Cokie Roberts: News Media Exacerbate Racial Tensions

Posted March 12, 11:24 p.m. ET

ABC News political commentator Cokie Roberts says that broadcasters in New Orleans are exacerbating racial tensions there.

Roberts, accepting a free speech award from the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, used the opportunity to suggest broadcasters in her home town, and elsewhere, might be a little too free with the speech they are putting on their airwaves, though she distinguished that from debate or the airing of conflicting opinions.

While she said that the news media during and after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina did an admirable job of "bringing people together in a terrible time," she said that "now, I'm sorry to say, it's helping to split people apart."

Roberts said that racial tensions in New Orleans are rising to levels not seen in decades and that media coverage, especially broadcast coverage, is "exacerbating those tensions."

Roberts said that disagreements between politicians are being magnified into "some kind of incident." She went further, saying that "the most incendiary, not to mention totally crazy people, are screaming on the airwaves."

"We cannot do that here, in the Nation's Capitol," she said. "It is too sensitive a time; it's too scary a time," a line that drew applause from the journalists and others in the crowd.

Roberts said the New Orleans coverage was an example of "highlighting confrontation," a problem not confined to hurricane-ravaged southern cities, she suggested.

She said the media need to let people hear from "the sensible souls" and "to be careful not to turn our microphones over to the shouters and the extremists. As we put our programs together, the first question should not be: 'Where's the argument.'"

Roberts said she was not suggesting the media shouldn't air "conflicting good ideas," saying that was meaningful debate. "But we all know there's a big difference between a couple of thoughtful people trying to get to some solution and a shoutfest where the shouter is seeking attention and the broadcaster is hoping for ratings."

Roberts was receiving the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award, named after the late B&C senior reporter.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.