Eric Deggans doesn’t just want to see the media transformed. He has his eye on something even more profound. “The goal is to transform the audience,” he said, “because the audience has the power.” Deggans, media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, is the author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). The title comes from a 2008 episode of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor,” in which the host, Bill O’Reilly, called Deggan a race-baiter.
At the urging of his friends and colleagues, Deggans began to explore divisive issues in media and how networks use them to drive ratings and increase their bottom line. “Race-Baiter” goes beyond race, also studying issues of gender and regional culture. Deggans had both the curse and the benefit of writing the book under a tight deadline, which allowed for a discussion of such recent events as the Trayvon Martin shooting and Sarah Fluke being thrust into the national spotlight by radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
Deggans draws on his experience as a critic to look not just at news, but also network television, including scripted shows and reality TV. Although the bulk of the book highlights the outrageous exploitation committed by media, he ends Race-Baiter by pushing the conversation forward in the hopefully titled chapter, “Talking Across Difference.” Racial, gender, and cultural differences best serve society through discussion, says Deggans, not exploitation for financial gain.
“Let’s fill Facebook pages, comment sections, and Twitter feeds with praise for outlets doing the right thing,” Deggans writes in his final chapter, “and scorn for those who choose another direction.”