TV networks accused of 'virtual whitewash'; NAACP president threatens suit over lack of racial diversity

NEW YORK -- The NAACP may sue major television networks and challenge local stations' broadcast licenses because their programming does not reflect the nation's racial diversity, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume announced yesterday.

No major characters in the 26 new shows planned by ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC this fall are minorities, Mfume said, citing this as evidence that the stations may be in violation of the Federal Communications Commission standard to serve the public interest.


"When Americans tune in this fall all over America and sit down to watch the new prime-time television shows they will see a virtual whitewash in programming," Mfume said at the 90th annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"You know what we're going to have to do? Turn off the tube," he told a cheering crowd of about 2,700. "We're not going to watch those shows that make us look invisible."


Mfume also shared details of a federal lawsuit scheduled to be filed this week in New York that will seek to limit handgun sales in an effort to get illegal guns off the streets.

He announced that today he will release a review of the minority hiring practices at financial institutions, and he pledged that the NAACP will register 4 million more voters in time for next year's elections.

"We will work until hell freezes over to register people and get them to the polls," he said.

In a wide-ranging, 75-minute speech, Mfume mourned the loss Friday of James S. Farmer, whom he called "a giant" of the civil rights movement; and he recalled the celebrations in black communities the day the Supreme Court ruled that segre gated classrooms were illegal.

He lamented the dismantling of affirmative action, blasted law enforcement officials for racial profiling and decried slavery in the Sudan.

But his speech focused largely on plans to hold private industries such as media companies and gun manufacturers accountable to a civil rights agenda.

Tackling issues of diversity in the media, Mfume announced that a new Hollywood branch of the NAACP will be set up by Oct. 1 to run the NAACP Television and Film Diversity Initiative. The group will monitor how well the entertainment industry reflects America's multicultural base.

In the past, organizations have challenged television stations' licenses on the grounds that they failed to reflect society's racial diversity, said David Fiske, an FCC spokesman.


Indeed, at its 1951 convention in Atlanta, the NAACP denounced the television comedy "Amos n' Andy," which contained what many considered offensive stereotypes of African-Americans. The show was canceled after two years largely because of the complaints, although CBS sold the show in syndication until 1966, according to the book "Blacks in White Television," by J. Fred MacDonald of Chicago.

In the 1960s, a Mississippi television station and eight Alabama public television stations had their licenses revoked for stereotypical programming, MacDonald wrote.

"The Communications Act of 1934 said the airwaves belong to the public," Mfume said. "We believe we're a vital part of that public."

Reacting to Mfume's charges, the four major networks stressed that they were concerned and sensitive to the issue of diversity. ABC and NBC acknowledged that they "need to do more" casting of minorities.

None of the networks outlined specific details, beyond indicating that they were recasting some of the new shows. And both Fox and CBS offered to meet with Mfume to discuss the matter.

Mfume also vowed to put pressure on gun manufacturers to reduce handgun availability. Saying recent killings in Colorado and Illinois reinforce the need for gun control, he complained that federal lawmakers have failed to respond.


"NAACP action is needed now to break the backs of those who perpetrate the sale of guns in our communities," he said.

The lawsuit would restrict handgun sales to gun shops that are licensed, allow only one gun purchase per person per month and bar sales at gun shows.

More than 20 cities and counties, including Chicago, San Francisco and Miami-Dade, have sought similar legal recourse.

In a news conference, Mfume took aim at the National Rifle Association.

The NRA "has found a way over the years to buy off elected representatives through campaign contributions, to intimidate individuals, to even take away the ability of municipalities to take action," he said. "The NRA has no control over the NAACP. We expect to meet them in court."

Amid the throng of cameras and microphones, a 14-year-old from Columbia attending the convention with a Howard County youth group raised a question to Mfume.


"How will this make the schools safer for me?" asked Cameron Ragland, who will be a ninth-grader at Long Reach High School in the fall.

Mfume, apparently taken aback by the question, said, "With fewer weapons, we hope there will be fewer incidents where young people like yourselves or people my age will be gunned down."

Sun staff writer David Zurawik and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 7/13/99