IU alumnus: Appeals to prejudice undermine trust in journalism

Bill O’Reilly once called Eric Deggans “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country” — apparently after Deggans, the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, accused the Fox News personality of using racially coded language in his TV commentaries.

But Deggans, an IU School of Journalism alumnus, isn’t one to back down from a challenge. He turned being insulted by O’Reilly into a badge of honor. He even used it in the title of his recent book.


Eric Deggans

Eric Deggans

“Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” takes a close look at how contemporary media use coded words and play on fears and stereotypes to attract followers and secure loyalty from segments of an increasingly divided audience.

“You need to figure out who’s making money and who’s losing money,” he told a School of Journalism audience last week. “That explains 95 percent of what we see in the media.”

Deggans was back at IU to meet with students, give a campus talk and lecture at Friday’s TEDx Bloomington conference. A 1990 IU Bloomington graduate, he has worked for the Tampa Bay Times since 1995 as a pop music critic, editorial writer and media columnist.

He said honest talk about race is important, even if it sometimes makes people uncomfortable. Civility and respect are essential, he said. But that doesn’t mean people won’t sometimes make mistakes, give in to stereotypes and let their biases show.

“America is trying to do something that is messy and complicated but also very important,” he said. “We’re trying to build a country where diversity is our strength.”

Once upon a time, Deggans said, we lived in a world of monolithic media that attracted giant audiences. Walter Cronkite’s nightly newscasts, the final episode of “M*A*S*H” and “The Cosby Show” were experiences shared by the mass of Americans. Offending viewers was bad for business. But that changed with the rise of cable TV and the consequent slicing and dicing of media audiences.

The new media environment “monetizes niches,” so programs and personalities appeal to select groups, often by heaping scorn on outsiders. The result is a portrayal of the world that is skewed by opinion and lacking the fundamental journalistic value of accuracy. And if audiences figure out they can’t trust a media outlet to present the unvarnished truth, it erodes trust in all journalism.

Deggans decried what he called “dog whistle politics,” the use of coded phrases designed to appeal to prejudice – such as the Willie Horton attack ad in the 1988 presidential campaign and recent references to Barack Obama as the “food stamp president.”

He criticized Fox News for its conservative bias, but he also objected to MSNBC, where Al Sharpton can go from anchoring a political talk program to leading a rally demanding criminal charges against George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

“People look at that and say, ‘He’s got an agenda, so everybody must have an agenda,” Deggans said.


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