The sudden fall of talking head Roland Martin from CNN grace was really never all that sudden. Speculation had been mounting for months about the fate of the cable network’s Black Pack of folks like Martin, Soledad O’Brien and Donna Brazille. Jeff Zucker, balded rage, was raising the expectations game and looking to a hard-charging game change for the ratings-starved media Malcolm in the Middle.
Those in the know knew what was on the next. One beleaguered colleague lamented in a text about the lack of Black casting, soberly ending the tappy analysis with a curious question about “who else” could CNN get.
Like so many conversations centered on Black pop, politics and culture, the ongoing debate over Blacks in media can become annoyingly star struck. We’re still stuck in the mindset that there are too few of “us” gracing the plastic sets of cable news channels, similar to the now debunked myth that more Black men are in prison than in college. When a Hennessy brand like Martin is cracked and shattered, many quickly assume racial annihilation is at work with dissed personalities like the celebrity in question flirting with race card play for casual measure – hence, Martin’s tweeted reference to Zucker’s “peeps” and recent comments about “being silenced.”
Don’t believe the hype. Try telling that to the folks who are really silenced day-to-day, like the bullied nine-to-fives who stare institutional harassment in the face and can barely get a 30-minute lunch. Or, the impoverished activists who want to make an impact, but can never get a break from paycheck-to-paycheck and end up giving up for lack of food on the table. Black talking heads are not rare or endangered novelty species. Snoozing talk show bookers who just don’t bother digging the crates any deeper than they have to want you to believe that.
But, Black pundits are very much like hip hop: not dead. Self-appointed social critics and bloggers frequently write hip hop obituaries, as if the art form choked an ugly death at the passing of Billboard icons like Tupac and Biggie. Yet, that’s as far as it gets because the “experts” really don’t know jack shit about hip hop. It’s actually very much alive, global and well, easily found at any hole-in-the-wall Philly, Chi-town, New York or D.C. tabletop lounge or online stream near you. I mean, damn, all you have to do is stream a Fat Jon, Madlib, Nujabes or MF Doom Pandora channel. The search for quality performances beyond a commercial radio fix is made difficult by station-changing laziness.
It’s the same issue with African American pundits and political analysts. Martin is out; but, sources already had former Obama green jobs guy Van Jones picked out as a replacement. Is it about racism rearing its ass this time? Or, is it changing the label on bottle? Who knows? But, CNN still gives plenty of color on a normal day, from Brazile to strategist Jamal Simmons to pollster Cornell Belcher to political scientist Jason Johnson. Some days, it’s like a fleshed out suit-and-tie bite off BET’s 106 and Park, minus quirky, corny urban swag and smirk.
The problem, however, is not the lack of contributors. We miss the point. Neither is it regarding a lack of standard news anchors. At issue is who represents the face of a network. Who is the flagship? Martin’s ouster happened just as Jake Tapper came in as the network’s new shiny white knight. A channel over, MSNBC gave male Rachel Maddow stunt-double nerd Chris Hayes a prime daily slot, pushing out cranky union goon Ed Schultz. While folks were salting over the demise of one Black contributor, the networks kept serving up the same steady and stale diet of mostly White male hosts reserved for the big shows.
For the most part, snarky stripe-tie White dudes are still the Kings of Politics, save Rev. Al Sharpton’s lone attempt at crashing through the brick ceiling. But, even questions linger about whether or not Politics Nation’s geriatric picket line rant can keep up. Clearly, the Tappers, the Hayes, the Scarboroughs, Maddows, Matthews and others are the universal standard as long as the eye can see. It’s their game. Like that scene out of Morning Glory where an irritated producer played by Rachel McAdam’s crashes in on a bar party of old White guy broadcast icons who don’t seem as surprised or perturbed about it as she is. Mainstream media gets a kick out of making fun of diversity-deficient Republicans who ignore obvious demographic changes, yet the executives, producers, editors and bookers are just as blind about it as Mitt Romney was in 2012.
Black media could be the antidote. But, that’s just as stuck, just as far behind and just as not-really-all-that-much-of-an-alternative. Stung by perennially “low budgets” and a penchant for picking safe rather than being creative, Black cable won’t be headed anywhere anytime soon towards a viable spot where the community’s many talking heads could comfortably land. And, just like mainstream cable, Black networks can’t view politics without polarizing it into a moldy cookie dough of the usual “left versus right” format. Independents need not apply. In reality, we find the “alternatives” plagued by an inability to take risks and shake out of trendy info-tainment tricks and gimmicks with the same-o’, same-o’. There’s little chance that will change. No wonder, as the late Reginald Lewis opined, White guys get to have all the real fun.
CHARLES D. ELLISON is a political strategist, Washington Correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, UPTOWN Politics Contributor and regular contributor on SiriusXM’s POTUS Channel 124. He can be reached via Twitter @charlesdellison.