'Roseanne' is all about race and media in Trump era

Published on Friday, 1 June 2018 20:50
Written by Margaret Sullivan

 

That the condemnation of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweet came from a groundbreaking black woman TV executive gave it an undeniable moral authority.

“Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” was the one-line stunner from Channing Dungey, who took on her high-powered job of president of ABC Entertainment Group the same year that President Donald Trump took office.

Those two events are not directly related but they intertwine around America’s stubbornly pervasive race problem, which so often plays out in the media - not just the news media but the entertainment branch as well.

As the cancellation of the popular reboot of “Roseanne” magnetized the news media’s attention Tuesday, two other race-related stories played out far more quietly.

A report declared that more than 4,000 people had died in Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Maria last year, contradicting the absurdly low official government count of 64. That these Americans were mostly brown-skinned surely contributed to the relative lack of attention garnered by the disaster - and to the shrug given to the new numbers.

And in Nashville, Trump whipped up a rally crowd into a frenzied chant (“What was the name?” “Animals!”) as an endorsement of his recent description of MS-13 immigrant-gang members. It was a clear racial dog whistle, explicitly meant to ignite anti-immigrant fervor - and it did.

These stories were far less riveting, apparently, than the cancellation of a TV show, but they aren’t unrelated.

They say a lot about a media system that remains too white, too male and too coastal. Changing that - when anyone even bothers, as ABC admirably has tried to do - sometimes works out.

And sometimes it backfires.

The very decision to reboot “Roseanne” dates to the morning after the presidential election, as the New York Times wrote, describing a meeting of top ABC executives.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘There’s a lot about this country we need to learn a lot more about, here on the coasts,’” Ben Sherwood, the president of Disney-ABC Television Group, recalled.

Dungey added: “We had not been thinking nearly enough about economic diversity and some of the other cultural divisions within our own country.”

It sounded promising - and made for a wildly positive business decision. Until it didn’t.

Trump himself raved about the show’s first-night success and, at a speech in Ohio, drew a direct line to his own voters. The ratings “were unbelievable,” he crowed to the crowd, “and it was about us!” Barr herself reportedly told her co-star John Goodman: “As soon as I saw the election results, I knew we’d be back.”

In this divisive America, we’re all speaking in code, and the news media is too often a part of that, tiptoeing around the reality of lies and hate.

I have to give ABC executives their due for being at the often uncomfortable bleeding edge of these issues.

I give them credit for naming Dungey as the first African-American to a post she surely earned, and where she can lead with moral force.

I give them credit for trying to address a population they may not fully understand with a show that succeeded beyond their dreams - until it was brought down, if indirectly, by its association with a president who has always left so many reputations ruined in his wake.

And I give them credit for pulling the plug on Tuesday.

Granted, ABC executives should have - and surely did - know exactly what they were getting into with Barr, who has made no secret of her penchant for spreading conspiracy theories, for Islamaphobia and for impetuous social-media blurtings.

But when Tuesday’s ugly tipping point came (with its implications for a Disney-related business that must project wholesomeness), ABC brass did the right thing.

And they did it quickly and with clarity.

Dungey’s strong statement - coming within the whole mess of 2018 America - looked like a step in the right direction.

Imperfect progress, but progress nonetheless.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.



Posted in New Britain Herald, Editorials on Friday, 1 June 2018 20:50. Updated: Friday, 1 June 2018 21:23.