Talk Review: Eric Deggans NPR’s TV Critic


Author: Katherine Nerone

On Thursday, November 9th, NPR’s TV critic, Eric Deggans visited Madison to give a talk on how race is portrayed in the media. Deggans’ approach to media was critical in that he goes beyond surface level presentations of race that media outlets such as those presented in film, news and television to understand the greater social mechanisms at play. He urges the audience to step outside of their own, often misguided interpretation of race and stereotypes and go beyond subconscious assumptions to get to the heart of the issues plaguing our social structures.

Deggans’ began his talk with an emphasis on the fact that essentially every major institution and system in our country was founded on a level of racism. In order to understand education, politics, the economy, Deggans argues, you must understand how race comes into play with all of these. He points to the power of major media creators, news outlets and politicians to influence our own understandings of what it means to be a member of a certain race. He also took time to break down several fallacies that have been propagated recently, such as a tweet by president Trump that validated incredibly racist, and wholly unfounded claims on murder rates, especially those associated with black people in the US.

He broke down the storylines and character descriptions of several film and TV stars in order to demonstrate how a character that is a person of color, (if they get represented on TV at all) can be hardly more than a stereotype or trope of their particular race. He proposed a system of deciphering if a character falls into the stereotype category by posing questions such as, is the character there only to serve a white character? Is the character the only person of their race on the show? Is the defining quality or comedic value of the character dependent on their race? Etc.

He also touched on real-life examples of racism in the news and in non-fiction settings. Breaking racism down into several categories or kinds of racist behavior, Deggans also gave the audience tools through which to recognize and name racism. This is an incredibly valuable tool to have when attempting to tackle racism in a world where overt and blatant racism is no longer socially acceptable in a post-civil-rights-era world. Therefore, we must be keen on other stealthier or discrete forms of racism that are still very much a part of our society.

In total, Deggans’ talk was informative, accurate, insightful, and ultimately one that needs to be happening more often and in more places, particularly, in my opinion, in places where such subject matter may actually be unwanted. These are the places that need to have this information the most. It is very difficult, as Deggans pointed out, to understand and recognize and deal with inequality and racism when you are not the target. However, as he says, race is an issue that concerns white people and as a society we are all accountable.