Whither the Black Media

Black journalism was born in the spirit of protest, but you wouldn't have known that strolling through the National Association of Black Journalists' (NABJ) annual convention. Sure, there were workshops devoted to such thorny issues as black identity and journalistic objectivity, but that was convention esoterica. Most of the action was at the jobs fair, where dozens of media representatives furiously recruited top prospects. In some ways, the convention was nothing more than a careerist orgy.President Bill Clinton's appearance at the convention in Chicago in July provided unequivocal proof that the NABJ has arrived. The confab's bourgeois polish reflected the NABJ's increasingly middle-class demographics and signaled a transformation of black journalism unthinkable 22 years ago when the organization was founded. The poised, well-scrubbed NABJ members work for media organizations that wouldn't have given them the time of day before the moral and legislative victories of the civil rights movement. That black journalists would one day cavort with presidents is a prospect their forbears could hardly have imagined.Journalism, as practiced by blacks, was once renowned for its integrity and substance. Black journalists, for the most part, have historically rejected the mainstream press' pretense of objectivity and worked openly for racial justice. That protest tradition has been African-American journalism's distinguishing feature. The profession attracted many of black America's most notable leaders, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, William Monroe Trotter, W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Marcus Garvey and Roy Wilkins. Ever since Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm founded the abolitionist Freedom's Journal in New York during the 1820s, the black-owned media played the role of unapologetic advocates for racial equality.As late as the mid-1950s, the mainstream press continued to disregard life in the black community. But then came the civil rights movement-a story the white press could hardly ignore, though it tried mightily. During the terrifying outbreak of urban violence in the mid-'60s, President Lyndon Johnson impaneled the National Commission on Civil Disorders, popularly known as the Kerner Commission, to investigate.The Kerner Commission's report, released in 1968, warned that the United States was "moving toward two societies, one black, one white- separate and unequal." It blamed the urban unrest on persistent racial discrimination and a historical legacy of disadvantages, but it also singled out the nation's news media for censure. The media treated African-Americans as invisible, the commission concluded, and failed to communicate to their primarily white audience "a feeling for the difficulties and frustrations of being a Negro in the United States." The report chastised the media for being "shockingly backward" in not seeking out, hiring, training and promoting blacks. At the time, blacks made up less than 0.5 percent of all journalists.Apparently, the "long, hot summers" and the Kerner Report made their point. In the late '60s, mainstream publications and broadcast outlets began hiring black journalists in unprecedented numbers. In 1978, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) launched a campaign to lure more minorities into the media and pledged to reach racial parity in the nation's newsrooms by the year 2000. Meanwhile, black journalists made their own moves to strengthen their marginal presence in the nation's media. In 1975, a dozen or so black journalists came together to found the NABJ. The group set out as its mission "to expand and balance the media's coverage of the black community."Today that phrase is the last item in the NABJ mission statement. The focus now is more on "expanding job opportunities and recruiting activities for established African-American journalists and students interested in the journalism field.""The founders of the group saw it as an advocacy agency, but over the years it has become more career-oriented," says Edward "Buzz" Palmer, former president of the Chicago-based Black Press Institute. "All that black journalists had as a defining ideology was the color issue. Du Bois said that the color line would be the problem of the 20th century. The distribution of wealth will be the problem of the 21st century. Black journalists have no ideological guidance, so they don't even think about the role of black journalism as anything special. It's all just a well-paying job to many of them."For some black journalists, the job pays very well and occasionally confers the honors and privileges of media stardom, though they are rarely invited to discuss issues other than race. High-profile columnists, such as Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune, Juan Williams and William Raspberry of the Washington Post and Carl Rowan of the Chicago Sun-Times, command fat honoraria and garner considerable media exposure. Television news anchors, such as PBS' Charlayne Hunter-Gault and CNN's Bernard Shaw, have become nightly fixtures. But the gains made in recent years are beginning to slow, especially in the print media, as the industry adjusts to changing economic realities. The 1997 ASNE study found that African- Americans, who comprise almost 13 percent of the population, account for just 5.4 percent of the newsroom work force. Black representation decreased slightly from the 1996 survey, the first time that black employment did not show a yearly increase since ASNE began compiling statistics 19 years ago.This stall has not just been in hiring new personnel; suddenly, veteran columnists are being let go as publications consolidate and downsize. There are also ideological pressures on the increasingly corporate media to soften the voices of dissent. In July 1996, USA Today removed columnist Barbara Reynolds from her post. Karen Jurgensen, editorial page editor for USA Today, told the NABJ Journal that Reynolds' dismissal was a private matter and that it was part of a revamping of the newspaper's op-ed pages. The firing had "nothing to do with our commitment to diversity," she said.Reynolds, however, characterized her firing as "ethnic cleansing." In a statement condemning the Reynolds affair, along with the firing of Lisa G. Baird by the Bergen (N.J.) County Record, Earl Caldwell of the New York Daily News and Wayne Dawkins of the Camden-Cherry Hill (N.J.) Courier- Post, the NABJ argued that "African-American opinion writers can't help but interpret this move as meaning that unless one toes the line in these conservative political times, we too are subject to being fired or harassed."Black columnists who have attempted to provide an authentic black voice in publications with predominantly white readerships are increasingly being replaced by black columnists, such as Armstrong Williams, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, who openly pander to whites' distorted assumptions and biases.As the opening of the mainstream media brought some black journalists to unprecedented prominence, it eviscerated the black alternative press. There are about 210 black newspapers in the United States, most of them weeklies- down from 255 in 1968. Many of these operate with marginal budgets and skeletal staffs, often relying on wire services to provide their news content. Salaries are notoriously low. In the days when African-American reporters had no alternative to the black press, it was possible to attract and maintain talented staffers even under such conditions. Today it's rare to do so.As mainstream dailies hired more African-American writers and editors, they also began to target African-American readers. As a result, the black press lost much of its circulation and its influence. For example, the Chicago Defender, one of the great black big-city dailies, had a circulation of about 230,000 in 1915, 10 years after it was founded. By 1935, circulation dropped to 73,000, where it remained until the advent of the civil rights movement. In 1966, circulation was down to 36,541; it now hovers near 20,000.The only national black newspaper of note is the Nation of Islam's house organ, The Final Call, which has avoided many of the problems that plague the black press by distributing its own product. The Final Call often prints news stories and columns unavailable in black publications dependent on white advertisers and distribution companies.Nonetheless, a small reverse migration has begun, as black journalists and readers alike grow frustrated with mainstream fare. "They see these attacks from the right, the growing corporate ownership and the manic urge to downsize, and they're beginning to sense their own impotence," Palmer says.This fall, a black-oriented national weekly aimed at an upscale African- American market, Our World News, will hit the stands. The Baltimore-based publication, supported heavily by Dow Jones, is already on the World Wide Web and has hired several marquee names in black journalism, including Joel Dreyfuss, formerly of Fortune magazine, Paul Delaney, a former New York Times editor and chairman of the journalism department at the University of Alabama, and Thulani Davis, a former editor at the Village Voice.Because of its source of support, however, it's unlikely that Our World News will provide much information challenging the march of the markets or the consumerist status quo.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card

Close

Thanks for your support!

Did you enjoy AlterNet this year? Join us! We're offering AlterNet ad-free for 15% off - just $2 per week. From now until March 15th.