By Ashley Caldwell
Eric Deggans is more than just a TV critic. He is a personality, an author, a journalist and so much more. Deggans, an alum of Indiana University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and journalism, traveled a 20plus-year journey in freelance writing and broadcast work which has led him to his current position as a TV critic for the National Public Radio (NPR). He has experience working for The Tampa Bay Times as a TV critic from 1997 to 2004, the then- St. Petersburg Times on the editorial board from 2004-2005, according to his website. Deggans has also made physical appearances on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, he said.
Deggans visited Annenberg Hall’s Atrium Tuesday, March 10 to speak for the School of Media and Communication’s (SMC) Spring Speaker’s Series. His topic was nothing short of the oh-so-sensitive: race relations in the media and how different media outlets “use prejudice, stereotypes and racism to generate audiences and profits,” according to the SMC’s Speaker’s Series website.
More than 15 SMC students attended the event, engaging in the lecture, answering questions, commenting, and of course sharing a good laugh here and there. Students also took notes as Deggans spoke to them about race relations in the media and how it “use prejudice, stereotypes and racism to generate audiences and profits,” according to SMC’s Speaker’s Series website.
Before the event, Deggans sat down with me to discuss his views on the media, being the first TV critic for the NPR, his book “Race Baiters: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation,” and other things regarding race and the media.
Q: You are the first African-American TV critic at NPR. How do you feel about that? How excited were you about that?
A: I’m the first TV critic NPR has ever had, period. I was real excited. I’ve been a fan of NPR for a long time and as a long time listener, I realized they kind of had a hole in television critics. They had two movie critics, one who does reviews every Friday, and a guy on staff that does movie critics. I was like, ‘Wow. They have two movie critics? But they don’t have anybody on television?’ I thought that was really weird.
Q: How did you get to working with NPR?
A: I ran into an official from NPR at the NABJ convention in Orlando in 2010. I was there to say hi to a friend, but I wound up talking to this guy at NPR and I said, ‘you don’t really have much on television. I’d be happy to freelance commentary for you.’ After a few months, we set something up where, at first, I would do three commentaries for a test run, and they seemed to like them. Then we got to a point where I would do three a month for two years. Eventually, they decided to hire me. I think I identified a need that they had and then I helped them fill it.
Q: How did that feel to you?
A: It felt good because it was a validation of what I was doing and also a validation of my observations of what they needed.
Q: How do you think your previous experience helped you land your job at NPR?
A: I was the TV critic for the Tampa Bay Times for a long time. I started in 1997 and then took a couple years off, did some other things and then I came back to it. That was the most important thing was many years covering television. I know a lot of people in the industry and a good grasp on what’s important and what’s not and how to judge a good TV show. It taught me how to be engaging on the air, how to be charismatic and on the air.
Q: When did you realize you had a passion for writing about TV?
A: Well, I figured out in high school that I wanted to be a critic, but I wanted to be a music critic because I’m a musician. And I also like to write, so I wanted to find a job where I could put the both of them together and also get a regular paycheck. It seemed like being a music critic was a great way to do that. So, by the time I was a sophomore in high school, I oriented myself to that job. I read music magazine all the time, I wrote for any place that would publish me.
Q: What aspects of the media influenced your book, “Race Baiters: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation”?
A: Basically, I feel like there’s a lot of media outlets that use prejudices and stereotypes as part of their profit motive. It’s a part of their business plan in a way. And of course they deny that, but you can look at what they do and some of the issue they portray and how they work. So what I wanted to do was look at different aspects of media and examine how race and stereotypes kind of work in that forum.
Q: There is much diversity on Fox’s television side of the network, but not on the news side. Why do you think that is?
A: ultimately, it’s up to the person who owns Fox’s empire. The owner believes in making money. That trumps everything. It trumps ideology, politics – it trumps everything. Drawing audiences with diverse casting and lots of different kind of people is how Fox makes money [on the television aspect]. On cable news, the audience is different. Cable news audiences are mostly older white, conservative, and male. It as created, developed and controlled by a different person in a different department. The two sides really have nothing to do with each other. It’s all about maximizing profits.
Q: Is there a way consumers can watch other news outlets without getting a feeling of stereotyping?
A: Every news outlets has its own set of biases, priorities, and goals. What’s important is to know what those are when you’re watching it, the kind of news your being told and why you’re being told the way it’s being told to you. So, Fox News is the angry white guy channel; CNN is the channel that just wants to get viewers, that’s not watching Fox News, to watch their channel; MSNBC has tried to be a liberal channel, but is really more the democratic liberal channel. They aren’t too far too the left. And then the mainstream network news shows: ABC is more feature oriented and more of an emotional broadcast; CBS is more about hard news; and NBC is kind of a blend of the two, although it’s gotten fluffier in recent years. Once you know what their approach is, then you can judge the broadcast.
Q: What is the purpose of this program and what is your purpose?
A: I try to talk about some of the things in my book. The concepts of the book remain relevant. I use more recent example and current situations to talk about some of the concepts in my book. I’ll talk about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Empire, and others to do
Q: What are your favorite TV shows?
A: I like The Walking Dead, The Good Wife, Empire, The Flash, The Nightly Show, and The Daily Show. I’ve been watching a show on Netflix, titled “Peaky Blinders..”
Q: What advice do you have for young people who might be interested in a career in this field or in any communication field?
A: Figure out what you want to do. Then do it. Then figure out a way to get paid to do it.
You can find more information about Eric Deggans by visiting his website at ericdeggans.com