10 most popular shows?
And what about D.L Hughley's show on CNN? Here's an accomplished black performer doing sketch comedy, commentary and satire on CNN, and there are plenty of people of color who don't like his show and want it off the air?
Let's start with Hughley. You can see what I wrote about the show on this blog when it debuted. More interesting than my review, though, are the responses. There are about 140 of them, which is not particularly high for Z On TV, but I would urge you to read through some of them.
They run about two out of three against the show, but most surprising to me were the number of people who self identified as black and then demanded the show be taken off the air because they found it offensive. Some said they had not actually watched, but were told it was offensive, and they wanted it off the air.
Never mind that there were also a lot of folks who identified themselves as black and said they liked the show, my question is this: What about freedom of expression? Someone watches five minutes of a comedy show that is trying to be cutting edge, and they don't like it, and so call for it to be taken off the air. I wonder about the mindset and if TV programmers will crater to it.
There are some very specific comments about the venue of CNN vs. Comedy Central (which carries David Alan Grier's Chocolate News) and the kind of broad comedy Hughley started out doing as opposed to a more cerebral kind of satire. More on those nuances later. But I should add that Hughley had a strong and revealing interview Sunday night with U.S. Rep. Jesse L. Jackson, Jr., a key adviser to Obama. It was one of the most informative in a day that wall-to-wall with smart Obama-related interviews.
I want to share bites of the 60 Minutes discussion on Sunday and an exchange that O'Brien has with two of her guests Friday on the Situation Room.
Much of the power of the 60 Minutes segment came from correspondent Steve Kroft sitting down in a hotel room and interviewing four of Obama's top campaign advisers only an hour or so on Tuesday night after his speech in Chicago's Grant Park. That's about as good as it gets on access – unless he had Obama himself.
Here is some of what they said about race and the campaign on 60 Minutes Sunday:
Answering Kroft's question about whether race was a part of planning the election strategy, campaign manager David Plouffe said, "No, honestly, you had to take a leap of faith in the beginning that the people will get by race. And I think the number of meetings we had about race was zero."
Campaign adviser David Axelrod added, "The only time we got involved in a discussion of race was when people asked us about it. It was a fascination of the news media … the political community. But internally, it was not an obsession of ours."
Under follow-up questioning from Kroft, they acknowledged that race did become a factor when the media began playing video of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor.
"That was a terrible weekend," adviser Anita Dunn remembers. "The excerpts were endlessly looped on television."
According to Axelrod, a turning point was reached when Obama said: 'I'm going to make a speech about race and talk about Jeremiah Wright and the perspective of the larger issue … And either the people will accept it or I won't be president …' "
The conversation that got me thinking along the lines of how TV is changing in relation to its discourse on race, though, was this one on Friday right after Obama's news conference with O'Brien interviewing Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who is black, and Terry Jeffrey, the white editor in chief of the Cybercast News Service.
They were talking about what O'Brien described as "awkward moments" during Obama's session with the news, and she included in that Obama's reference to himself as a "mutt" as he discussed plans to get a family dog. It seemed as if Jeffrey, who is white, wanted to label it a gaffe. But he was quickly over-ruled.
O'BRIEN: No, I guess my question was, you know, there were some people in the room when we were watching that who said, ooh. And I wondered -- I personal, as someone who is biracial, not offended at all. But I wonder, is that going to read badly?
BRAZILE: No. No, I -- look, I -- again, I thought, when I heard himself say it, call himself a mutt, I cracked up. I'm like, he doesn't look like a mutt, you know, a lot smarter, but...
O'BRIEN: Charming, self-deprecating?
BRAZILE: Yes, but mutts -- mutts are very smart dogs. I know a lot of mutts myself.
O'Brien was smooth and even-handed, and her self-identification lent her an instant authority. After decades of white men with gray hair owning that kind of TV news authority, it was clear the ground in TV Land was shifting this weekend.