More on the Real Meaning of Diversity on “Up” and MSNBC

My recent post critiquing Media Matters’ laudatory report about How Chris Hayes’ Show Differs From Other Sunday Shows In One Chart got a brief exchange going between me and Mr. Hayes on twitter. My critique was based in part on a six-month study by ChangeLab of the weekend political shows aired between January 1-June 30 of last year in which we analyzed all of the transcripts to isolate every instance in which a person of color was mentioned. That study puts Media Matters’ claim that Up is driver of diversity in a different light.

In regard to Asian Americans, we found that we were almost never mentioned. In fact, Asian Americans as a group were discussed in just one of the 169 episodes analyzed. When we are mentioned, analysts seemed to have a better grasp of popular stereotypes than accurate data. Nearly every mention of Asians (not just Asian Americans, mind you) disaggregated by ethnicity or color was as part of a list. For instance, there are apparently “yellow” people in Newt Gingrich’s vision of heaven.

But also troubling, Native Americans in this period were never mentioned at all, contributing to the popular myth of Native Americans as vanishing peoples.

Hayes’ tweeted that my critique was “mostly fair” but defended his show in another tweet by also saying,

@nakagawascot and we definitely did a whole long discussion on VAWA and tribal law in December …

I saw that show and I’m pleased it aired. I’m also not trying to pick on Mr. Hayes. I mean, the guy read the article and responded. I’m guessing that’s not happening if I critique Wolf Blitzer.

But, that VAWA program follows a pattern that I’ve observed since we concluded our study. That is, that when people of color generally, and Asian Americans and Native Americans especially, are mentioned on Up and certain other news commentary programs of MSNBC, it is very frequently in order to make a point about Republicans, not about us.

For instance, much of the VAWA reportage on MSNBC focused more on denigrating Republican leaders for opposing the special provisions for Native American women, than on the peculiar circumstances that make native women especially vulnerable to violence. In other words, while on occasion an actual Native American person was present to address the issue, more often than not the story hook had less to do with Native American women than the bigotry of the GOP.

What’s this all add up to? We’re present when we’re useful to building a broader narrative about GOP  bigotry that has become a staple of MSNBC as the liberal alternative to the Republican-dominated Fox News. For that reason, at least on Up, whiteness rarely moves out of the center of the narrative. Other sub-narratives may be frequently included, but whiteness is so centered that if we think of those “other” stories as text, whiteness is the paper.

So we’re included when we’re useful, but not often in deference to what is useful to us. That explains a lot, right? It gives us some sense of why, when Obama’s landslide victory among Asian American voters was reported on, not a whole lot of research was done prior to the broadcasts to gather data concerning Asian American voters. Instead, the hook was other people’s surprise.

If this was really about us, the subject might have been bullying, one of the biggest problems facing Asian American youth. Or it might have been about the lack of culturally appropriate, language accessible services for many Asian immigrants. Or we might be included more often in discussions of immigration policy, as that’s considered one of the most important issues to Asian American voters. Or, we might be included in stories about poverty, given the fact that certain Asian ethnic groups in the U.S. are among our nation’s most impoverished people.

Or, here’s a novel idea, MSNBC could get ahead of the curve and admit they’ve been responsible for a certain amount of anti-Asian stereotyping in a story about just how widespread this problem is.

But, no, the story is, we voted Democratic; something of relatively little interest to us given the obvious fact that it was an act we ourselves undertook. And, as a population that includes a high percentage of immigrants, many of whom are Chinese (or are often mistaken taken for same), Obama was the obvious choice in a campaign season in which the Republican candidate tried to make an argument against the fitness of our President by suggesting he had “foreign” ideas, and that he may even, gasp, have been born outside of the U.S., all while being soft on evil China and on “illegal!” (for Pete’s sake!) immigrants.

But, my guess is that we’re in for more of the same kind of MSNBC coverage over the next few years. Why? Because there’s another story behind the “diversity” being reported on by Media Matters. That is that most of the improved diversity is made up of women and African Americans. And MSNBC has, you’ve probably already gotten to the punchline, moved in the direction of building their audience (and profits) among women and African Americans, but not among Asian Americans and Native Americans, I’m guessing because we constitute too small a share of the market.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

2 replies on “More on the Real Meaning of Diversity on “Up” and MSNBC”

Sure, it’s cool that Chris Hayes did a segment about Native American and VAWA, which is ONE more than any other news program . . . but is that kind of record something to be proud of? Chris Hayes runs on Saturday & Sunday, unlike most weekend news programs that run only once a week, and 1 segment out of 104 episodes is not equity or even remotely approaching “diversity.”

Very thought provoking. I have only recently become aware of this website but so far the information here is vast and very insightful. I have been searching for a source of Asian American concerns since they are becoming an increasingly larger share of the US population. Thanks for the hard work and keep it up!

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