Tuesday, December 22, 2009

ABC can break Sunday morning talk show color barrier

By DeWayne Wickham

Stephanie Jones didn’t waste any time firing off a letter to ABC once she learned the musical chairs that followed the retirement of “World News” anchor Charles Gibson had landed George Stephanopoulos a promotion.

Since 2002, the former senior adviser the President Clinton had served as moderator of “This Week,” ABC’s Sunday morning political talk show. Earlier this month he was named host of “Good Morning America,” replacing Diane Sawyer, who got Gibson’s job.

“As you know, none of the major Sunday morning talk shows currently features a minority host and the lack of racial diversity is an ongoing concern we have urged you to address,” Jones wrote to ABC News President David Westin and Ian Cameron, executive producer of “This Week.”

Three years ago, Jones, who heads the National Urban League’s Policy Institute, criticized the “paucity” of blacks on TV’s five leading Sunday morning news talk shows — “This Week,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “Late Edition,”Fox’s “FOX News Sunday” and CBS’ “Face the Nation.”Next year she will issue a follow-up report that credits the networks for making some progress, Jones told me. “But they are still a long way from where they need to be,” she was quick to add.

In urging Westin to name a black journalist to host “This Week,” Jones wants to do more than simply break the Sunday morning talk show color barrier. She wants someone black to help frame the perception and coverage of issues that have a substantial impact on the American public.

Westin clearly understands the power that hosts of national news shows wield. In a tribute to Gibson Thursday he said: “The first rough draft of history over this generation has been seen by an entire nation through the eyes” of the retiring news anchor.

That’s heavy stuff. And so is the opportunity Westin now has to make history.
In a perfect world, picking a black journalist to replace Stephanopoulos would be a no-brainer. It’s hard to find anyone with a thicker resume — or a more commanding presence on television — than Gwen Ifill, the supernova of PBS’ crop of journalists. Ifill is both moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” and doubles as senior correspondent on “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.”

She cut her journalism teeth working for a long list of daily newspapers, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, where she was a White House correspondent. In 1994, she moved to television as a Capitol Hill reporter for NBC News. In each of the last two presidential elections, Ifill has moderated the vice presidential candidates’ debate. “She’s a wonderful, classy lady and a great journalist,” Tim Russert once said of her.

And then there’s Michel Martin, host of National Public Radio’s “Tell Me More,” a one-hour, daily talk show. Like Ifill, Martin is a veteran print journalist who migrated to television news. She worked for The Washington Post before becoming a White House correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The broadcast journalism portion of her resume is equally impressive. Before joining NPR, Martin was a reporter on ABC News’ “Nightline.” For a time, she worked alongside of Stephanopoulos as a weekly contributor to “This Week.” While at ABC, Martin crisscrossed the globe covering a wide range of stories — one of which earned her an Emmy.

If Ifill and Martin aren’t on Westin’s short list there’s something terribly wrong with his selection process — and his news judgment.

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