That was WTSP-Channel 10 lead anchorman Reginald Roundtree, kicking off an engaging discussion about race, politics and the media inside the headquarters of Nielsen Media Research in Oldsmar on Thursday night. The discussion took place during the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists Griot Drum Awards banquet.
Joining Roundtree in the discussion were two other local news anchors of color: Josh Thomas of WFLA News Channel 8 and Erica Riggins of Bay News 9. Roundtree, who barely made it in time for the discussion in between anchoring his 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts, stood out with his candor, humor and intensity.
Posing the questions to the local anchors was Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans, who adroitly navigates the issue of race and the media in our times in his dazzling new book, Race-Baiter.
The election of the country's first black president in 2008 was a seminal moment in U.S. history. But nobody said it cured all our racial ills.
Just in case you thought otherwise, some of the stories told by our local anchormen and women could quickly disabuse you of that notion.
Some of that has to do with the fact that a certain percentage of conservatives think the mainstream media has always been in the bag for Barack Obama. And if a reporter happens to be black, the belief in such a bias apparently increases.
When asked if there were any incidents that she found particularly egregious this election cycle, Erica Riggins said she was taken aback when a new African-American reporter for the all-news channel was accused of showing solidarity for Michelle Obama because she was wearing a sleeveless dress while covering Mitt Romney in Lakeland.
The First Lady has an impressive set of biceps, no doubt. But a sleeveless dress was somehow secret code for an Obama endorsement? "I was so surprised," Riggins said, noting how Jenna Ryan, Paul Ryan's spouse, had also been seen sporting an outfit that bared her arms, with no one remarking on any apparent allusions to Mrs. Obama.
Newschannel 8's Josh Thomas said, "Our job is always to be objective. We try to be, but there are those who feel we aren't because we are people of color. That's a disservice to us. The bottom line is, you want to be fair, and you want be perceived as fair."Those who think explicit forms of racism are rare in public life were no doubt shocked when it was reported that on the first full day of the Republican National Convention in Tampa last summer, two attendees threw nuts at black CNN camerawoman Patricia Carroll, jeering, "This is how we feed the animals."
Reginald Roundtree said he was at the RNC and was "hoping and praying that that would have happened to me." The news brought him back to his parents' telling him that "there are elements in society, there are people out there who will not like you because of the color of your skin." But they also told him to treat people equally. Saying that as a youth he was lucky enough to see different parts of the world and different cultures, prejudice was something that was never acceptable.
"If that had happened to me at the RNC, that would have been a whole different story to tell you," he said.
Very calmly, Erica Riggins stunned the audience — or at least this reporter — by saying that before the election she received two letters so alarming that she brought them to Bay News 9's human resources department.
The authors of the letters assumed that as an African-American she was an automatic supporter of Barack Obama. One of the letters referred to "you and our porch monkey president." The other came with a photo of the author posing with a rifle. Moderator Eric Deggans added, "We've all had those letters."
Thomas and Roundtree both said that the Tampa Bay market had made big strides in putting people of color behind the anchor desks. Roundtree, who has been the lead anchor on Channel 10 since the late 1990s, said the changes have been "incredibly dramatic" in just the past couple of years. And he laid it out in clear terms.
"We're a revenue-generating business," he said of television news. When he finally made it to weeknights, ratings and higher advertising rates followed. "The money managers said something's going on over here."
He also had some advice for his Republican friends — start appealing to Latinos. "Hablo espanol," he said. "We have to speak the language of everybody."
Josh Thomas agreed that Tampa Bay has made changes, saying that when he came to Tampa from Atlanta in the early 1990s there were very few African-Americans on the air. "There have been great strides."
Later on the conversation turned to making sure that reporters in the field look for diverse sources when doing "man on the street" interviews. "It’s good to have a mix of people in your newsroom to get a very good perspective," Roundtree said.
The substantive discussion was sidetracked for almost 15 minutes when former Florida Governor Charlie Crist made a drive-by appearance. Indicating earlier this week that he will make an announcement about his political future sometime early next year, Crist appears to be well on his way to making another run for high office.
Although the news anchors had just been talking about how unfair it would be for anyone to assume that they supported the president simply because of his race, Crist spent a considerable amount of his time talking about how much he loved working to help elect the president over the past two months.
Of Obama, Crist said it was "kind of hard to believe he is that good, that decent. He's the real deal," later adding that "I've looked into the soul of this man. He is a man deserving all our prayers and all our support."
For any political reporter in Florida who covered the just concluded presidential campaign, Crist was a ubiquitous presence, making several appearances opening for Obama, Joe Biden, and even Bill Clinton. And now he's joined local Democrats in calling for electoral reforms in Tallahassee. Let's be honest. At this point the surprising news would if he didn't run for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Interestingly, another Democrat who might be competing for the nomination for governor in 2014, Alex Sink, purchased a table at the TBABJ event, but did not appear in person.
(Full disclosure: This reporter and CL colleague Arielle Stevenson were both presented with Griot Drum Awards during the ceremony.)