SAN DIEGO — I hear it from Latinos all the time: One of the things they find galling about the mainstream media is when they turn on the television and four pundits are sitting at a table discussing Latinos or some issue that impacts Latinos—and there isn’t a single Latino present.
The optics are terrible. Can you imagine the trouble that a network would get into for having four males talk about abortion or equal pay without a woman at the table? How about having four white people talk about African-Americans without a single African-American in the conversation?
With Latinos, this is the new normal. While the United States is multicultural, the world of commentary is still largely black and white. Even though Latinos are now the largest minority in America and represent 16 percent of the U.S. population, on most of the big five TV networks—ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CNN—it’s still rare to find them serving as commentators, analysts or pundits.
In the September edition of its publication “Extra!,” the liberal-leaning media-watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting revealed the findings of a survey of the lack of Latino voices in the media.
On television, it found that “even when the coverage directly involves and impacts Latinos, their voices are scarce. In a year’s worth of cable coverage of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who was recently sued by the Justice Department for unlawful discrimination against Latinos—those actually targeted by his policies were included in the conversation only two out of 21 times.”
And they’re not the only ones lagging behind reality. Folks in my profession—print journalism and opinion writing—also need to do a lot better in terms of achieving diversity beyond black and white. According to the survey, in a two-month period, Latinos accounted for less than half of 1 percent of op-ed bylines in major newspapers—two articles in The New York Times, one in The Wall Street Journal, and none in The Washington Post.
Take it from a Latino who has been writing op-eds and columns for more than 20 years, this isn’t just bad for Latinos. It’s also horrible for the media.
Some will contend that Latinos can always find their voice on Univision, the nation’s largest Spanish-language network. But, according to studies of the Latino population, only about 20 percent are Spanish dominant; eight out of 10 speak English, or some combination of English and Spanish. So it’s English-language media that has to change with the times.
To add insult to injury, some white commentators who try to ad-lib and say something intelligent about a population of people they don’t understand will often wind up with both feet in their mouth.
Take MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who during the Democratic National Convention marveled at the likes of Julian Castro after the San Antonio mayor gave the keynote address. In a rambling monologue that was painful to watch, Matthews talked about how there is this group of people out there who don’t want to be victims or go on welfare, who are living the American Dream and just want to work hard and contribute, and how they have “a very similar immigrant experience” as Americans whose ancestors came from Europe.
Gee, Chris. Thanks, I guess. That was nice—condescending but nice. Just one thing. Not all of the 50 million Latinos in the United States are living the “immigrant experience.” Many of us, including many of the Tejanos who helped elect Castro in San Antonio, are living the “our-ancestors-have-been-here-longer-than-yours experience.”
Worse, since the media help shape perceptions, this blind-spot might be harming readers and viewers. A new poll by Latino Decisions and the National Hispanic Media Coalition found that 30 percent of non-Latinos think that a majority of Latinos are undocumented. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, only about 18 percent of Latinos in the U.S. are undocumented.
We’re living through something of a renaissance in Latino politics. The conventions of both political parties put Latino politicos front and center, and sprinkled a little Spanish into their speeches. It’s a new day. And it’s the responsibility of the people in my business to explain to the country what’s happening and what it means for them and their children.
It would be really great if, before we open our mouths, we could figure out the answer for ourselves. There are plenty of qualified Latino journalists out there who can help with that. What are news organizations waiting for? Hire them.