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16. Media Distorts Debate on Affirmative Action

Sources: NEWS WATCH, Summer 1999 Title: “The Color Game: How Media Plays the Race Card,” Author: Robert Entman; NEWS WATCH, Summer 1999 Title: “It is the Nuances, Stupid,” Author: Linda Jue

Faculty Evaluator: Elizabeth Martinez, Ph.D.
Student Evaluator: Marni Goodman

The U.S. media oversimplified the debate on affirmative action and deliberately misled the American public. Media coverage at the national level presented the controversy as a conflict primarily between Blacks and Whites. Minimizing the place of Latinos and Asian Americans in the affirmative action debate misrepresents the true complexities involved in evaluating progress toward equality.

In 1995, headlines, visuals, highlighted quotes, and story-line emphasis demonstrated unavoidable conflict of interest between Whites and Blacks. The media portrayed African Americans purportedly gaining at the direct expense of Whites. A Newsweek cover shows a Black fist and a White fist, knuckle to knuckle, under the headline “Race and Rage.” A CBS Evening News story calls affirmative action “deeply divisive” and also distinguishes two camps on the issue: “Jesse Jackson and African Americans” on the one hand, and “the rest of the country” on the other.

In 11 substantive stories about affirmative action that appeared on CBS Evening News during 1997 and 1998, six framed the story heavily or exclusively in Black-White terms. Three stories linked Blacks and Latinos against Whites, though Black examples and sources predominated. Just one story emphasized Latinos versus Whites and in one the framing was ambiguous.

Surveys in the mid-1990s indicated widespread support for the principle of affirmative action especially when quotas were excluded. A Los Angeles Times poll resulted in a 71 percent favorable sting for affirmative action in 1995, and polls by ABC, NBC, and CNN all found similar results.

Even after these polls, there remained a presumption in media that affirmative action was taking away jobs and opportunities from the dominant coup to benefit a particular minority group. The continued use of the misleading negative buzzword “preferences” in conjunction with affirmative action intensified the emotional context of the issue. The news reinforced racial antagonism, while perpetuating the idea that the White majority are fed up with affirmative action. This false perception may have discouraged White politicians who night otherwise have defended the policy.

Since the media has made affirmative action an issue concerning only Blacks and Whites, Latinos and Asians have been left in peripheral positions while women and Native Americans barely register on the radar screen. Journalists say that this depiction of affirmative action distorts the real picture of the program’s policies and goals, one where White women have benefited the most. Racial nuances often put Latinos on opposing sides of the affirmative action debate. If you’re a dark Hispanic, you’ll fall on the Black side. If you’re a light Hispanic, you’re allowed to choose the other side. Latinos tend to be over-identified with Blacks, and Asian Americans have become honorary Whites.

Media coverage portrayed Asian Americans as monolithically opposed to affirmative action. “We’re used as political shills,” says Helen Zia. “The claims about us that are made by the partisans in the debate are never challenged by reporters, even when they are presented with opposing evidence.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR ROBERT ENTMAN: The most important recent development in the affirmative action story is probably the emergence of geography-based alternatives to racially-targeted affirmative action in college admissions in California, Texas, and Florida. Most recently, Florida Governor Jeb Bush has pushed a program guaranteeing college admission to all high school graduates who finish in the top 20 percent of their high school classes. The effect is to impose a quota on students from the most affluent, competitive, largely suburban school districts.

These ideas have generated a very positive editorial reaction from such influential newspapers as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Coverage in those outlets and elsewhere continues largely to assume that public opinion has rejected race-conscious affirmative action, and to use preferences interchangeably with affirmative action still without mentioning the many racially skewed preferences that disproportionately benefit White Americans. The media generally sympathize with the goal of maintaining minority enrollment in colleges. This tendency helps explain the largely favorable response to the Bush plan. And data from Texas do suggest that percentages of minority enrollment has reached about the same level under its geographic plan as under its former affirmative action policy.

Yet whatever individual injustices there were under racially conscious affirmative action still occur under a geographic plan, only they are distributed differently. A hard working, poor minority student who happens to go to a more academically competitive high school and finishes in the 78th percentile of his or her class may be denied admission in favor of a wealthy, lazy White student who coasted to an 81st percentile finish at an undemanding school. Thus, many who decry race-based affirmative action programs for using quotas and preferences are now lauding geographically based programs that use those very mechanisms. And the new policies impose quotas far more rigidly than even the most “preferential” race-based affirmative action programs, but with far less moral justification (since society has never discriminated against people purely on the basis of their high school of origin).

Beyond ignoring this puzzle, most stories continue implicitly assuming not only that policies explicitly designed to redress racial discrimination are unpopular, but that nothing in current day America, no contemporary pattern of discrimination against minorities or privileges for Whites, might justify racial affirmative action. Consider in this light another recent controversy about race: The one over taxicab drivers’ refusal to pick up Black men.

This problem illustrates the blind spot in media coverage, and in the dominant culture more generally. The continued potency of race as a signal of threat, and thus a basis of discrimination, is precisely what should allow us at least to discuss the legitimacy of racially-conscious affirmative action. But the most influential media rarely participate in that discussion.

All this said, if taking geography into account helps to remedy centuries of discrimination, advocates of race-based affirmative action should maintain an open mind. At the same time, journalists and Americans of good will should not forget that discrimination persists, from the taxicabs on the street to the boardrooms on the top floors, that a meritocracy based purely on objective indicators has never been practiced, and that public opinion is not universally hostile to this message.


William G. Bowen and Derek Curtis Bok, The Shape of the River. Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (Princeton University Press, 1999); Christopher Edley, Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and American Values (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998); Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki, The Black Image in the White Mind. Media and Race in America (University of Chicago Press, 2000); Oscar Gandy, Communication and Race: A Structural Perspective (Edward Arnold, 1998); Lani Guinier, Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice (Simon and Schuster,1998); Nicolas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)

Web sites: The Black Image in the White Mind and related material:; President Clinton’s initiative on Race:; Fairness and Accuracy in Media report on affirmative action coverage:; Civil Rights Forum:; University of Iowa Site on Gender, Race, and Media: GenderMedia/; Color-Lines Magazine: Race, Culture, Action:

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