Eric Deggans Ready to Talk TV, on the Radio

By Gail Shister 

When Eric Deggans stopped by NPR’s booth at the National Association of Black Journalists convention three years ago, the last thing on his mind was a job.

“I just wanted to say how much I love NPR,” says Deggans, 47, veteran TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

A friendly conversation with NPR executive Steve Drummond led, a year later, to freelance commentaries. And that led to Deggans’ hire last week as NPR’s first full-time TV critic and correspondent. He begins Oct. 1.

“I’m ecstatic,” says Deggans, author of last year’s ‘Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.’ “I’m a huge NPR fan. Doing freelance was so much fun, and the people were so cool. This is an amazing thing.”

Leaving the Tampa Bay Times won’t be easy, Deggans says. He joined the paper in 1995 as pop music critic, moving to the TV beat in ’97. In ’05, after a year’s stint on the editorial board, he returned to the arts desk, as media writer. He added TV critic to his title in ’06.

“I really love working here,” he says. “The Tampa Bay Times is the reason I’m the journalist I am now. Everything I learned about the finer points of the job has come from them. They’ve always backed me.

“Ultimately, NPR was such an amazing opportunity to be heard on a national stage, I couldn’t turn it down. I wish I could cut myself in half, and do both jobs.” He is also talking to CNN about a guest-hosting shot on “Reliable Sources,” on which he frequently appears.

Deggans, raised in Gary, Ind., and graduated from Indiana University, says his plan is to remain in Tampa for the next two years so that the youngest of his four children can complete elementary school. At that point, the family will relocate to L.A., he says.

Deggans’ new role will not affect that of David Bianculli, longtime TV critic for Terry Gross’ ‘Fresh Air,’ according to Deggans, nor that of media correspondent David Folkenflik.

“We’ve reached the point as a society where TV is crucial to popular culture,” Deggans says. “NPR realizes that. They’ve slowly built up their critical resources to make sure they were ready to go into that realm.”

A frequent commentator on race and media, Deggans contributed to NPR’s coverage of the Trayvon Martin case. He also writes for Code Switch, the public network’s blog about race, ethnicity and culture.

Deggans, who says he has had the experience of being racially profiled, wasn’t surprised by the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial.

“I knew ‘reasonable doubt’ would be a high hurdle,” he says. “I was hoping the prosecutors would deliver some evidence that would answer the ultimate question – how did the fight start, who was the aggressor? The prosecutors never really answered that question. To me, that’s reasonable doubt.”

The ensuing cable cacophony, notably the commentary by Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly and his unlikely ally, Don Lemon of CNN, have missed the point, in Deggans’ view.

“People want to talk about a whole constellation of issues because everybody is paying attention to race right now. I don’t want to conflate them with the issues sparked by the Zimmerman trial – how the public justice system treats people of color and whether stereotypes of black people still exist.

“We’re talking apples and oranges. People want to shift the conversation from institutional prejudice to ‘Let’s talk about what black people are doing.’ We’re still living in a world where people are judged by their skin color.

“The Zimmerman verdict is only one element of the issue.”

Full disclosure: I have known Deggans professionally for many years.