NEW YORK — During a “Meet the Press” roundtable earlier this month, NBC’s David Gregory turned to Rutgers University economist William Rodgers for an assessment of President Barack Obama’s overseas trip. Rodgers said he’d give the president a grade of either A-minus or B-plus.
There was nothing remarkable about the discussion in and of itself. Yet Rodgers’ presence, his first time on “Meet the Press,” illustrated a quiet effort at improving diversity on the Sunday morning political talk shows.
Rodgers’ appearance marked one of 40 times a black American was on one of the four broadcast shows this year, through April 12. During the same period two years ago, there were 25 appearances.
“We wanted to try to broaden the voices that we have on our round-table, and that includes more diverse voices in terms of race, gender and inside and outside of Washington,” said Betsy Fischer, executive producer of “Meet the Press.”
Even at a time when the United States has elected a black president, these things are noticed. Michele Norris, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” said she hears some “attagirls” on the street after she’s been on a Sunday morning roundtable. Ian Cameron, executive producer of ABC’s “This Week,” gets e-mails from the public about diversity.
The National Urban League Policy Institute was critical of the programs in a report issued four years ago that it called “Sunday Morning Apartheid.”
“There is nothing more galling than having white people sitting around talking about black people, and that is often what happens during these shows,” said Richard Prince, who writes regularly on diversity for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education.
Cameron said he first became conscious of the issue while working at a Canadian television network in 1989 and a Toronto Star columnist mocked a program for being little more than “three white guys talking about the economy.”
At the time, Cameron was responsible for booking the show’s guests.
Beyond offering different perspectives, Rodgers said one of his teaching assistants recently reminded him of the unspoken impact of diversity.
“In African Americans’ absence, there may be this subtle perception that African Americans, or women, or Latinos don’t think at that level or are not able to articulate,” said Rodgers, a former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor and recipient of a Ph.D. from Harvard. “From a standpoint of images where perception is reality, it is important.”
The election of a black president probably makes producers more aware of the need to make the effort, he said.
“If you have an individual who can be president, then there are all kinds of people who can be just as effective,” he said. “How much you can quantify it, it’s too early to tell.”
Two of the 40 appearances were by Obama himself, on “This Week” in January and CBS’ “Face the Nation” in March. “Fox News Sunday” had the greatest frequency of appearances by blacks, primarily because Juan Williams is a regular panelist. Norris made three appearances on “Meet the Press” during that time, according to figures compiled for The Associated Press by Media Matters for America.
More familiar faces included Gwen Ifill of PBS, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Bill Cosby.
Norris may be new to Sunday mornings, but is hardly new to Washington: she’s a veteran reporter who worked at The Washington Post and ABC News. Some other seasoned reporters, like Eugene Robinson, Perry Bacon and Michael Fletcher of the Post, are also getting Sunday face time.
It’s important that they are there to talk about all issues, Norris said.
“I happen to host a show called ‘All Things Considered,’ so it would be inappropriate and lamentable if I were to come on and be asked to consider one thing — race,” she said.
Besides making shows look more representative of the public at large, diversity improves them, she said.
“It’s not about numbers,” she said. “It’s not about quotas. It’s not about window-dressing. It’s about the broadcast that you produce and are you doing the kind of journalism that is truly representative? Are you asking the right questions?”
Prince said he noticed the programs are making progress.
Still, improvement in this area may overshadow work needed in others.
Media Matters also measured the number of Latino guests or panelists on “Meet the Press,” “This Week,” “Face the Nation” and “Fox News Sunday” this year for the same period.