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Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 1999 /28 Kislev, 5760

Cal Thomas

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Television's outsiders looking in --
Last week in Los Angeles, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume invited network television executives to a discussion. He wanted to know why there are not more minorities employed throughout the industry. His point was that adding minorities as writers, as well as producers and actors, can change the image the public gets, which benefits not only minorities but the majority as well. Because of an apparent misunderstanding over scheduling, representatives from three of the four networks walked out. Only CBS President Leslie Moonves, who flew in from Rome for the meeting, appeared before the group.

A couple of things need to be said about this meeting. First, it probably would not have happened if it had been called by conservatives. For years they have expressed concerns about the pitiful lack of morally sound programming. They would have been rebuffed with appeals to the First Amendment and "artistic integrity.'' When they complain they are told, "If you don't like what's on TV, turn it off, but stop trying to be a censor.''

While diversity ought to be about more than just skin color (there is no difference between a member of a minority group and a member of the majority if both have the same world view), Mfume has a point. One might wish he would also take on Black Entertainment Television, with its music-video emphasis on sex and the frequent demeaning of women, as well as some radio stations that play music disrespectful of black women and the black family. But Mfume is trying to communicate something to network brass that conservatives have often said: that television is a powerful force for good or evil, and while entertainment is about ratings and making money, good and honest television and achieving ratings and profits are not mutually exclusive. Proof of that is in such network successes as "Cosby'' and "Touched by an Angel,''whose Christmas episode, scheduled for Dec. 12, has a mostly black cast and is as credible and engaging as anything you've seen on television.

The NAACP is right to be concerned about the absence and stereotyping of minorities, especially blacks. Much of the news depicts black people involved in crime, or on welfare, or in prison. This tends to perpetuate stereotypes that are unfair and inaccurate. Legitimate news stories could be done on blacks who are successful, moral, honest, churchgoing, married, have children and are not selling or using drugs, or breaking and entering, or doing time. That would help whites think better of blacks, and more blacks would think better of themselves if they saw a fairer balance of images represented.

It's the same with entertainment. While progress has been made on some networks and with some shows, much more needs to be done. Whites have not had, and should not be expected to have had, a black experience. Writing about minorities is one thing. Being one is something else.

One also wishes the networks would act upon the complaints from a constituency that transcends race. It is people from many backgrounds who are tired of blatant sexual promiscuity, bad language, religious stereotyping and violence portrayed on television. Their departure as viewers of network television is the main reason ratings and market share are falling. If network executives lack the black experience, they lack the moral and conservative experience even more profoundly. How many politically conservative and seriously religious network executives, anchors or producers can you name? Such people are more represented in the country than they are in the media culture. The gatekeepers have kept them mostly locked out.

Mfume has again reminded networks that they have a responsibility to the public as well as to profits. But ideology, or world view, ought to be as much a part of the quest for diversity as race and ethnicity. Otherwise, you're just putting a different face on an all-too-familiar problem.

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