Jul
01
1992

Media Myth Making

'Politically Correct'

Since 1990, some news outlets have seemed less concerned about racism than about the allegedly overzealous activists who challenge inequality--denounced as "politically correct" in countless media stories. A computer search of the Los Angeles Times for the phrase "politically correct" or "political correctness" during the six months before the Rodney King case verdict found that the paper published 252 articles containing those terms—more than one a day.

The compulsion to disparage activists may have helped obscure the fact that bigotry is pervasive in our society. With few exceptions (e.g., Washington Post, 1/9/91), there was little media coverage of a revealing survey of racial attitudes conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The 1990 study found that 53 percent of non-black respondents said that African Americans were less intelligent than whites; 51 percent said they were less patriotic; 56 percent said they were more violence-prone; 62 percent said they were lazier; 78 percent said they were more likely to "prefer to live off welfare" and less likely to "prefer to be self-supporting."

A majority of respondents expressed similar views about Latinos, and significant numbers attributed the same characteristics to Asian Americans. Since the media are the main source of information about minorities for most whites, the existence of such widespread prejudices should be humbling to journalists.

'Past Discrimination'

One of the most persistent cliches of reporting on race is that the purpose of affirmative action is to correct "past discrimination." The usually unstated premise is that businesses today hire employees in a color-blind fashion, but in order to compensate for bias in the past, they must commit "reverse discrimination" and slant things towards racial minorities. An alternative justification for affirmative action, that it is designed to correct for current biases in hiring decisions that tend to favor whites, is usually excluded from the media debate.

Yet the evidence for such present discrimination is overwhelming. When the Urban League sent carefully matched pairs of college graduates--one black, one white--to apply for the same jobs, the group found that the white candidate was hired 55 percent more often.

Not only did this finding not become a major news issue, but some media outlets went out of their way to distort or discount the findings. The New Republic (6/10/91) found "encouraging news" in the study, because it distorted the numbers to make it appear that "a relatively low level of bias" was found. The New York Times (5/17/91) buried its report of the Urban League study at the bottom of a story dealing with "preferential treatment for minorities."

It isn't hard to do powerful stories about present-day racial discrimination. Last September (9/26/91), ABC's Primetime Live sent two evenly matched, well-dressed college graduates-a black and a white-to apply for jobs from the same employers, ask for apartments from the same landlords, try to buy used cars from the same dealers. Again and again, ABC's hidden camera revealed the black man being lied to or turned away.

'Racial Divide Overblown

The New Republic never fails to find the bright side of racial discrimination. Queens College professor Andrew Hacker wrote a piece for the magazine, adapted from his new book, debunking several myths about race in the U.S.--that "the black family is disintegrating, while the white family remains intact"; that "blacks are far more likely to commit crimes than whites"; that "whites have been hurt by affirmative action," etc.

The New Republic called Hacker to tell him the title for the piece, which would appear on the cover of its March 23 issue: "The Myth of Racial Division." Hacker pointed out that he certainly wasn't trying to say that there was no racial division in the U.S.; since the article was derived from his book, Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, that would be somewhat inconsistent. As the cover had already been laid out, Hacker agreed to a slightly altered title: "The Myths of Racial Division."

Still, the magazine did its best to convey the impression that there was no U.S. racial gap. The table-of-contents blurb reads: "Fears of a racially riven America are overblown. The statistics on crime, the family, affirmative action, and SAT scores show the races actually converging." Hacker admits that this isn't what his article says: "That certainly isn't me talking at all," he told Extra!. But it is the voice of the New Republic on race:

What--me worry?