It was a week before Halloween as I watched the unenviable task of my colleague Amy Holmes lecturing NBC anchor Megyn Kelly, on what turned out to be the final outing of “Megyn Kelly Today,” that “I can play Diana Ross… but I’m sorry Megyn, you can’t.”
Megyn had crossed a bridge too far, and her fall was fast. The persistence of racial inequality and implicit racism, behind and in front of the camera, is an all-too-quiet scandal of media in America to this day, and words do, indeed, matter.
Megyn’s nostalgia for, and apparent misunderstanding of, the national disgrace of “blackface” minstrelsy, should be a teaching moment for us all. No one can inhabit another person’s skin, and we live in an era when the private and public abuse of power and privilege is toppling many heroes of stage and screen. Stars of every stripe have been caught up in #MeToo moments of their own making.
Gender equality, for all its challenges, still trumps race on the burgeoning civil rights agenda in the corridors of power in media. A recent study by Darnell Hunt of UCLA looks at the “Writer’s Room,” the place where the magic happens in the scripted television series, the opiate of us all. The study headlines the sorry state of affairs in which “Hollywood whitewashes the stories that shape America.”
Reviewing nearly 1,700 episodes of scripted television from the 2016-2017 season, the study finds more than 90 percent of “showrunners,” the key decision-makers, were white, and “two-thirds of shows had no black writers at all.”
Chief among networks with a “black problem,” according to the study, is CBS -- unsurprisingly, also a hotbed of #MeToo perps. Joining CBS in the hall of shame of racial exclusion are digital giants Netflix, Amazon and Hulu -- supposed progressives of what appears more a narrow Silicon Alley than Valley -- alongside cable channels AMC, Showtime, TBS and the CW.
In The New York Times, “Queen of the South” producer Dailyn Rodriguez recently noted her “unicorn” status in Hollywood, where studio execs trying to get with the program in hiring let her know, “We’re scrambling, because there’s like five of you, and they’re all working.”
It isn’t just a failure to hire at the top; unless there is an industry promotion ladder, the white boy’s club of television will continue to race with its blinders on even if it finds its tin-man heart beating for change.
Despite the hurdles and the damage that words can do in such a precarious time, there are those who wonder if the “PC” era has gone too far. In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s fall from grace, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. opines in The Wall Street Journal that “political correctness is… a readiness to play ‘gotcha’ around issues of race and gender,” particularly by “a narrow strata of… affluent, white, highly educated progressives.” There is irony, and perhaps intrigue, in Megyn Kelly’s earlier takedown of NBC “Today” anchor Matt Lauer. NBC’s skin may be too thin.
What goes around does tend to come around from time to time. Megyn Kelly was a longtime member of Fox News’ so-called “murderers’ row” which was no friend to the Black Lives Matter movement, and she could be heard to intone “cupcake nation alert” when a PC sound bite was in the offing. Like many born in a pre-millennial age when the PC-police were not patrolling the beat, the 69 million-dollar woman got caught in a time-warp in which racially tinged comments she mistakenly thought were acceptably provocative with her old Fox News hat on were fatal in an NBC broadcast world in which her weak ratings gave the network an excuse to cut her loose; the cause was indeed there in Megyn’s folly, but a motive may have been too.
Given the retrograde nature of public discourse today, with the war-of-words around an immigrant caravan and the racially relevant voter suppression question of the midterm election, small wonder we have yet to shake off the legacy of a doomed Reconstruction era in which southern Democrats undid much of the good of a victory gained across blooded battlegrounds by the Grand Old Party of Abraham Lincoln.
It’s worth remembering that today’s heroes may be tomorrow’s villains, and vice versa. We are “biased in both directions,” as my friend the late Paul Duke used to say.
With race, gender and sexual orientation still disadvantaged on both sides of the camera, it is understandable the rules of the game have quickened to one strike and you’re out. The times they are a-changin’, quoth the bard.
Media behemoth WarnerMedia, for one, has now pledged “greater diversity and inclusion” in its hiring. Real change will come not when the next Megyn falls, but when the next non-white showrunner rises and we see her shine.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group.