Are Diverse Hosts Like Shad and Larry Wilmore Set Up To Fail?

The Glass Cliff phenomenon suggests minorities are more likely to be put in high-profile positions that come with a higher risk of criticism and failure.
August 17, 2016, 3:43pm

Former q host, Shad. Frank Gunn/Canadian Press

Monday was a bad day for diversity in media.

By the lunch hour, news broke that Comedy Central's The Nightly Show was cancelled, and that Shad was being replaced by Tom Power as the host of CBC's flagship radio show, q. Twitter threads and thinkpieces arose with keen discussion about what the day's events meant for the media industry and the future of people other than white males within it. "Diversity" is an easy buzzword to toss around, but requires intention to implement successfully as a concept and industry standard. Giving space for diverse voices in media is wonderful, but are those voices understood? Are they supported and mentored, or left to fend for themselves then discarded when the metrics don't line up?

"I'm...saddened and surprised we won't be covering this crazy election or 'The Unblackening' as we've coined it," The Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter on Monday. "And keeping it 100, I guess I hadn't counted on 'The Unblackening' happening to my time slot as well." The Nightly Show's fate came down to an inability to connect with audiences as Comedy Central had hoped, "both in the linear channel and in terms of multiplatform outlets and with shareable content and on social platforms as well," said network president Kent Alterman. Couple that with the pressures of following behind The Daily Show with Trevor Noah—a program fraught with its own share of strain and critique since Jon Stewart left—and the decision came down that 18 months was enough time for The Nightly Show to prove itself.

Was Larry Wilmore set up to fail? Richard Shotwell/Associated Press.

North of the border, artist and radio show host Shad saw his exit from q—CBC's high-profile arts program—after less than 16 months on the job. Inheriting the show after longtime host Jian Ghomeshi was fired amid sexual assault accusations, Shad was originally viewed as an opportunity to attract a younger, fresher demographic. Through criticisms of his interview style and reports of slipping audience numbers, CBC conducted focus groups and surveys to gauge the show's reception. "They said basically, 'Be More,'" said Susan Marjetti, executive director of CBC Radio English Services. "'Be more Canadian, be more engaging, be more stimulating. Be more in the know.'"

Social media reactions to this quote were swift. Was Shad—Kenyan-born, London, Ont.-raised, bilingual, Juno award-winning Shad—supposed to "be more Canadian?" Or were respondents referring to the show's content and their wishes to hear from more Canadian guests? If it was the former, how does that reflect on future opportunities for non-whites in mainstream Canadian media, and our views on Canadian identity as a whole? And if it was the latter, most media outlets failed to also announce that Nick McCabe-Lokos and Lisa Godfrey, q's executive and senior producers, respectively, were replaced by Jennifer Moroz in Monday's shake-up. Addressing the critiques of Shad's interviewing style (which range from puritanical complaints of his use of slang to gripes over his method of questioning subjects), many have expressed a lack of confidence in the CBC that they provided the level of support and mentorship Shad needed to be successful. Tom Power, a 29-year-old bluegrass-loving St. John's native who joined CBC in 2008 will be taking over the hosting reins at q. As a more traditional figure who is popular with die-hard CBC listeners, it will be interesting to see how his tenure and the show's new direction are received.

I can't help but consider the Glass Cliff phenomenon when thinking about Shad and other minorities in media who seem to not have gotten a fair shake. The concept was developed by Dr. Michelle Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam at the University of Exeter, and looks at the idea that women and other minority groups are more likely to be appointed to high-profile positions with a higher risk of criticism and failure. Research shows that when companies are in crisis or facing a downturn, they place someone other than a traditional white male figure in a leadership position. Notable examples include Julia Pierson, the first woman appointed as director of the Secret Service, who was brought on to "clean up" the multiple messes of her predecessors' seven-year run. Pierson was ultimately asked to resign after a White House intruder incident, facing much swifter consequences than the white men who previously held the position. Marvin Ellison was appointed CEO of JC Penney in August 2015, and while he still holds the role, he is another key example of a diverse hire tasked with the duty of redirecting a struggling company, and presumed to face harsher criticism if he doesn't succeed.

Candidates like Pierson and Ellison often come with an exceptional skill set, but they are also consciously or subconsciously a symbolic representation of change—one that serves the company's interests more than the person in question. Glass Cliff also exposes the fact that diverse leadership appointment protects "in-group favouritism"—sheltering the demographic most often called on for leadership by positioning someone from the "out-group" as the fall person. This way, if the new leader fails to deliver—and falls off the cliff—the in-group is protected and validated as rightful leaders. Easy scapegoats are made through the Glass Cliff phenomenon, and certain biases about the value of diversity are upheld by decisions made under the guise of the concept. Again, an easy way to use "diversity" as a buzzword without any sincere intention behind it—an all-too-common scenario in the Canadian media landscape.

While Tom Power will be taking the helm at q, Alterman is seeking a replacement for Comedy Central's 11:30 PM slot, stating: "We're totally open to women and in whatever form of diversity would come, we're open to it for sure." It remains to be seen if Canadian media executives would say the same about opportunities here, and if they'd be prepared to provide space and demonstrated support for newcomers—particularly women of colour. Seeing how racialized media figures are treated, especially after this week's "unblackening" of American and Canadian media, the industry has to do more than prop a non-white male on set to show an invested approach to diversification.

Money talks and numbers matter—but without a concerted effort towards the growth and success of new voices, the industry will lose out on more than they expect in the long run. It's unfortunate to know that we'll never see how the sharp and witty Nightly Show tackles the upcoming election, or see the possibility of a true revitalization of q with Shad at the forefront. For the remaining figures in media who aren't white men: are you seated precariously at the edge of a cliff? You just might be.

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