In wake of George Floyd death, TV turns to conversations about race | COMMENTARY

Clayton "Mr. C" Guyton, left, and Alex Long, two of the Baltimore residents featured in Marilyn Ness' documentary "Charm City." The "Independent Lens" production is being offered to PBS viewers as part of the broadcaster's effort to address race and racism this summer through its library of broadcast and streamed content. Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun fe-marilyn-ness Lam DSC_2395
Clayton "Mr. C" Guyton, left, and Alex Long, two of the Baltimore residents featured in Marilyn Ness' documentary "Charm City." The "Independent Lens" production is being offered to PBS viewers as part of the broadcaster's effort to address race and racism this summer through its library of broadcast and streamed content. Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun fe-marilyn-ness Lam DSC_2395 (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

NBC’s Lester Holt and “Sesame Street’s” Big Bird. CNN’s Van Jones and PBS’ Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Television is helping in a major way to drive a national conversation about race in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police on May 25.

With its status as still the most important storyteller in American life and its ability to create mass shared events like Super Bowls, the medium’s intense focus on race matters. From providing a mainstream space for the kind of conversation that is needed before any kind of reconciliation can begin, to educating millions about the history of race relations in America, TV can help us operate from a shared set of facts about the past and a more enlightened, less racist vision for the future. With a president spreading misinformation, rumors and lies about demonstrations taking place across the country, facts and context are more important than ever if we are to have any hope of functioning as a democracy again.


TV’s conversation on race took hold on our screens this week, and it promises to be even richer in coming days and weeks as PBS offers viewers a chance to see replays of some of its most incisive programs on race. They range from Gates’ deeply-informed history of the black experience in "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” to such recent documentaries as “Charm City” on the challenges some African Americans in Baltimore face today. And thanks to digital platforms, if you miss any of the programs mentioned here, you can go back and watch them online.

On Thursday night, NBC offered a prime-time special, “America in Crisis,” anchored by Holt in Minneapolis. This is the network using the tried and true TV news practices of sending a lead anchor to the location of a major story and doing a prime-time special to put an even stronger spotlight on the matter.


Friday, it’s PBS with its prime-time production, “Race Matters: America in Crisis, a PBS NewsHour Special.” Anchored by Judy Woodruff, the hour includes reporting and analyses from correspondents Yamiche Alcindor and Amna Nawaz as well as special correspondent Hunter-Gault.

That show is followed at 10 p.m. by a rebroadcast of “Frontline’s” “Policing the Police” an unflinching examination of the Newark Police Department by New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb. As I wrote in 2016 when I previewed the premiere, “Newark, N.J., is the focus of Frontline’s ‘Policing the Police.’ But it could just as easily be about Baltimore or any other city with a high crime rate and troubled police-community relations.”

Saturday at 10 a.m., CNN offers “Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism ― A CNN/Sesame Street Town Hall for Kids and Families” hosted by Jones and CNN anchor Erica Hill. Culturally, this is every bit as important as the prime-time news specials.

Lyrics from the song, “You’ve got to Be Taught," from the 1949 play “South Pacific,” say: “You’ve got to be taught / To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year / It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear / You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

One of the reasons I consider “Sesame Street” the most important show in the history of TV is that from the time of its debut is 1969, it has taught the opposite of hate to generations of preschool children. “Sesame Street” has truly changed hearts and minds by teaching multiculturalism in a land where racism ruled.

I believe Barack Obama’s election would not have been possible without decades of “Sesame Street” reaching preschoolers with its multicultural messages. And it is still on the case preaching its enlightened gospel at this troubled moment in American life to audiences on CNN, CNN International and CNN en Espanol. (If you missed it Saturday morning, you can still see it at CNN.com.)

But the programming that excites me the most is that of PBS, which is opening its archives to share a wealth of outstanding productions focused on race.

Monday night at 8, PBS is offering a replay of Anna Deavere Smith in “Twilight: Los Angeles.” This one-woman play goes inside the life of Los Angeles during and after the riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict in 1992.

Check your local PBS station for time and date, because not all are carrying the programming on the same night or at the same time. But you can stream all of the race and racism-related programming on demand at PBS.org. And if you have not seen this acclaimed production, I urge you to go to the PBS site and do so.

Typical of that balkanized scheduling, Maryland Public Television (MPT) is not carrying “Twilight: Los Angeles” on Monday, but it is carrying another of the productions being offered by PBS in its race and racism package: “Charm City," a documentary focusing on some of the citizens who are trying to save Baltimore from its culture of crime and corruption.

As I wrote in my preview of the film last year, “Charm City is not only a "moving work of nonfiction filmmaking, it is also one of those socially conscious and totally righteous documentaries with the power to help spur reform.”

This is a double-don’t-miss recommendation for a hard and honest look at life as it is actually lived on the ground for some African American residents in Baltimore.


Other productions to look for at pbs.org or on your local PBS station this summer: “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” and “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” both from Gates, and “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” from Stanley Nelson.

In addition to “Charm City,” other notable documentaries from the “Independent Lens” series include “Always in Season,” which takes a deep look at the history of lynchings, and “I Am Not Your Negro,” an Oscar-nominated exploration of race based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin.

I am aware of the argument that says TV town halls and people talking about race on TV change nothing. Critics compare the media conversation to that which follows school shootings. After a horrific event, there are town halls, documentaries, special reports and panels full of experts talking, talking, talking. But nothing changes. Guns keep getting sold, and children keep getting killed in their schools.

My answer: Change doesn’t happen overnight. But conversation is a crucial stage in getting there.

Last week, CNN “New Day Weekend" anchor Victor Blackwell, who grew up in Baltimore, responded on-air to an interview with an official who was calling for “healing” in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“I listened to the public safety commissioner in Minnesota talking about getting to healing,” Blackwell told viewers. “And I was thinking about healing, having covered Ferguson and being in Baltimore. People are quick to put a bandage on. But you don’t just put a bandage on a dirty wound. ... Before you put a bandage on, you need an antiseptic to clean it out ... We have to decide what cleans it out. What is the antiseptic? ... And for that we need a broader conversation, and it’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable ... But you don’t just go to healing."


Talk is part of that process, a most important part. Television is doing its job in the wake of Floyd’s death in providing a platform for that.

Now, it’s up us to all of us do the listening, as hard as it might be to hear some of the things that are being said about privilege on a personal level and our nation’s shared history of racism.

David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.


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