Where Are the Black Male Anchors?
Are white managers really afraid to hire black men for their news shows?
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
Television news managers generally agree they need to make a greater effort to hire and promote members of minority groups. In recent years, they have focused attention on recruiting and training them for management and supervisory jobs, such as producers.
Of equal importance to some is having more black males anchor local newscasts. Minority journalists, particularly African Americans, are more visible on local stations than ever. Yet some argue that the number of black male anchors still is dismally low, and they believe they know why.
"Black male anchors are in danger of being extinct," says Pluria Marshall of the National Black Media Coalition. "And a big reason is too many white men in control are intimidated by the black male. They think [he] is more difficult to control than a white male or female of any color."
This hypothesis is known as the "Mandingo factor," a label borrowed from the title of a once-popular historical novel and a trashy 1975 movie about plantation slavery in the 1840s. The story focuses on the sexual prowess of a muscular slave and his affair with his owner's wife. The term is now considered a racial slur. In a cover story a year ago, the Village Voice cited the Mandingo factor as a prime reason for the scarcity of black male anchors at New York stations.
Some news directors scoff at this explanation.
"That Village Voice story was full of crap," says John Corporon, news director at New York's feisty independent WPIX for the past 20 years. "It was poorly researched and had very little basis in fact. But there's no question that there's a shortage of minorities..in television news, and more needs to be done to bring them into the pipeline."
"I don't necessarily agree with the Mandingo theory," says David Roberts of Baltimore's WBAL, one of the few black news directors in local television. "But male black anchors do have a serious problem. Like African Americans in general, they are still not given access to the opportunities in this industry, even though there is increased sensitivity on the issue."
Because of limited opportunities, many black males become discouraged and leave television news for professions with a better chance of advancement and a bigger paycheck, says Dwight Ellis, vice president of human resource development for the National Association of Broadcasters. That, in turn, diminishes the talent pool.
Research confirms a dearth of black males in the anchor pool. University of Missouri professor Vernon Stone, perhaps the only person who has studied this issue thoroughly over the past two decades, says, "The number of black males anchoring TV news is roughly proportionate to their representation in the TV news workforce, and that's about 5 percent."
Stone and other industry professionals don't deny that racism may exist. But they say the lack of black male anchors could have more to do with the characteristics of the business.
"Generally, anchors reflect the marketplace, and once an anchor establishes him or herself in a market, they just don't move that much, black or white," says Gary Wordlaw, another black news director who was at WMAR in Baltimore before joining Washington's WJLA two years ago. Wordlaw cites Baltimore, with its large African American population, as an example. All three network-affiliated stations there have black males anchoring prime time newscasts.
Don Fitzpatrick, who runs DFA, the largest recruiting operation in television news, says when a station hires an anchor it's usually a matter of who is available and how much that station is willing to pay.
"It's not racism, though I won't say that doesn't exist in isolated situations," says Fitzpatrick. "It's a business decision and stations of all sizes are looking for the best anchors they can find."
Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the talent pool for black male anchors is small, but he says this also is true for white males. "News directors consistently tell me it is a lot easier to find a good female anchor than a male regardless of color," he says. "Frankly, that's why you're seeing more and more stations using two women to anchor their major newscasts."
What can be done to get more black males into the anchor talent pool? Certainly station owners can offer more opportunities, more chances for advancement and more pay. But there may be another way.
"Too many minorities get discouraged too quickly," says Corporon at WPIX. "I know the business is tight right now. I'm not saying racial prejudice doesn't exist and I'm not blaming the victims. But there are more opportunities there than many minority youngsters realize and they need to be more aggressive in pursuing those opportunities."
Still, the onus really may be on white news executives, argues Jim Vance, a black anchor who has been at WRC in Washington for two decades: "I can't believe station managers who can find two or three African American women to anchor can't find a good, qualified male candidate if they really wanted to." l###