Oct. 4, 2013  

We The Journalists: Eric Deggans

In celebration of Diversity Day, which takes place the first Friday in October each year, SPJ Florida is featuring its winner of its 2013 Diversity Award, Eric Deggans.

Eric Deggans is a TV/Media Critic; writes on sports media issues for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University; author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation; and currently chairs the National Association of Black Journalists’ Media Monitoring Committee.

By Jason Parsley 

eric-headshotFor the past 18 years Eric Deggans has worked for the Tampa Bay Times, but on Oct. 1 he started a new position as NPR’s first ever full-time TV critic. No stranger to TV himself he’s contributed as a pundit to a slew of popular television news shows including Piers Morgan Tonight” (CNN); “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” (MSNBC); “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” (PBS); “Reliable Sources with Howard Kurtz” (CNN); “The Young Turks with Cenk Uygur,” (Current TV); “Washington Watch with Roland Martin” (TV One); CNN Headline News; “Hannity and Colmes” and “Fox and Friends” (Fox News Channel); and “The Tavis Smiley Show” (Black Entertainment Television).

Deggans even once had a feud with anchor Bill O’Reilly who called him a race-baiter saying “Deggans takes delight in branding people racist. Senator Joseph McCarthy would love this guy.” Deggans naturally responded with a story titled “My Proudest Moment as a Pundit: Bill O’Reilly Calls Me a Race Baiter” saying “When a master at manipulating race-based tension calls you out, you must be doing something right” and “As I’ve said many times before, I judge journalists by the enemies they make. So I must be doing pretty well these days.”

Deggans started his journalism career at the Pittsburgh Press newspaper. Recently he won SPJ’s first ever diversity award. And Deggans knows a thing or two about diversity, belonging to the National Association of Black Journalists and recently publishing a book on race in the media.

In 2009 he was alongside Oprah Winfrey on Ebony magazine’s “Power 150” list.

“Eric has been an important contributor to the Times since the day he got here. Whether he is writing about pop music, the fall TV lineup, or the national news media, he is persistent enough to get the right people to talk to him and smart enough to frame the issues in their complete context,” said Mike Wilson, managing editor of the Tampa Bay Times. “Because of his skill, smarts, and amazing work ethic, he has earned a national reputation as a critic and commentator on everything from zombie TV to race in America. On top of all of that, Eric is a generous colleague and a good guy. We are going to miss him when he goes to NPR.”

Follow Deggans on Twitter.

SPJ Florida: As winner of SPJ’s first Diversity award what do you think the state of newsroom diversity is, as well as, diversity in coverage? 

Eric Deggans: I think there is a disappointing lack of diversity in most mainstream media newsrooms and a lack of diversity in everyday news coverage. And diversity isn’t just measured in stories about people of color or minorities in newsrooms; its about stories on poverty, stories on poor neighborhoods that don’t involve crime, stories on subjects where race isn’t the primary subject, but is mentioned as a related subject.

The media recession has led too many media outlets to essentially abandon their efforts to track aspiring journalists of color, and develop or train such staffers who are already on the job. It is too easy to conclude that shrinking budgets leave no funds for attending the job fairs at national conventions for minority journalism organizations. Years of such excuses have severely damaged the pipeline for young journalists of color and left many newspapers that were once making improvements in diversity sliding backwards again.

There’s a reason why black journalists and other journalists of color have lost jobs in greater numbers than white journalists. As the nation grows more diverse, the media covering it have grown less diverse; that doesn’t seem a great formula for the future of newspapers or media in general.

Can you tell us about your book “Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation?” And what prompted you to write it?

high-res-bookcoverThe book is basically a way to collect many of the stories I’ve written about race and media over more than 12 years covering TV and media at the Tampa Bay Times.

Once, while editing a really robust story on such a subject, an editor at the Times said to me, “you really should just write a book on this.” So I did. The attention-getting opening scene pegs Fox News Channel anchor Bill O’Reilly calling me a race-baiter on his show – I assume, for writing stories critical of how he talks about race on his show.

But that’s a typical tactic from people who don’t really want to have a dialogue about institutional racism or the way media profits from prejudice. They try to label any discussion of these issues as racist, counting on their audience’s discomfort and guilt over these subjects to convince them to close their minds.

So the books outlines these tactics, also allowing me to flesh out stories I could only outline in the newspaper and explore new ideas in ways that the smaller newshole of a newspaper couldn’t allow. And the fact is, to establish yourself as an expert in today’s media world, you often have to find a way to pull together your expertise into a book.

Obviously one of the most racially charged stories in recent memory is the Trayvon Martin story. How did the media do?

The media has gone through several phases in covering this story. It took a while for media to initially recognize Martin’s death as an unusual story, in part because he died in Sanford, Fla., a city which wasn’t a hub of news coverage for any area news outlets. Then, after his parents hired attorneys and began to complain that the man who shot their child, George Zimmerman, wasn’t arrested and race might be a factor, some national media outlets picked up the story and social media began passing along the crusade to bring more exposure to the story.

But it wasn’t until 911 tapes were released by police and the public could hear that some statements by police weren’t exactly true and that Martin may have been screaming before he was shot, that morning news shows and cable TV news – essentially the same kind of coverage – picked up the story relentlessly. Then, we saw print outlets focus on gathering as many facts as possible and breaking news; social media galvanized people to action, calling for attendance at protests and petition signing; television, especially cable TV, channeled emotion, with ideologically-focused news outlets using selected facts to argue point in tune with their partisan orientation.

After 23 years, you’re leaving print for radio. Why? 

This doesn’t feel like I’m leaving one medium for another; I’m just taking advantage of a tremendous opportunity. NPR is essentially the New York Times for radio ­– it’s an incredibly smart, incredibly expert, incredibly beloved institution. As a longtime fan, it’s a dream to join a news organization which reaches 27 million listeners a week. NPR also has a sophisticated, popular array of online platforms, including several blogs I expect to write for, I’m getting a chance to pioneer a new job – NPR has never had a full-time TV critic before – and I get to plunge fully into a medium I have spent 2 and a half years dabbling in as a freelance contributor to the service. So my job change isn’t a statement on the future of newspapers – it’s just my personal decision to take advantage of a specific, really cool opportunity.

As media organizations continue to tighten their belts, critics’ jobs seem to be on the line, but NPR is hiring their first full time TV critic. Thoughts?

I think some newspapers which have laid off critics have realized those jobs are not so easy to do without. Television is becoming more ubiquitous than ever – people carry television on their hips with their smartphones, in briefcases with their laptops and tablet computers and in their living rooms, gyms, coffeehouses, bars. And as television becomes a bigger part of our lives, it is changing fundamentally as well. Netflix and other online outlets are changing the rules of television by creating their own programs; services such as Aereo will allow people to access broadcast TV stations online; cable TV and broadcast is becoming indistinguishable and everything is now available on demand. Television is at the leading edge of pop culture, the arts, news and entertainment today; I think if you’re serious about covering those subjects, you need to have a critic in place to handle it.

Career highlight? Lowlight?

Lots of highlights: Uncovering a fake gospel singer who was about to get the key to the city in St. Petersburg; revealing a radio show in Tampa which was using racial slurs on air, which led to Clear Channel removing them from the market; writing on how a local affiliate was planning to demote its only black anchor on the week of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and watching the community react to such tone deafness; seeing a slew of national outlets pick up on a story where Tim Allen talked to me about resisting taboos against using the n-word; interviewing Jesse Jackson at the commemoration of the March on Washington in D.C.; guest hosting Reliable Sources on CNN Aug. 25; seeing a book I’d written in five months get picked up by California State University, Indiana University, University of South Florida and other schools to use as a teaching tool; getting the Legacy award from the National Association of Black Journalists A&E Task Force; getting a diversity award from the South Florida SPJ. Whew! That’s a lot of great memories.

Lowlights-wise, I don’t really have many. I recall mistakenly saying in a story that Bill O’Reilly had called President Obama a racist, including him in a list of other conservative commentators who did call the president racist. I had to correct that in a front-page correction that was written about on some media blogs. I thought it was odd that it got that much attention.

Give us your weirdest dues-paying job in your career. 

I supported myself as a musician in college, playing in a band which was signed to Motown. I took 2 years off school to make a record with them, and when the company was sold to MCA and we were dropped as artists, I went back to school and finished my degree. I earned my last three college credits by correspondence while I was playing in a club in Osaka, Japan with that group, called The Voyage Band. I was lucky enough to have a great internship at the Pittsburgh Press newspaper in the summer before my senior year, and they hired me as a suburban news reporter when I graduated college. So no real dues-paying jobs in my history.

How have you incorporated or utilized social media in your job? 

I have a Twitter account, a Facebook page for myself and one for the blog I write for the Times, a LinkedIn account, Instagram account, Storify account, Google plus account and Tumblr. Generally, I post most stories I write on my blog and then send out links to the story across my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts using Tweetdeck and Hootsuite (Tweetdeck has an automatic URL shortner, but doesn’t send messages to Facebook or LinkedIn anymore). During live events such as presidential debates or the Emmy awards, I live-tweet commentary which is also cross posted to those other platforms. I also get story tips via Twitter and sometimes arrange interviews that way (Al Jazeera America anchor Joie Chen agreed to speak with me over Twitter, for example). I now have more than 10,000 followers on Twitter, more than 5,000 friends on Facebook, about 2,000 followers on The Feed’s FB page and more than 3,700 connection on LinkedIn, so I have lots of ways to reach an audience specifically interested in my work.

One piece of advice you would give journalism students.

Be flexible. Be willing to take chances in a smart way. Challenge yourself and don’t be afraid to work in more than one medium if that’s where your talents and passions lie. Don’t confuse paying your dues with being taken advantage of. And try to always be the kind of employee who solves your boss’ problems rather than adds to them. Sorry if that’s a lot more than one piece.

Visit EricDeggans.com to learn more about Eric Deggans.


Throughout September, October and November, SPJ Florida will feature Q&As every Friday with Florida’s most prominent journalists. Want to see someone featured? Want to conduct your own Q&A? Want to join SPJ? Email us.

Jason Parsley is President of SPJ Florida. Follow him on Twitter.

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