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NBC-NAACP Diversity Plan Irks Coalition

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The multiethnic coalition that had pressed for diversity in the television industry abruptly splintered Thursday in bitter discord, with nonblack advocacy groups pitted against NAACP President Kweisi Mfume.

Just one day after NBC and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People jointly announced an unprecedented agreement to ensure a greater role for minorities at the network, anger escalated over the perceived exclusion of Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans from the pact.

The NBC plan is likely to be followed to varying degrees by the other major broadcast networks, and representatives of those communities fear it will do little to change the paradigm in Hollywood, where the minimal diversity that exists has traditionally been almost the exclusive territory of African Americans.

Advocates for the nonblack groups, who had considered themselves equal partners in the coalition, held a conference call to map out a strategy for separate talks with the heads of the four major networks. Also on the agenda was Mfume, who they charge made an agreement with NBC that met most of the NAACP’s demands, not theirs.

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At 1:15 p.m. Esteban Torres, the spokesman for the Latino groups in the minority coalition, lost his connection to the call, which included Sonny Skyhawk, head of American Indians in Film and Television, and members of the Asian Pacific American coalition. Sick with the flu, Torres sat in his vacation home in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, and waited. He was expecting a late-afternoon phone call about the rift from his friend and former congressional colleague Mfume.

At 7:30 p.m., Torres was still waiting.

Though network executives indicated that a public battle between the minority groups would not derail the new initiatives, the infighting reinforces the continued exclusion of Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans, all of whom are much less visible on television than blacks.

Privately, network executives said they had assumed that Mfume had the full backing of the other groups during negotiations. The executives would not speculate about the possibility of additional initiatives for each group. However, at least one executive said it was unlikely that they would agree to separate initiatives. Meanwhile, Mfume said he always made it clear to NBC that he was representing the entire coalition.

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“We’ve never seen this as a black-white situation,” Mfume said.

Torres, a former U.S. representative who was named this summer to represent Latinos in the coalition, remained unsatisfied.

Mfume “agreed to join this coalition, and before we knew it he holds a press conference announcing this deal. Not good,” Torres said. “He told us about it, but he didn’t invite us. He could have said, ‘Esteban, fly to New York and join us.’ But we had none of that. I’m sure he’s somewhat aghast that I would take this position, but my coalition feels put out.”

Still, NBC President Bob Wright has agreed to fly to Burbank for a Tuesday morning meeting with Latino, Asian and Native American leaders, which may include California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. Bustamante headed up a Commission for One California seminar in September, during which he pledged to form a subcommittee to study diversity in the TV industry.

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The Tuesday meeting with Wright may be the best hope the splinter groups have for staking out some turf in the industry. They are also requesting immediate meetings with the heads of CBS, Fox and ABC, according to Alex Nogales, head of the National Hispanic Media Coalition.

Specifically, Asian Pacific Americans were disappointed that Mfume did not secure a vice president of diversity in every network.

“We [wanted] a central repository of information for each network in terms of the progress they were making . . . ,” former congressman and Asian American leader Norman Y. Mineta said.

Meanwhile, Latino advocates maintained that Mfume failed to promote their agenda of critical on-camera opportunities for Latinos.

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But Mfume said the Latinos’ demands could be reached from the new baseline agreement.

“More than anything, what goes on in front of the camera is affected by the decision-making process behind the camera. . . . As writers and producers, and in other ways, we can affect that decision-making process as never before,” he said. “This is just the first step in a long journey to create opportunities for all people of color.”

Mfume is the first national figure to take such specific action about the lack of diversity in the TV industry, outlining a plan at the NAACP’s national convention in July.

The minority coalition, which formed in June, is headed by four advocacy group leaders: Mfume, Torres, Mineta and Skyhawk. The four decided that Mfume would serve as their chairman.

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Tension between Mfume and the co-chairmen began to build after a newspaper article described meetings in Mfume’s Baltimore office with network heads last month.

Mineta said the other co-chairmen wrote a letter of complaint to Mfume. "[Mfume] said, ‘You folks have been difficult to reach,’ and he said things were moving so quickly that he really had to move on his own,” Mineta said.

Mfume defended himself Thursday, saying he had been entrusted with the main leadership position. He said that when he met with NBC West Coast President Scott Sassa at NAACP headquarters in mid-December, he was representing the coalition.

“At some points in time I have to form and fashion, as chairman of the coalition, a process that will serve as an initial beginning. This is just the first step in a long journey to create opportunities for all people of color,” Mfume said.

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Statistically, the three co-chairmen needed Mfume. Even though Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the country, their representation in Hollywood is disproportionately low.

A look at the percentage of members in the Screen Actors Guild as of June shows that almost 66% are white. Blacks make up more than 8%, Latinos compose about 4% and Asian Americans represent just over 2%. Native Americans are less than 0.3%. Of the 113,009 actors in the guild, almost 12% declined to identify any ethnicity.

Today, ABC plans to unveil its own diversity initiatives with the NAACP and coalition members, but, again, Mfume did not invite his co-chairmen to the event.

“The three remaining coalitions will continue to act as one,” Torres said. “The first die was cast, of course, by the NAACP going on its own.”

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