What do you do when Bill O’Reilly calls you a name?
Here’s one option: Turn the epithet into a book title.
That’s exactly what Tampa Bay Times media critic has done with the title of his insightful, entertaining and at times nervy new book, Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.
When the Fox News star slammed Deggans as “one of the biggest race-baiters in the country” in 2008, it wasn’t the first time O’Reilly had fired back at him. But Deggans says he now wants to define on his terms what he does for a living.
“In a weird way, I’m saying that if his definition of a race-baiter is what I’m doing, then let me sort of tell you what that means, and why I think more people should be doing it.”
What he’s doing, he says, is trying to defuse the stereotypes, gender biases and code words that people say they oppose, at the same time they’re pushing those buttons to galvanize their audience share.
“The best way to defuse that is to talk about that. And sometimes when you talk about it, the people who are benefiting from that turn around and say, ‘You are the race-baiter’ … When the white person is calling you a race-baiter, you know you’ve really hit on something.”
What he’s trying to do with Race-Baiter is one of the most fundamental things a thoughtful media critic can do — bring a fresh perspective to the media the rest of us consume, and perhaps raise our consciousness in the process.
And even though Deggans refers to himself self-deprecatingly as just a “regional critic,” he’s gaining a national profile for just this kind of outside-the-box — or beyond-the-screen — thinking.
Eric Deggans has been writing about pop culture in one form or another for over 20 years. After graduating from Indiana University (he grew up in Gary, the hometown of Michael Jackson), he had aspirations of being a professional musician, playing drums with a funk group called the Voyage Band that was signed to Motown Records. But those musical dreams crashed when the album was never released (though he still sings, plays bass guitar and drums), so he put in a call to the editors at the (now defunct) Pittsburgh Press about getting a job in journalism. After that paper was sold, he worked for six months at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and then moved on to the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, where he became the pop music critic.
His ascendancy continued when he took over for Tony Greene in 1995 as pop music critic for the Times, and a little more than a year later he moved to the TV beat. In 2004 he joined the editorial page, but after a year he returned to being the full-on television and media critic and began The Feed, his daily Times blog on all things media. From that vantage point, and on national platforms like CNN’s Reliable Sources, he’s been able to track the changes in the media landscape.
As everyone knows, those changes have been dramatic over the past few decades, thanks to cable and the Internet. For conservatives, that’s a good thing, beginning with the explosion of talk radio in the 1980s and ’90s (led by the King, Rush Limbaugh). Then came the Mothership, Fox News, in 1996. The aughts brought forth the blogosphere, where both liberals and conservatives have carved out spheres of influence. And that’s where people like the late Andrew Breitbart and his disciples have sought to cut liberals and liberal ideals down to size.
Deggans says the expansion of media options has led to what he dubs the “tyranny of the broad niche,” the most salient example being Fox News, whose pundits make little effort to stretch beyond mainstream cultural norms.
“Instead,” he writes in Race-Baiter, “white culture is presented as the benchmark of normalcy and a yardstick for appropriate behavior, without even acknowledging that white people have a separate cultural identity of their own.”
But Deggans doesn’t call O’Reilly or Andrew Breitbart a racist.
“Everyone’s trying to get an audience in media, everyone’s trying to expand. The question is, ‘How are you doing that?’… I’m not trying to say that people are bad people. I’m trying to say they’re talking about things in bad ways.”
But he will say of the late Andrew Breitbart that “it seems to me he was willing to use prejudice messages to win political fights and to triumph in media. And that to me is enough to say, that’s not good. That’s not cool.”
Breitbart’s deceptive video snippet of Shirley Sherrod, which unjustly led to her being ousted from her job two years ago at the Department of Agriculture, is a case in point. The conservative blogger had selectively edited a speech by the African-American woman to make her sound racist. A later broadcast of the entire video showed in fact just the opposite. Ultimately the White House apologized, but Breitbart never did (Sherrod’s defamation lawsuit against Breitbart continues, seven months after his death by a heart attack at the age of 43.)
In March, Breitbart.com tried to stir the pot again by releasing a video of President Obama when he was a Harvard Law student, in which he praises one of his professors, Derrick Bell, who created the legal philosophy called critical race theory. To Deggans, the response was reminiscent of the flap over black liberation theology that pseudo-academics (i.e. talk-show hosts) began to raise in 2008 when videotapes of Obama’s controversial former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright seemed to freak out portions of white America. In both cases, these were theories that had evolved in academia during the Civil Rights era and were not being explained to the country in an intelligent fashion.
Breitbart-esque gambits don’t always work. For example, on the eve of the first presidential debate earlier this month, conservative activists around the country were abuzz about an allegedly incendiary video being touted on the Drudge Report as “the other” Barack Obama speech on race. The 2007 speech showed Obama speaking in Hampton, Virginia, where he praised Wright and suggested that the federal government discriminated against the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He did drop his g’s and r’s a bit more than usual, too.
In Gulfport before a candidates forum that evening, excited Republican campaign aides stared down at their smartphones and spoke in hushed tones about how this revelation could possibly bring down the president. But the video that ultimately aired on Sean Hannity’s Fox News Channel program did nothing of the sort, causing barely a blip in the mainstream media despite the hyped-up commentary of Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson.
But such tactics continue to be used, Deggans points out, and it’s important to shed light on them.
“It may sound a little harsh sometimes when you talk about how this process works, but it feels to me definitely like a process. Politicians have done this for decades and now it’s something that some media outlets are doing, and it’s all divide and conquer. At some point people have to be aware about these techniques so we aren’t so vulnerable.”
Some politicians have used certain code words, or “dog whistles,” for decades. Fox News commentator Juan Williams felt that Newt Gingrich was employing such rhetoric in his run for the GOP nomination for president earlier this year when he called Obama the “food stamp president,” so Williams, who is black, asked Gingrich about it at a South Carolina debate. Gingrich avoided answering the question and instead pounced on the media, winning him a standing ovation.
Williams tells Deggans in Race-Baiter that he felt the force of rage from the majority white audience when he confronted the former House Speaker.
“I was struck by how, given the tumultuous response, he didn’t come close to answering my question,” Williams said. “And the thing that was a puzzle to me was how he used my name… I didn’t pick it up at first. But I could hear the hissing, the way he strung it out. I guess he knew what he was doing. He wanted to call me ‘boy,’ making me into the ‘other.’ I’m so naïve, I didn’t get it.”
Deggans doesn’t confine himself to politicians and pundits in the book. He also supplies some academic heft, with sources like professors Tali Mendelberg of Princeton and Linda Tropp of UMass, and Rinku Sen, the publisher of Colorlines.com, who provide critical context about portrayals of ethnic minorities in the media. The book also takes a look at sexism and poverty, as well as racist depictions of Asians (though Muslim and Latino-bashing didn’t make the final cut).
Race-Baiter arrives a week before the general election, which was always the plan carved out by Deggans’ publisher, Palgrave Macmillan. Deggans, who says the book is the culmination of years of thinking on the subject, began writing it last December and finished in mid-April.
Its publication on Oct. 30 comes at a moment when his career has reached new heights. Besides being called upon every few weeks to pontificate on CNN, he’s also become a regular contributor to NPR, where he has weighed in on a variety of topics, including entertainment television, the implications of the Trayvon Martin case, cable news. He defines himself as a “culture critic” — with “culture” referring to everything from television to the Internet to comic books.
“What I really love about Eric is he brings so much to the network,” says NPR Senior Editor Sara Sarason, who has been working with Deggans for the past year and a half. “He is not a one-trick pony.”
Sarason says she appreciates his insights on race and culture, but says that he’ll surprise her on occasion by bringing up something new.
“He’s really, really awesome at talking about what makes things funny.”
Locally, he’s won the respect of colleagues both inside and out of the Tampa Bay Times newsroom. PolitiFact Florida editor Angie Holan calls Deggans “wicked smart and a great writer, and when you put those two things together, you get really interesting, fresh reports on whatever it is he’s decided he wants to write about that day. He’s unconventional in the best sense of the word.”
Deggans is also a regular on WEDU’s Florida This Week. Host Rob Lorei says one of the many things he appreciates about him is his non-ideological approach to issues. “I can never predict where Eric will come down on an issue. He takes the long view, and frequently takes a view contrarian to the mainstream media,” Lorei says.
“How do I push the conversation forward that’s insightful and maybe will lead to something better?” Deggans asks.
That, he says, is what his work is all about.
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