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Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media: From Mass to Class Communication. – book reviews

By Clint C. Wilson II and Felix Gutierrez, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1995. 290 pp. $45.00 cloth, $19.95 paper “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media” reads like a textbook: that is both its strength and its weakness.


It is a strength because it fills an important vacuum in social science and humanities curricula: there are few textbooks which deal systematically with the relationship between race, culture and media. The authors Clint C. Wilson II, an associate professor of journalism at Howard University, and Felix F. Gutierrez, vice president and executive director of the Freedom Forum Pacific Coast Center, are to be congratulated for their contribution to this important area of scholarship.


It is also, however, a weakness, since textbooks, by their very nature, are poorly equipped to tackle controversial social issues. And there are few issues as controversial in American society as race and. media.


While the authors do an excellent job of examining the damage that newspapers, movies and television do with respect to people of color, they fail to note that their own chosen medium (i.e., books) are equally guilty in this regard. It is true not only for political treatises such as “The Bell Curve;” it is also true of textbook authors who, generally, cannot lay claim to the excuses used by the more commercially dependent authors.

Rightly or wrongly, textbooks are held to a higher standard of truth and accuracy than are other types of books and most other media. Aside from the inevitable confrontation with Goddel’s Theorem, which posits that a system (or industry) may criticize others but is limited in its ability to criticize itself, “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media” provides important insights into the workings of American mass media.These insights are presented to the reader in the form of I I chapters divided neatly into four parts, including an extensive introduction and conclusion. A list of suggested readings, end-of-chapter notes and an index (always welcome) complete the well-organized 275-page volume.


Authors Wilson and Gutierrez combine their professional and Cultural talents to provide African-American and Latino readers with a product which neither insults their intelligence nor degrades their culture. This, in itself, is no minor achievement for a book devoted to the sensitive issue of race and media. Of course, the authors’ own ethnic backgrounds (African American and Latino, respectively) may be at least partly responsible for this achievement. But such a correlation between an author’s ethnic identity and a text’s cultural content cannot be considered an automatic Occurrence in today’s world of corporate publishing.


Flawed Calculus


In fact, it is with respect to this very issue that some readers might differ with the authors’ rather sanguine prescriptions for what ails the racist U.S. mass media. Wilson and Gutierrez suggest that increased ethnic participation in the mass media — for example, the hiring of more African-American and Latino reporters — will result in less jaundiced treatment of their communities.


Perhaps. But a little healthy criticism and historical reminders might be in order. While, for example, it would be nice to conclude that all Black newspaper columnists treated Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. with more respect than did 911 white columnists, such a conclusion would probably be false. Even today, 91most a generation after the deaths of these two African-American servants, some of the most widely syndicated Black columnists reveal an attitude bordering on contempt for them and their shared principles.


Thus the calculus that suggests that increased, non-white participation in American media will result in better treatment of communities seems, by all accounts, flawed. The problem (racism in the media) is still there — as authors Wilson and Gutierrez clearly document; but the solutions are yet elusive insofar as simple increases in numbers are concerned.

What is partly at issue here is the tendency for non-white media personnel to adopt (and be rewarded for) Eurocentric perspectives and associated values during the course of their professional education. The authors of “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media” are aware of the fact that: “… members of racial minority groups who have succeeded in penetrating predominately white institutions, professions and residential districts [should] recognize that it is not necessary to forget one language or culture in order to learn and be successful in the ways of another. In so doing, they demonstrate through their behavior that assimilation should not be the price for participation.”


Perhaps “assimilation” should not be the price but those who have “been there, done that” know that assimilation often is the price. Selling Racism The authors go on to address the more general issue of, “What, exactly, is the role of the media in American society?”


Like so many other important social questions, the answer is perhaps contingent upon how one interprets key terms. is the term “role” used in a descriptive sense meaning “what the media do;” or is it used in a prescriptive sense meaning “what the media should do?”

The authors of “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media,” tend to employ the former interpretation and suggest that the media’s role is to provide: (1) information; (2) entertainment; (3) transmission of cultural heritage; and (4) finance for the interest of corporate shareholders. The first three of these roles are pretty much standard textbook formula; the fourth, concerning finances, is not, and it is in this area where Professors Wilson and Gutierrez make their most significant contribution.


It is in this context, also, that the authors inform us that while the media are free from the government (i.e. from First Amendment challenges), they are not free from economics — and economics are inherently conservative. In one of the book’s best chapters, “Advertising: The Media’s Not-So-Silent Partner,” the reader is introduced to the complex and often ironic history of the use of people of color in media advertisements: from Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan.


We are reminded here also that just as “sex” (or perhaps more accurately, “sexism”) sells so, too, does “race” (or “racism”). These biologically based principles of social organization are used by the media to promote both politicians and products. Where would our professional sports teams from Washington DC, Kansas City and Atlanta be today without the mascot of the Native American? What better way to create rapport with hate-talk radio listeners than by using “humor” associated with mock-Asian accents, as was demonstrated recently by a New York senator? Why not invoke images of Frito Bandito and the Cisco Kid, if that is what it takes to gain elective office in California?


These examples are related to a disturbing tendency in American social discourse that the authors of “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media” have somewhat minimized in their heralding of the “Browning of America.” This involves the tendency in some powerful media quarters to equate the presence of multiculturalism with the absence of patriotism.

While. we may not have to remind Japanese Americans of this tendency — since they experienced mass media-sanctioned incarceration firsthand during World War II — the new (21st century) generation of Brown Americans needs to remember what the authors, themselves, in another context acknowledge: “The numbers a racial group represents in the population of a city, state, or nation does not directly translate to the amount of power that group exercises….”


The amen corner here would probably include Nelson Mandela, as well as a large number of Southern Black politicians.


Title Change


It is worth noting in this context that “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media” is a revised edition of a work first published in 1985 under the title “Minorities and the Media.” The authors explain the change of title:


“The term minorities is not only (mathematically) inaccurate in many instances when referring to cultural groups … but (it also) carries the connotation that these groups are less important components in the American social fabric.”


Cited as a limitation of their book is the fact that it deals only with “the four largest racial minority groups: Native Americans, Blacks, Latino (sic) and Asian Americans.” This is not, in this reviewer’s opinion, necessarily a weakness since the inclusion of other non-ethnic groups (e.g., women) has tended to muddle important social issues. Nevertheless, the issue of what (or who) constitutes a cultural minority is an important one and it is one which is generally finessed by the authors.

This is somewhat understandable because such issues are peripheral to their major focus (on the media). it is, however, unfortunate, since the concept of multiculturalism plays a major role in their discussion, and it is a concept which is destined to play a major role in future American political discourse. Worth noting in “Race, Multiculturalism, and the Media” is the change in subtitles from the first to second editions: from “Diversity and the End of Mass Communication” to “From Mass to Class Communication.”

This change of subtitles alerts the reader that the era of true mass communication has ended; there is no longer an established system which is dedicated exclusively to communication with a large amorphous audience. This system has been replaced by one which targets specific classes of people, defined by psycho-demographic variables such as residence, income, occupation and, of course, ethnicity.


The final chapter of the book picks up this subtitle theme and ends with the observation that:


“[At one time] mass communication media sought and built an audience based on common interests, rather than differences … today, with the emphasis on marketing and segmentation, the media play a very different role…. The force in society that once acted to bring people together, now works to reinforce the difference that keeps them apart.”


Authors Wilson and Gutierrez appear themselves to be somewhat ambivalent about the benefits of this occurrence. On one hand, they are undoubtedly pleased that previously neglected ethnic groups will finally have many of their media needs met, as the march continues away from “broadcasting” (or “mass communication”) and toward “narrowcasting” (or “class communication”). On the other hand, they wonder what, if anything, will replace the “glue” which has, for better or worse, kept American society more or less united.p

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