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TELEVISION

Playing the Name Game

Newscasters with Anglo-sounding last names are switching to ethnic handles. It gets them work--but some ask if it's ethical.

August 18, 1996|Scott Collins | Scott Collins is a regular contributor to Calendar

Meanwhile, young white reporters privately admit that they have been pressured by agents and news directors to use ethnic surnames to improve their marketability. Several TV journalists contacted for this story insisted that white reporters with scant claims to minority status have helped their careers along by switching to bogus Latino names. But the proof for such charges proved elusive.

"There are obvious benefits to being labeled Hispanic," says Bill Slatter, a broadcast talent scout in Natchez, Miss. "Hispanic reporters and anchors are a scarce commodity."

The situation has led to hard feelings among minority and white broadcasters who believe that colleagues are using ethnic names to gain an unfair advantage in a fiercely competitive job market.

"I don't want to sound like an angry white male," says Chris Williamson, a reporter at KTVL-TV in Medford, Ore., "but it can't help sticking in your craw when you see agents and news directors falling all over themselves to hire" reporters who have adopted ethnic last names.

Williamson believes name-changing is "almost like [a journalist] staging a story. . . . We all know TV can be a very shallow business at times. There are lots of people who have done this for surface reasons and not substantial reasons."

Industry observers say ethnic name-changing is an unintended result of government regulation. The Federal Communications Commission, which licenses U.S. radio and TV stations, has since 1969 mandated affirmative-action rules based on regional demographics, according to FCC General Counsel William Kennard.

The agency requires each station to fill out a form describing its efforts to recruit minorities and women. Management must hire a proportion of each minority equal to at least half of the proportion of that minority in the regional work force. For example, if the work force at large is 20% Latino, the station must have a staff that is at least 10% Latino. (The FCC waives the requirement if a minority represents 5% or less of the regional labor pool.)

If a station is found to violate the rules, the FCC can impose a fine. In extreme cases, the agency can also refuse to renew the station's license. The threat of these and other sanctions can make stations vulnerable to pressure from activist groups.

Last year, Asian American groups protested what they viewed as the demotion of anchor Tritia Toyota at KCBS-TV Channel 2. And the California Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings in 1994 on perceived anti-minority bias in TV newsrooms, especially at KCBS and KNBC.

But in practice, Kennard notes, stations are rarely penalized by the FCC for breaking affirmative-action rules. Nor does the agency generally demand proof of workers' minority status.

"In most cases, we rely on the good faith of the licensee," Kennard says. "We're not aware that [ethnic name-changing] is a widespread problem. You have to be careful in second-guessing someone's claim to minority status."

The phenomenon does not seem as prevalent in print journalism, where minority hiring practices are not specifically mandated by a federal agency, nor does it arise often in other industries, according to government officials.

Name-changing for career advantage "is not an issue that's come up that I'm aware of," says a spokesman for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal antidiscrimination laws in the workplace.

To satisfy FCC rules as well as activists' demands, news directors who hire on-air talent seek out applicants with evident minority credentials. But because of the legal minefield surrounding affirmative action issues, few news executives make any determined effort to verify candidates' ethnic backgrounds, sources agree.

"There's a certain amount of 'Don't ask, don't tell' that goes on" surrounding ethnic name changes, says Don Fitzpatrick, a leading San Francisco-based headhunter for the TV news industry.

Indeed, misinformation about affirmative-action and antidiscrimination issues is common. Several industry executives confidently indicated that employers are barred by law from asking applicants about ethnicity.

"A lot of laws restrict us from asking specific questions about a candidate's background," says Bill Lord, news director at KNBC, who reiterated his station's commitment to diversity. "In most cases, it would seem to me that a person's ethnic background is fairly obvious."

In fact, the FCC's Kennard says, such questions are lawful as long as the information is not used as a basis for hiring decisions.

But while a person's ethnic background may be "fairly obvious," that has not prevented some broadcast journalists from trying to make their ethnicity a little more obvious.

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