In Whose Image?

At the NAACP’s 33rd "IMAGE AWARDS," -- billed as Black America’s answer to the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys and Pulitzers and broadcast on Fox earlier this month -- one radical moment pierced through the Hollywood fanfare, fashion follies and celebrity thank-yous to "G-d and my agent."

It came when cartoonist Aaron McGruder accepted the Chairman’s Award for "The Boondocks," one of America’s only black-themed -- and politically progressive -- syndicated comics.

McGruder faced the television cameras and said, "I created the strip because I wanted to create a radical Black voice that the United States government could not kill." To audience cheers, he continued: "My politics, for those of you who read the strip, are well known. I don’t like the president; I don’t like the war... The strip is about getting people to challenge what they tell you. Because they are lying."

McGruder brings this defiant, unapologetically anti-racist voice to hundreds of newspapers every day. A biting satirist, he’s a perfect choice for NAACP honors. But not half an hour after the cartoonist encouraged opposition to official lies, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume presented another Image Award to one of the government’s biggest propogandists -- National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

Mfume described Rice as "an honest broker" between international warring factions. In reality, Rice has been a key information censor for Bush’s war machine, pressuring the networks to suppress information unflattering to the administration. Mfume also raved about Condi’s influence in the White House, unprecedented for an African-American woman. But blanket ascension to power should not be the main requirement for civil rights honors -- socially relevant work should be.

The President’s Award, according to the NAACP, is supposed to honor those who "advance the ideals of the NAACP through image, personal achievement and service to all people of color."

But, as McGruder noted in a scathing Boondocks strip, "She works for a man who disenfranchised thousands of black voters!" and "She personally wrecked the world conference against racism!" In fact, a more appropriate name for Rice’s commendation, McGruder scoffed, would be "President Bush’s Most Embarrassing Black Person" award.

It is self-destructive, if not politically masochistic, for the NAACP to lavish praise on someone whose work runs counter to their civil rights mission. Instead of showcasing "those who strive for the portrayal of positive images and meaningful opportunities for African-Americans," the NAACP’s annual media love-fest seems to prioritize fame, power and real-politic over substance.

Sadly, the NAACP isn’t alone. Too many left-liberal groups share this shortsighted media strategy when it comes to awards.

For example, the GLAAD Media Awards nominated Newsweek for excellence in overall coverage this year. But some good gay and lesbian-themed stories notwithstanding, I question the judgment of a liberal media watch group rewarding a magazine that has often exploited women’s sexuality on its covers, and has prodded single women toward marriage and motherhood with repeated reports about feminists becoming unhappy, childless spinsters in their old age.

For the last two years the National Organization for Women has ranked "Ally McBeal" among the top shows in their Feminist Primetime Report, in part because the program includes women characters in strong professional positions. Yet the show’s fictional females are unhealthily skinny neurotics who say they’ll never be happy without husbands.

And let’s not forget the lesbian magazine Girlfriends, which once named Chevron and Monsanto two of the "ten best places for lesbians to work." Apparently human rights violations and environmental exploitation aren’t that big a deal if corporations offer domestic partnership benefits.

Public interest groups should know better.

The NAACP has done extremely important work on media issues. In fact, new programs with African-American casts -- such as "The Bernie Mack Show" and "My Wife and Kids" -- owe their existence in part to the NAACP’s successful campaign to pressure the networks to create more leading primetime roles for black actors.

Over the years GLAAD’s visibility efforts have resulted in more and better news and entertainment coverage of the lesbian, gay and bisexual community. And NOW won increased opportunities for women in newsrooms in the 1970s, challenged unhealthy beauty ideals in the '80s and misogynistic shock jocks in the '90s, and is currently fighting corporate media consolidation.

These media efforts are crucial to the success of social justice movements. They shouldn’t be compromised by self-defeating awards to people and projects that run counter to their causes.

Jennifer L. Pozner is a media columnist for the feminist newspaper Sojourner: The Women’s Forum and is organizing a non-profit, Women In Media & News (WIMN), a media monitoring, training and advocacy group.

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