When it comes to color, CBS News pales

Published December 11, 2006

Ask Russ Mitchell whether his appointment as news anchor at CBS's Early Show signals that the network is concerned about diversity, and his reply is blunt.

"I've been doing this for 25 years, and there comes a point in your career where you hope your credentials speak for themselves," said Mitchell, who was named news anchor last week, three days after CBS announced the departure of Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler, who is also black. "I'm not some 25-year-old kid fresh from school . . . And I didn't get this job because I'm some black guy."

Still, the names rumored as possible replacements for Syler -Weekend Today co-host Campbell Brown and Saturday Early Show co-host Tracy Smith, for instance - wouldn't have brought CBS what it sorely needs now: on-air diversity.

Consider this: Besides costing TV one of its best journalists, the death of news legend Ed Bradley in November also means that 60 Minutes will not feature a regular correspondent of color for the first time in 25 years.

Syler's Dec. 22 departure from the Early Show - the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that CBS executives canned the anchor even as she prepared a story on a pre-emptive double mastectomy she will soon undergo - meant the program faced the possibility it might not feature a black anchor for the first time in at least 10 years.

So CBS tapped Mitchell, who has been anchoring the Sunday edition of CBS Evening News, occasionally anchoring the Saturday edition of the Evening News and reporting for CBS Sunday Morning - all jobs he'll keep.

He is now the network's only black anchor.

CBS's marquee news shows may have presented more diversity on air five or 10 years ago, when Bryant Gumbel led the Early Show and Vicki Mabrey worked at 60 Minutes II.

The paucity of possible candidates of color for these high-profile jobs only highlights the network's ongoing struggle to develop new talent.

It's not just a problem at CBS.

NBC and ABC have few anchors of color, with the Today show's Ann Curry, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts and Weekend Today's Lester Holt among the standouts.

The percentage of TV news employees who are minorities rose less than 1 percent since 2000 while the country's minority population has increased nearly 3 percent, according to a study co-sponsored by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. Black journalists in broadcast news have declined by nearly 2 percent in the past six years. (Those losses were offset by gains in Hispanic and Asian-American journalists.)

Though Mitchell will join the weekday Early Show Jan. 2, CBS News senior vice president Linda Mason said 60 Minutes probably wouldn't hire any new correspondents for at least a year.

Mason, who supervises standards and special projects for CBS News, touted a program she established in January 2005 to develop minority journalists at CBS affiliates who can move on to the network. The two-year training program accepts just two people each year, however.

In October, CBS News also hired an executive to focus on minority recruiting, a position many other corporations created years ago.

Still, these efforts may take years to appreciably affect the network's level of diversity.

It remains a sad irony that Bradley, widely known as a quiet mentor to black journalists across the country, never saw more than a few minorities rise into premier positions in his own newsroom. Though the network says 10 percent of its on-air reporters are black, national correspondent Byron Pitts seems to be that group's only clear rising star.

Press Mason on this point, however, and her irritation quickly surfaces.

"I'm not going into that b---s---," she said when asked how many years it may take CBS News to diversify its reporting staff. "I'm just pleased that we're doing this now. I can't look back. I have to look at the future."

Bradley came to CBS's Washington bureau in the mid '70s, around the same time as future CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, future 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl and future CBS Evening News co-anchor Connie Chung. All were hired, in part, to answer criticisms over the lack of race and gender diversity in network news.

Three decades later, CBS has not found the next Ed Bradley.

Bill McLaughlin, a former CBS Evening News correspondent who teaches at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, said the network's problem stretches across the industry.

"The bench is now attractive, fairly young white women," he said. "My specific quote to Newsweek on this was that they look like the front line of the Ziegfeld Follies. Maybe they figure the 18 to 35 audience they're trying to reach is (obtained) by using good-looking young white women."

Mason, a 40-year veteran who says she "was the first woman at every job I had at CBS News," remains confident that the recent initiatives will solve their diversity problems.

But if it has taken CBS 40 years to reach this point, how long will it take to finish the job?

"Ed (Bradley) told me that when he started at CBS News, the only person who looked like him was pushing a broom," said Pitts. "CBS News has certainly come a long way since then. But we've still got a way to go."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.