Tag Archives: diversity

Holt, Wallace to moderate presidential debates

NBC News chief anchor Lester Holt will moderate the first of three scheduled debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Sept. 26, with ABC’s Martha Raddatz, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace lined up for the others.

The Commission on Presidential Debates also said CBS News’ Elaine Quijano will moderate the vice presidential debate between Republican Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine on Oct 4.

The third presidential debate, to be moderated by Wallace on Oct. 19, and first will be traditional question-and-answer sessions with the journalist choosing the topics. Raddatz and Cooper will team up for the second session on Oct. 9, a town hall-style meeting with half of the questions to be posed by audience members.

Each of the debates is scheduled for 90 minutes, with a 9 p.m. EDT start time.

Clinton has said she will participate in all three debates.

Trump as of Sept. 6 had not formally agreed, although he has reportedly been preparing to debate.

There was no immediate reaction from the candidates to the chosen moderators. The campaigns have no say in who is selected.

Moderating is one of a journalist’s most visible, and risky, roles.

Millions of people will be watching and ready to critique performances. Trump’s anger with Fox News’ Megyn Kelly was one of the primary campaign’s biggest stories, and it began because he didn’t like a debate question she asked about his attitude toward women.

The commission is bringing in new faces; none of those selected has moderated a general election debate before, although Raddatz did the 2012 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

Before Wallace’s selection, no Fox News personality had been a general election moderator.

It will be the first time since 1984 that the general election campaign’s much-anticipated first debate won’t be moderated by the now-retired Jim Lehrer of PBS. Two other 2012 moderators, Candy Crowley of CNN and Bob Schieffer of CBS, are also no longer active in TV news.

The leadoff position is a coup for Holt, who took over as NBC “Nightly News” anchor last year for Brian Williams and kept the broadcast on top of the ratings. The commission avoided potential political problems by not selecting Kelly or ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, who was a White House aide of Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Fallout, however, included a letter of protest sent to the commission by the president and CEO of Univision, the nation’s most popular Spanish-language network.

Randy Falco said he wanted to express his “disappointment, and frankly disbelief” that no Latino journalist was selected as a moderator.

“It’s an abdication of your responsibility to represent and reflect one of the largest and most influential communities in the U.S.,” Falco wrote.

Univision’s Jorge Ramos, who celebrates 30 years as anchor of the network’s evening newscast this fall, said this week that it was “high time” a Latino journalist was considered. He said he was interested, and suggested others like Jose Diaz-Balart of Telemundo and Maria Hinojosa of NPR.

Quijano is of Filipino descent. At 42, she’s the freshest face of the selections. She’s an anchor and leads political coverage at CBSN, CBS’ 24-hour streaming service, and anchors CBS’ Sunday evening newscast.

Although he hasn’t done a general election debate, Wallace has moderated GOP primary debates with colleagues Kelly and Bret Baier. During the primaries, Cooper moderated two debates and seven town halls on CNN.

Fox’s Wallace said he was excited by the opportunity.

“They knew I was interested,” he said. “You kind of put the word out there to the debate commission, but you can’t lobby for it. You can’t do anything. They end up deciding it.”

The commission, chaired by former Republican National Committee head Frank Fahrenkopf and former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, says little about its selection process.

Republican blasts UW diversity program as ‘liberal indoctrination’

A Republican state senator says a new diversity outreach program at the UW-Madison is “sinister.”

Sen. Steve Nass made the comment in reaction to UW-Madison announcing its plans to improve the experiences of minorities on the flagship campus. The plan calls for having new students discuss social differences, a new cultural center for black students and increased opportunities to take ethnic studies courses.

Nass is vice-chair of the Senate’s committee on universities.

Nass said university leaders “constantly complain about lacking money” but “they never lack money for advancing new and more sinister ways of liberal indoctrination of students.”

He said the initiative isn’t about advancing critical thinking, but about “telling students to think and act in ways approved by the liberal leadership of our universities.”

UW-Madison leaders, however, say they created the diversity program at issue after a series of race-related incidents have occurred on campus.

The campus will test the program, called Our Wisconsin, on up to 1,000 freshmen to allow students to learn about themselves and others, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

“That’s what the collegiate experience is all about,” UW-Madison Dean of Students Lori Berquam said. “Some of our students are joining us from small towns and they’re going to live in a residence hall that’s bigger.”

More than half of the university’s students are from Wisconsin, which the U.S. Census Bureau said was nearly 88 percent white in 2015.

The campus is part of a national trend of colleges that believe mandatory cultural competency orientation can relieve racial tensions and help students navigate diverse work environments after graduation.

The program’s creators said they consulted with other colleges that have implemented diversity programs, including University of Oklahoma, Oregon State University and the University of Michigan. A diversity consulting firm hired by the university wrote the program’s curriculum.

Chancellor Rebecca Blank set aside $150,000 to $200,000 from a special fund for the pilot program.

Lee Hansen, professor emeritus of economics at UW-Madison, has written several op-eds questioning the program and predicts there will be student backlash. He said the university’s population of more than 43,000 will always include some people who have unshakable views on race and that diversity training only pits students against one another.

Last year, the university saw incidents in which swastikas were taped to a Jewish student’s dorm room door, a Native American elder was heckled and a student of color received an anonymous note with racial threats.



Genetic insights about health risks limited by back of diversity

For consumers, the idea of getting a genetic test to determine risks for hereditary diseases is becoming an increasingly common proposition, but new research suggests that sometimes the accuracy of those results may depend on what ethnicity you are.

Take, for instance, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, one of the most common hereditary heart diseases. It is also a silent disorder that has caused countless young athletes to suffer sudden collapse or cardiac arrest during team practices or sporting events.

African Americans have traditionally been considered at higher risk for the disorder. But a study out Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that common ways to determine that level of risk may be skewed because studies have traditionally had low numbers of black participants. It turns out that genetic characteristics based on ethnic differences caused some people to be diagnosed with a predilection for the disease — even though those markers were actually benign.

The researchers suggest these findings indicate a need for diversity in genomic research in interpreting these differences.

“Historically we’ve had less African American representation in these studies,” said Arjun Manrai, lead author of the study and research fellow at the Harvard Medical School. “Our paper highlights ethnicity as a key way to get a handle on classification of genetic variants.” Genetic variants are differences in DNA structure that determine human features and are unique to every person.

Manrai first looked at the data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Exome Sequencing Project, which includes genomic data from 4,300 white Americans and 2,204 African Americans. He expected to find that 1 out of 500 individuals would have the genetic variants that cause the disease — that’s the rate at which the disorder occurs in the general population. But instead, he found that 1 out of 4 individuals had those mutations and those individuals were disproportionately African Americans.

“This was the initial shocking revelation,” he said.

His team decided to figure out if those mutations were misclassified as harmful. They first looked at the initial studies that identified these genetic variants as disease-causing, focusing on five specific abnormalities that appear most frequently in the NHLBI population. They found that these studies had small sample sizes and none had representative samples of African Americans in their control groups.

They then compared genetic sequences of African Americans and whites through the 1000 Genomes Project, which has genome data from 14 populations worldwide, confirming the five variants they identified occurred most commonly among African Americans.

At the same time, they examined data from the Laboratory for Molecular Medicine operated by Partners HealthCare Personalized Medicine, a clinical lab that diagnoses and performs genetic testing for patients. By using the lab’s classification system that includes data regarding the frequency of genetic variants in control populations, they determined that these five variants were actually benign. Four had been classified by the Human Gene Mutation Database in the most pathogenic category.

In the Partners’ clinic records for the past decade, the authors found seven patients of African or unspecified ancestry between 2005 and 2007 who were told they had the disease-causing genes based on these misclassified variants. According to their calculations, inclusion of even a small number of African Americans in study control groups could have prevented the misclassifications.

In regard to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the misdiagnoses of risk may have resulted in unnecessary hardships for the patients and the families. But the lack of diversity in scientific studies and control groups can have other significant implications. Esteban Burchard, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, has studied how genetic differences can lead to higher rates of asthma among African Americans, but the drugs designed to treat diseases, he wrote, often work better in people of European origins.

Burchard published a study last year that showed less than 5 percent of lung disease studies funded by the National Institutes of Health in the last two decades have statistically meaningful number of participants from ethnic minorities.

“It’s like basing your whole world … on one opinion or one biologic resource,” Burchard said. “And that’s a problem because we miss the variation in genetics that is present worldwide.”

Genomic data from diverse populations is needed to find mutations specific to different ethnicities that indicate disease or in some cases, demonstrate responsiveness to treatments, he said.

Manrai points toward relatively new projects, such as the NHLBI Exome Sequencing Project and the 1,000 Genomes that now have genomic sequences from diverse populations, although there is still a need for data from Native Americans and Asian Americans.

“There is now an opportunity to use those resources to study hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and other diseases as well as reassess a lot of studies that support the genetic studies that might be decades old,” Manrai said. “Since studies in the past do not have perfect mixes and they shape the current literature, it’s important to evaluate those studies with current data.”

This story by Zhai Yun Tan was made available by Kaiser Health News, a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

At the DNC: Dems showcase diversity, seek unity with 1st night

The Democratic National Convention opened July 25 in Philadelphia with a series of votes, including the adoption of the party’s most progressive platform.

The theme of day one is “putting the future of American families front and center and how we’re stronger together when we build an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top and when everyone has a chance to live up to their God-given potential.”

But the early speakers made clear that the first day is about celebrating the party’s diversity and building unity to challenge Donald Trump and Republicans in November.

At the podium, were Hillary Clinton delegates and Bernie Sanders delegates, and all urging the party to come together.

Day one at the Wells Fargo Center began with a call to order by  Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, DNC secretary and the mayor of Baltimore.

The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale, founding and pastor at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Georgia, delivered the invocation.

Members of the Delaware County American Legions and Veterans of Foreign Wars presented the colors.

Ruby Gilliam, a 93-year-old delegate from Ohio, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Early speakers included Clarissa Rodriguez, who at 17 is the youngest DNC delegate. She’s from Texas.

Fourteen-year-old Bobby Hill of the Keystone State Boychoir sang the national anthem.

The roll call followed, and then the introduction of and report of the rules committee by former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, who was met with cheers and boos — and recognized both — as well as former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, U.S. Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Marcia Fudge and Maxine Waters, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, former Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Next, the draft platform was presented and adopted.

Speakers, before prime time in Philadelphia, included U.S. Reps. Robert Brady, Brendan Boyle, Raúl Grijalva, Nita Lowey and New York Sen. Adriano Espaillat, Oregon Rep. Tina Kotek, California state Sen. Kevin de León,  Georgia Rep. Stacey Abrams, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy and DNC CEO Leah Daughtry.

Still to come, in the evening, were remarks by Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta, U.S. Rep. Linda Sánchez, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and labor leaders Lee Saunders of AFSCME, Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the NEA, Mary Kay Henry of SEIU, Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO, Sean McGarvey of NOBTU, Randi Weingarten of AFT.

A segment on combating substance abuse is set to include remarks by Pam Livengood of Keene, New Hampshire, and U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and be followed by a performance featuring Demi Lovato and the DNC house band: Steven Rodriguez, Charity Davis and Ayana Williams.

Other featured speakers will include U.S. Jeff Merkley, 11-year-old Karla Ortiz and mom and Francisca Ortiz, who will talk about immigration and dreams, DREAMer Astrid Silva, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez of Chicago.

In a segment on equality, Jason and Jarron Collins, twin brothers and former pro basketball players, will deliver speeches, along with Jesse Lipson and Nevada state Sen. Pat Spearman.

A segment on the economy will feature U.S.Sen. Bob Casey, Chillicothe Mayor Luke Feeney, U.S. Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

Disability rights advocate Anastasia Somoza and comic Sarah Silverman will perform, as will Paul Simon.

Actress Eva Longoria, founder of The Eva Longoria Foundation, will speak.

And then there will be remarks by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, Cheryl Lankford of San Antonio, Texas, first lady Michelle Obama, the U.S. Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren will deliver the keynote address.

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison will speak, followed by Bernie Sanders.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first female rabbi to hold a chief executive position in an American rabbinical association, will close the program with a benediction.

Broadway embraces diversity, but have things really changed?

This season, the theater community is celebrating how Broadway has finally become the Great un-White Way.

Black actors have taken center stage in The Color Purple, The Gin Game, Eclipsed and Shuffle Along. A Latin cast shines in On Your Feet! and Asian-Americans told a bitter tale from America’s past in Allegiance. The season’s megahit Hamilton, of course, has multi-racial leads in its DNA.

At Sunday’s Tony Awards, 14 of the 40 nominees for acting in plays and musicals — 35 percent — are actors of color. And more non-whites are nominated on the other side of the stage, including choreographer Savion Glover, director George C. Wolfe and playwright Danai Gurira.

But this season’s diversity may be more a coincidence of timing than Broadway stages consistently providing an accurate reflection of America’s melting pot.

“The aligning of the stars has occurred this year where a lot of really spectacular work featuring multi-racial casts and a true photograph of what the world and America really looks like is performing on Broadway night after night after night,” says The Color Purple producer Scott Sanders. “Will we see this being the norm moving forward? I’m not so sure.”

Neither is Pun Bandhu, an Asian-American actor and a member of the Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s steering committee. The group is the only one that collects data on Broadway’s diversity — it started collecting it nine years ago — and it offers a sober outlook.

According to its latest report, non-white actors haven’t ever in the past nine years represented more than 26 percent of all Broadway roles. Though numbers for the current season aren’t ready yet, the numbers for minority roles last season actually dipped to 22 percent, down from the previous season’s 25 percent.

“What last year’s numbers prove is that while we may be having an extra diverse year this year … that’s not usually the case,” said Bandhu. “It hasn’t changed that much actually on Broadway.”

The numbers suggest improvements one year, then a drop-off the next. The 2013–14 season was rich with roles for African-Americans, including A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington, Audra McDonald channeling Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill and the dance show After Midnight.

There were also African-Americans in roles previously performed almost exclusively by white actors, like James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie in Aladdin, Nikki M. James and Kyle Scatliffe in Les Miserables, and Norm Lewis becoming the first black Phantom on Broadway in The Phantom of the Opera.

That season, black actors represented 21 percent of all roles. But the next season, the number fell to 9 percent.

This ebb and flow is nothing new to Stephen C. Byrd, a veteran Broadway producer behind this season’s Eclipsed. He recalls a diverse Broadway when he produced an all-black revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 2008.

Back then, Morgan Freeman was starring in The Country Girl, Laurence Fishburne was in Thurgood and such shows as Passing Strange, In the Heights and the original run The Color Purple were playing.

“That was a time of great diversity on Broadway,” said Byrd, who produces minority-driven works with Alia Jones-Harvey. “We’ve been at this for 10 years and it’s taken from that time to come to where we are today to see that same diversity on Broadway.”

This season, Byrd is watching as Broadway is cheered for its inclusiveness at a time when the film industry has come under heavy criticism for a lack of diversity in the Academy Awards. There’s even been the bragging hashtag #BroadwaySoDiverse to rival #OscarsSoWhite.

But next season isn’t shaping up to be a #BroadwaySoDiverse sort of year.

While black actresses will lead Cats and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and African-American actors will be represented in revivals of Motown: The Musical and August Wilson’s Jitney, the lead actors are so far all white for the upcoming The Cherry Orchard, Heisenberg, The Glass Menagerie, The Master Builder, The Present, The Bandstand, Hello, Dolly!, The Little Foxes, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Falsettos.

Of the six leading parts in Holiday Inn, only one will be played by an actor of color. All six leading roles in a revival of The Front Page will be played by white actors.

“As a producer, you have to be aware that audiences are demanding diversity. They want to see themselves reflected on the stage,” said Bandhu. “I think it has been proven that diversity is good for Broadway.”

Box office data shows that overall Broadway grosses are flat , meaning producers will have to attract new theater-goers, including minorities, if they want to see profits to go back up.

One such person used to be Daveed Diggs, an actor and rapper who earned a Tony nomination in his Broadway debut in Hamilton. Raised in the Bay Area, Diggs said he never went to Broadway when he visited New York.

“As someone who was on the outside of it, who’s always been on the outside of it, there is an elitism that you feel coming from Broadway,” he said. “I didn’t care because it didn’t seem like they cared about me.”

Liesl Tommy, the South African-born and Tony-nominated director of Eclipsed, has made it her mission to change that feeling, hiring people of color for the creative team and onstage. “To think that you are not part of the problem is a grave mistake,” she said.

Perhaps her most influential work is actually far from Broadway — the 2,000 seat theater at Disneyland where she directed a stage production of Frozen that will be seen by up to 10,000 people a day.

“One of the things I had to advocate for was diversity in casting, says Tommy, who has watched people — black and white — in tears as a young black actress belts out Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go.”

On Broadway, no show has more captured the cultural mood like Hamilton — connecting musical theater to hip-hop and celebrating minority actors. Other important firsts were made in non-traditional casting, including Sophie Okonedo in The Crucible and Forest Whitaker in Hughie.

But even in this diverse season, there were some sour notes, as when Dames at Sea included grotesque racial stereotypes and a revival of Noises Off — a farce about the making of a stage show — had no minorities among its nine-member cast.

“The message that that sends is that, ‘Theater is for white people.’ For a show that is supposed to celebrate the industry as a whole, it really is glaring that people of color were completely omitted from that,” Bandhu says.

He urges producers to push for non-traditional casting — he congratulates “Waitress” for hiring non-whites for two-thirds of the lead actresses — and putting minority actors in lead roles.

“Hopefully things like Hamilton start to change the curve a little bit. The penny starts to drop. When you start seeing more visible talent from actors of color and you start seeing them populating stages, then their absence becomes even more stark.”

The Tony Awards broadcast on CBS at 7 p.m. June 12. Actor and The Late Show star James Corden will host. Visit tonyawards.com for more details.

Fire and Police Commission needs youth, diversity

The Police Accountability Workgroup sent the following to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and copied the Common Council and Fire and Police Commission Board of Directors.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin defends the civil liberties and rights of all Wisconsin residents and, as you know, has worked on policing matters for many years.

We convene a police accountability workgroup composed of community-based organizations from across Milwaukee.

We expect that you will be considering up to three new candidates for appointment to the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission Board of Directors and we strongly encourage you to nominate individuals who possess several of the following attributes:

• Are under 35 years old and have knowledge about and experience with the issues young people are facing.

• Represent targeted populations that have high degrees of police contact.

• The ability to analyze data and think critically.

• The ability to ask difficult questions of authority figures.

• The ability to advocate for the community regarding police issues in the city of Milwaukee and work with diverse constituencies, i.e., the Milwaukee Police Department, Fire and Police Commission, other elected officials, and the community, in an oversight role.

• Experience with human resources and critical skill sets, such as implicit bias training, de-escalation techniques and mental health issues.

• The ability to make policy and procedural recommendations, including creating or evaluating policies and procedures for an organization of more than 100 employees.

• The ability to develop and utilize outreach strategies to obtain input regarding Milwaukee Police Department policy and procedures and their impact on the community.

We also encourage you to hold public listening sessions with prospective commissioners before their appointment.

We believe it is necessary to assure the public that the board of the fire and police commission will be representative of them and responsive to their concerns.

To reiterate: We urge the Mayor to appoint three qualified individuals to the Board of Milwaukee’s Fire and Police Commission.

Thank you for your cooperation on behalf of the undersigned community leaders and organizational representatives: Chris Ahmuty, American Civil Liberties Union; Fred Royal, NAACP Milwaukee Branch; Coalition for Justice; Rev. Steve Jerbi, All Peoples Church; Black Student Union at MATC; The Dominican Center; Bishop Jeff Barrow, Greater Milwaukee Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Hmong Human Rights; Martin Luther King Justice Coalition; Sr. Rose Stietz, MICAH; Milwaukee Christian Center; Milwaukee Public Theatre; Showing Up for Racial Justice – Milwaukee Branch; True Skool; Urban Underground; Voces de la Frontera; Wisconsin Black Historical Society; and YWCA Southeastern Wisconsin


Conservationists aiming to protect river sue to stop homes

Conservation groups are suing to block the development of a massive master-planned community in southern Arizona in the hopes of protecting the last major free-flowing river in the Southwest.

The Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity and five other groups filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against a pair of federal agencies for allowing El Dorado Holdings Inc. to fill in desert washes without adequately studying the development’s effect on the environment.

Their attorney said his clients want to ensure the San Pedro River and the wildlife it supports are protected.

“They can’t just plow ahead and allow this to go through without considering the effect it’s going to have,” said Chris Eaton, attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm.

The river, which flows north from Mexico through southeastern Arizona until its confluence with the Gila River, supports a cottonwood-willow forest and is an important corridor for migratory birds. It also is home to endangered species including the ocelot, the yellow-billed cuckoo and the northern Mexican garter snake.

El Dorado Holdings Inc. has proposed a 28,000-home master-planned community called the Villages at Vigneto near Benson, with an 18-hole golf course, parks and hiking trails. The development would be about 2 miles from the San Pedro River.

El Dorado Holdings Inc. — founded by Diamondbacks co-owner Mike Ingram — is not a party to the lawsuit and plans to move forward with the development, but it has not yet set a date to break ground, said Mike Reinbold, a partner at the company.

“We are in compliance with all local, state and federal laws,” he said.

The lawsuit says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service failed to look at how the community would affect the environment under the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts. Both agencies declined to comment.

The Army Corps of Engineers previously issued a permit in the same spot to a different master-planned community called Whetstone Ranch in 2006. El Dorado bought the land in 2014, and the permit along with it.

Eaton, the Earthjustice lawyer, said the environmental groups have a responsibility to ensure the development does not adversely affect the river’s endangered species, vegetation and watershed.

“We’re going after both agencies, and the duty to consult is put on both agencies. But it’s up to the Army Corps to make the first effort,” he said. “But it’s also up to the Fish and Wildlife Service to make sure the consultation is meaningful.”

Sandy Bahr, director of Arizona’s Sierra Club chapter, said the development could destroy vital habitat for many imperiled species dependent upon the river.

“We’ve dried up a number of other rivers in our state, and the San Pedro is already a threatened river,” Bahr said. “We don’t want the next development. That will be the nail of the coffin in the San Pedro.”

A second lawsuit is underway in Cochise County, along a different section of the San Pedro, over a developer’s access to groundwater rights that could affect the river near the city of Sierra Vista.

Game developers find creativity in diversity with Overwatch

When the makers of the globe-hopping video game Overwatch were coming up with the backstory for a character with the ability to freeze enemies and erect ice walls, their initial inclination was to make her homeland a stereotypically chilly place, someplace like Iceland, Canada or Norway.

“That’s what you would expect,” said game director Jeff Kaplan. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if she was from somewhere else? What if she was from China? How would that look?’ It’s not your normal expectation, and that’s what is cute, adorable, endearing and exciting about that character.”

Inspired by Chinese ice sculpture festivals, Overwatch lead character concept artist Arnold Tsang crafted a look for Mei, the bespectacled climatologist among the 21 characters of various races, genders, nationalities and sexual orientations which players can portray in the superhero-inspired multiplayer game out May 24.

Mei’s unlikely heritage and ability to encase her body in a chunk of ice aren’t her only unique attributes. She doesn’t sport a busty, Barbie-like physique that most female characters have in video games.

“From a visual standpoint, we want every character to have a different silhouette, not just because that’s more interesting to look at but because you want to be able to know which character is coming at you from a distance when you’re playing,” said Tsang. “With that sort of philosophy, it’s easy to embrace diversity.”

For years, the video game industry has been criticized for relying on stereotypes and not depicting a wider array of characters. Many games invite players to construct their own avatars, but a new wave of multiplayer games such as Battleborn, Paragon and Overwatch are providing dizzying rosters of defined characters – each with different looks, abilities and histories.

The initial line-up of 21 heroes for Overwatch features 10 men, eight women, a pair of robots and one genetically engineered gorilla. (By contrast, the original Mortal Kombat featured six men and one woman when it was first released in 1992.)

Kaplan said the top three most popular Overwatch characters in the game’s open beta, which was played by 9.7 million people earlier this month, were nefarious French female assassin Widowmaker, hardened American male vigilante Soldier: 76 and high-flying Egyptian female security chief Pharah.

The decision to construct such an assorted cast apparently wasn’t motivated by the bottom line. Kaplan said the studio didn’t use any player demographic data gathered by publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. over the years to conceive characters that might generate more sales in particular regions of the world. However, actual Chinese gamers will be able to play as Mei. Blizzard tapped Chinese online company NetEase Inc. to release Overwatch in China.

“I think diversity is a nice byproduct of us trying to create heroes that people will love,” said Kaplan. “We didn’t set out to have a hero of every race, nationality, body type or gender. That’s not the goal – or really even possible with a game like this one. However, by not limiting ourselves creatively, it steers us back to this diverse place.”

Overwatch is the first new franchise in nearly 20 years from Blizzard, the studio behind the wildly successful Warcraft and StarCraft fantasy and sci-fi series. It also more closely resembles the real world, despite all the futuristic laser guns and over-the-top superpowers.

“When we decided to set Overwatch on this optimistic, near-future version of Earth, the most exciting thing was that we could take inspiration from all these different places and cultures,” said senior game designer Michael Chu. “For me, that was exciting after working on Blizzard games that took place in totally fantastical worlds.”

Chu noted that the developers aren’t attempting to appease every fan or create a character to represent every region. He’s hopeful players will find different aspects of themselves in the heroes of Overwatch.

While the game’s focus is more on squad-based action than a detailed storyline, Blizzard is expanding on the fiction in animated shorts, comics and other material outside the frenetic matches that make up Overwatch gameplay.

Other characters include a pink-haired Russian bodybuilder named Zarya, who is equipped with a cannon and gravity bombs, as well as a Brazilian disc jockey with the power to heal or speed up his teammates with his beats. His name is Lucio, the game’s only black character.

“We do have a level set in a first-world African nation called Numbani that is a place that humans and robots built together in harmony,” said Chu. “We’ve got so many ideas for more characters. If we could make 100 characters, we’d still have more ideas. This is just where we’re starting.”

On the Web


Will women see a break in Hollywood’s ‘celluloid ceiling’?

“Well, the time has come,” announced presenter Barbra Streisand at the 2010 Oscars, revealing that Kathryn Bigelow had won the best director prize for “The Hurt Locker” — the first woman in history to win the award.

It was a watershed moment in Hollywood, and many were hopeful — if not certain — that it would usher in an era of increased opportunity for women directors.

Six years later, though, the slate of best-director nominees is all male, as it has been every year since Bigelow won.

In fact, women have been nominated only four times in the Oscars’ 88-year history.

“Of course, the ‘Bigelow effect’ never materialized,” says Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The Center’s latest annual study found that women comprised just 9 percent of directors on the top 250 films in 2015, the same as in 1998. Studies have shown similar disproportion for women in other key behind-the-camera roles.

But is the tide turning?

While recent attention has focused intensely on the #OscarsSoWhite campaign sparked by the lack of racial diversity in the Oscar nominations, some women in Hollywood are heartened — albeit cautiously — by recent developments that should benefit women and minorities, both behind the camera and in front.

“What we’re seeing is an undercurrent of anger over the lack of inclusion in Hollywood,” says Janice Min, a veteran industry observer who oversees both The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard. “That conversation can only have beneficial effects on women.”

Min notes that the recent focus on unequal pay for women — sparked by Patricia Arquette’s fiery Oscar speech last year, then intensified by high-profile comments from Jennifer Lawrence  — has for the moment receded from the spotlight amid questions of racial diversity. But it’s all part of the larger picture. “Yes, there will be some parts of the issue that will be resolved first, and some later,” she says. “But the fact that discussion is happening at all is stunning. It’s a real revolution in Hollywood.”

A few recent developments have provided cause for some hope. The first, of course, is the pledge by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to double the number of women and people of color among its membership ranks by 2020. There is also an EEOC investigation under way into possible discriminatory hiring practices of women directors, prompted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

More recently, Ryan Murphy, one of the more powerful figures in television, said he aims to have 50 percent of all director slots on his shows filled by women, people of color and members of the LGBT community. “I personally can do better,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.

Still, cautions Lauzen, there is a huge gap between talk and action.

“While it appears to be a step in the right direction, at this point it is just a promise,” she says of the Academy’s move. And of the EEOC investigation, she says, “any hiring goals that may result will need to be mandatory, and there will need to be significant oversight. That would be a tall order and a move without precedent in the film industry.”

Lauzen’s report, “The Celluloid Ceiling,” found that in 2015, women comprised 19 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers on the top 250 domestic grossing films — an increase of 2 percentage points from last year, and the same as in 2001.

It also found that women in certain roles more traditionally identified with males — such as directors and cinematographers _ increased steadily as more films (the top 500, say, instead of the top 100) were examined, suggesting that on the biggest-budget films, “hiring decisions for these roles may be most susceptible to mainstream film industry biases.”

A bright spot, Lauzen notes, is that films with at least one woman director also employ greater percentages of women in other roles. “On films with at least one female director, women comprised 53 percent of writers,” Lauzen says. On films with male directors, women accounted for only 10 percent of writers. Films with female directors and writers also tend to have higher percentages of female characters, and especially female protagonists. 

Some high-profile Hollywood actresses have found they needed to become producers themselves to get the substantive roles they desired. “I was seeing a deficit in leading roles for women,” Reese Witherspoon told The Associated Press in a 2014 interview. “It was just the lack of complex characters, of interesting, dynamic women onscreen.” Witherspoon has produced both “Gone Girl” and, starring herself, “Wild,” both films with complex female protagonists.

And Halle Berry said recently that she’d set up her own production company in 2014 partly because she had found it difficult, since becoming the first black best-actress Oscar winner in 2002, to find the right substantive roles.

Actresses of color face a tougher climb than anyone, says Chris Rock, who will host the Oscars on Sunday. “Black women get paid less than everybody in Hollywood,” he recently told Essence magazine. “Everybody’s talking about Jennifer Lawrence. Talk to Gabrielle Union … talk to Nia Long. Talk to Kerry Washington. They would love to get to Jennifer Lawrence’s place, or just be treated with the same amount of respect.”

What will it take to change?

Lauzen says the issue is the mindset at the top. “Many of those with the power to shift the gender ratios — executives at the film studios, and leaders at the academy and at guilds — have not perceived women’s under-employment as a problem. In other words, there has been little real will to change.”

Attorney Melissa Goodman of the ACLU of Southern California, which last May asked the EEOC to investigate studios’ “systemic failure to hire women directors,” says she is hopeful for change.

“I’m optimistic that with time, our most important cultural product — our films and television shows — will increasingly come to reflect the diversity and diversity in viewpoints in our society,” she says. “In the meantime, Hollywood decision-makers must remember that they do not get a free pass to discriminate and violate civil rights laws.”

As for Min, she notes that despite some evidence of “diversity fatigue” — people at lunches and dinners who are saying, “enough with all this already” — she still thinks things are looking up.  “In a world where it’s always been all talk and no action, it’s pretty stunning to see action being taken.”

Besides, even where intentions aren’t the best, there’s always the fear of shame to get things moving.

“One of the things you can count on in Hollywood is a climate of fear,” Min says. “People will be motivated by fear of being shamed.”

Damning study finds a ‘whitewashed’ Hollywood

In one of the most exhaustive and damning reports on diversity in Hollywood, a new study finds that the films and television produced by major media companies are “whitewashed,” and that an “epidemic of invisibility” runs top to bottom through the industry for women, minorities and LGBT people.

A study by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism offers one of the most wide-ranging examinations of the film and television industries, including a pointed “inclusivity index” of 10 major media companies — from Disney to Netflix — that gives a failing grade to every movie studio and most TV makers.

Coming days before an Academy Awards where a second straight year of all-white acting nominees has enflamed an industry-wide crisis, the report offers a new barrage of sobering statistics that further evidence a deep discrepancy between Hollywood and the American population it entertains, in gender, race and ethnicity.

“The prequel to OscarsSoWhite is HollywoodSoWhite,” said Stacy L. Smith, a USC professor and one of the study’s authors, in an interview. “We don’t have a diversity problem. We have an inclusion crisis.”

The study, the Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, examined the 109 films released by major studios in 2014 and 305 scripted, first-run TV and digital series across 31 networks and streaming services that aired from September 2014 to August 2015. More than 11,000 speaking characters were analyzed for gender, racial and ethnic representation and LGBT status. Some 10,000 directors, writers and show creators were examined, as was the gender of more than 1,500 executives.

The portrait is one of pervasive underrepresentation, no matter the media platform, from CEOs to minor characters. “Overall, the landscape of media content is still largely whitewashed,” the study concludes.

In the 414 studied films and series, only a third of speaking characters were female, and only 28.3 percent were from minority groups — about 10 percent less than the makeup of the U.S. population. Characters 40 years or older skew heavily male across film and TV: 74.3 percent male to 25.7 percent female.

Just 2 percent of speaking characters were LGBT-identified. Among the 11,306 speaking characters studied, only seven were transgendered (and four were from the same series). 

“When we start to step back to see this larger ecology, I think we see a picture of exclusion,” said Smith. “And it doesn’t match the norms of the population of the United States.”

Behind the camera, the discrepancy is even greater. Directors overall were 87 percent white. Broadcast TV directors (90.4 percent white) were the least diverse.

Just 15.2 percent of directors, 28.9 percent of writers and 22.6 percent of series creators were female. In film, the gender gap is greatest: Only 3.4 percent of the films studied were directed by women, and only two directors out of the 109 were black women: Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and Amma Asante (“Belle”).

Following a request made in May by the American Civil Liberties Union (which cited previous USC studies, as well as those by UCLA and the Directors Guild in claiming women have been “systematically excluded” from directing jobs), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last year began investigating gender discrimination in Hollywood.

The federal investigation is just one element of growing scrutiny for the industry. But for protesters, finding a target for what some consider a systematic problem isn’t easy. Even many of those, like Spike Lee, who have criticized the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, have insisted the issue goes far deeper than Oscar nominees. When academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs recently announced dramatic steps to diversify the overwhelmingly white and male film academy, she said: “The academy is going to lead, and not wait for the industry to catch up.”

USC’s study, which the school has been publishing in various forms for the last 10 years, also seeks to add a new metric in the conversation. The “inclusivity index” is a report card for the performances of 21st Century Fox, CBS, NBC Universal, Sony, the Walt Disney Co., Time Warner, Viacom, Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Those companies encompass all the broadcast networks, most major cable channels, all of the major movie studios and three of the dominant streaming services. 

Each was rated by their percentage of female, minority and LGBT characters; and of female writers and directors. None of the six major studios rated better than 20 percent overall; Time Warner fared poorest of all with a score of zero. The report concludes that the film industry “still functions as a straight, white, boy’s club.”

Disney, Sony, Paramount, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. didn’t immediate comment.

Some of the same companies, however, scored better when their TV and digital offerings were evaluated. Disney, the CW, Amazon and Hulu all scored 65 percent and above.

“When we turn to see where the problem is better or worse, the apex to this whole endeavor is: Everyone in film is failing, all of the companies investigated,” said Smith. “They’re impervious to change. But there are pockets of promise in television. There is a focus that change is possible. The very companies that are inclusive — Disney, CW, Hulu, Amazon to some degree — those companies, if they’re producing and distributing motion pictures, can do this. We now have evidence that they can, and they can thrive.”

USC researchers also, for the first time, added analysis of those 10 companies’ executives. Researchers didn’t have racial or ethnic background information, but found that women represent about 20 percent of corporate boards, chief executives and executive management teams.

“As prestige or power of the title increases, we see fewer women at the top,” said Katherine Pieper, who co-authored the study with Smith and Marc Choueiti. “Film still has a prestige to it, so we see fewer women filling those positions.”

The research offers the chance for comparison between mediums. Do streaming services adhere to the established patterns of traditional television or deviate from them?

In some cases, they do, but in many, they don’t. Netflix (20 percent on the inclusion index) scored about the same as NBC Universal, CBS and Fox. There were far fewer female directors working in digital series (11.8 percent) than in broadcast (17.1 percent), in the shows studied. Broadcast, cable and steaming series also all revel in sexualized female characters and nudity more than movies do.

But some of the study’s most troubling finds are simply absences. Roughly 50 percent of the examined content didn’t feature one Asian or Asian-American character; 20 percent didn’t include one black character. Researchers argue for change beyond “tokenism,” including making target goals public and creating a system of checks and balances in storytelling decisions.

“People are still erased. It’s 2016 and it’s time for a change,” said Smith. “We’ve laid out concrete actionable steps because we don’t want to do this again in 10 years.”