Racism and ratings


WASHINGTON - Define racism.

One possible definition can be seen in the media's - and especially the cable news networks' - recent nonstop coverage of the Elizabeth Smart missing person case. Much like Chandra Levy, whose disappearance generated a media feeding frenzy, Miss Smart, the 14-year-old abducted from her Salt Lake City home June 5, comes from affluence, is photogenic, talented ... and white. And therein lies a possible building block of racism.

The racism in this case, however, while predicated on skin color, is racism based on demographics, dollar signs and ratings points.

Cable news, while in many ways still a form of journalism, is also a business. It's a business that is continually looking for a hook that will help spike the ratings so advertisers can be charged a higher rate for 30- and 60-second spots.

Be it O.J. Simpson, Gary Condit, Robert Blake, Ms. Levy or Miss Smart, if the cable networks detect any kind of heightened interest by their viewers, get ready for "sleaze" overload. No matter how repulsive or hurtful to relatives said story may be, the cable networks are going to figure out a way to have every show and host on their network talk about the story until the viewers cry "uncle."

Cable network hosts have told me that they were "disgusted" that they had to continuously talk about Mr. Condit, Mr. Blake or Ms. Levy in lieu of "real" news. That said, they fully understood that their networks were in the business of making money, and these stories paid the bills.

Cable news audiences are relatively small, and if the networks can latch on to a perverse story that will spike their numbers of viewers by just 500,000 to a million, that represents a huge ratings bonanza for a network or host. Sadly, like a horrific car crash from which you are not able to avert your eyes, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Condit, Mr. Blake and now, tragically, Miss Smart can deliver such numbers.

Therein lies a building block of racism. If you are a minority girl or woman and missing - oh, well. Don't expect a cable news anchor - more interested in making a fashion statement than journalism - to exploit one of your family members every night on his or her national television program. While clearly sad, your story is best left to the local news.

Why? During the Levy case, and more so because of the Smart case, a number of minority mothers have shown up on local news asking why their missing daughter is somehow less important to the national media than these affluent whites. It's a good question: Is the life of a minority child or woman somehow less telegenic to the cable networks than the life of a white child or woman?

There are perhaps hundreds of African-American and Hispanic-American children and women missing in this country, and yet their disappearances warrant one day or token coverage from the cable networks. Everyone knows the truth, yet no one dares to admit it. The "R" word in this case is ratings more than racism. Missing rich whites equals viewers. Missing poor blacks equals little or no coverage.

There are few places on the planet more politically correct than cable news networks. Diversity is their first, middle and last names. They work overtime to fill the airwaves with their Skittles version of white, black, Hispanic and Asian journalists. But when it comes to what story to cover, diversity seems to take a back seat to profit and ratings.

As the cable networks embarrass themselves by trying to find Miss Smart's third cousin once removed to put on the air, they may want to try something different, needed and honorable. They may want to take their high-priced anchors to Baltimore, South Central Los Angeles, Harlem or Southeast Washington and interview the mothers of some of these missing minority women and children.

In doing so, they just might find a few of the missing minorities - along with their dignity.

Douglas MacKinnon is press secretary to former Sen. Bob Dole, a former White House and Pentagon official and a novelist.

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