Diversity coalition is now under fire

Times Staff Writer

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume, National Latino Media Council Chairman Esteban Torres, American Indians in Film & Television President Sonny Skyhawk and leaders of the Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium launched a campaign in early 2000 to pressure the four major networks to increase cultural diversity in their prime-time lineups. They announced at a press conference that executives at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were signing agreements promising to increase minority representation in front of and behind the camera.

The coalition members claimed a major victory and vowed to keep the heat on the networks with regular progress reports.

But as the third anniversary of those agreements approaches, it is the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition that has come under fire, from inside and outside its ranks.


Two of the four networks -- NBC and Fox -- have bluntly challenged the group’s credibility, calling it misguided, unwieldy and unfocused. And even Mfume, its most influential member, is questioning the coalition’s effectiveness with the networks, suggesting that the group has lost direction. While he remains supportive of the coalition, Mfume has remained relatively quiet in the last few years since launching and spearheading the group.

He and other industry observers maintain that the strength of the coalition has been diluted by the addition of several other smaller minority groups, as well as agendas not directly tied to the common goal of increasing diversity on television of all minorities. Mfume said he is seriously considering taking on more of a leadership role.

“We certainly believe in the concept of the coalition,” Mfume said in a recent interview. “There is definitely strength in numbers. But the primary function of the coalition does not seem to be directed toward civil rights. The original group of organizations has been expanded. Things seem to have moved in another direction.”

Adding that he felt the networks were indeed making some progress but were still moving too slowly in implementing change, Mfume said, “Life is too short, and the need for change is too great. What’s happening with the coalition may be sending a more confusing message to the networks when we really need to be clear in our mission. I’m not saying that the NAACP is not supportive of the coalition, but we really need to take it to another level.”

Leaders of the coalition, however, insist they remain as potent a force as ever -- even without Mfume’s involvement -- and that most of the criticisms against them are in response to less-than-satisfactory grades in “report cards” issued last July to the networks assessing their progress on the agreements.

In those reports, Fox overall received the highest grade -- a C. ABC earned a C-, NBC received a D+ and CBS a D-. The NAACP did not participate in the report cards.


The furor over the coalition comes after a recent round of discussions between the coalition and network heads. Mfume did not attend those meetings, and network honchos say the coalition sorely misses his leadership and vision.

Fox executives blasted the coalition, saying that their talk with group leaders last November was marred by frequent criticisms from representatives of other organizations whom the coalition invited, including a psychologist and members of a Mexican grocers’ association. They said attendees griped more about specific casting choices of Latinos in front of the camera, as opposed to overall diversity.

“Fox Broadcasting supports the goals laid out three years ago in the memorandums of understanding,” network executives said in a statement. “Since then, we have been addressing and adhering to the principles of those agreements. However, as we move forward, we have to wonder about the coalition’s direction, as it appears the groups’ various constituencies are more concerned with their individual agendas than the greater good of the whole. Regardless, Fox will continue to remain the leader in diversity both in front of and behind the camera.”

Top NBC executives also confronted the coalition, saying the leaders had been unfair in giving NBC a D+ while giving little credit to what they called the significant measures to increase diversity.

They called the low grade simplistic and misleading.

CBS was less critical of the coalition. CBS diversity head Josie Thomas said in a statement: “The ongoing dialogue with the coalition has at times been challenging, but throughout this process, our conversations -- some as recent as last week -- have been productive concerning CBS’ progress to date, as well as the challenges still before us as we strive to meet our ambitious diversity goals.”

And ABC network President Alex Wallau praised his recent discussions with the coalition: “Our relationship has been productive, and our last meeting was the most successful we’ve had.”


The National Latino Media Council’s Torres, who has taken over as head of the coalition, acknowledged that other groups that are “affiliates” of the core coalition groups have joined the meetings, and that their members are “vocal.”

But he said the criticisms by the networks were more a result of executives being “upset over the grading process. They haven’t made the grade, but it’s unconscionable that they received poor grades. That’s why they say the coalition is a farce.”

Torres added, “They say they have made an effort to change, but their progress is slow, and their data reporting is not up to par. We sometimes can’t get numbers from them.”

Alex Nogales, president of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which is part of the National Latino Media Council, added, “The networks can be as critical of us as they want to. The question is, are they going to have to change? The answer is, you betcha.”

As for Mfume’s concerns, Torres said, “I would like to see Kweisi more in the fold of participating with us. His absence at these meetings is not good. He’s opted in some ways to act independent of the coalition, and making his own decisions. We should all work together, and work together to enhance our role.”

Mfume, who said the NAACP plans to issue its own progress report on the agreements early next year, said he will talk to the coalition leaders about taking more of an active role.


Said Mfume: “There’s just too much work to do, and too much time has passed.”