by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
When will the black press get as excited enough over mass incarceration, the epidemic of solitary confinement, the plague of urban school closings and privatizations, over gentrification and joblessness as they are about reality TV and what Michelle is wearing? Are you holding your breath? It might be time to let it go....
The Black Press Is Dead. Get Over It
by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
When you think of the black press, what persons and institutions come to mind? Frederick Douglass? Ida B. Wells? The old Chicago Daily Defender and Pittsburg Courier? Today's NNPA and the National Association of Black Journalists? Tavis Smiley on PBS, brought to you by Wal-Mart and Bank of America? CNN's Roland Martin?
“Much of black media really is awful,” observed former Capitol Hill staffer Yvette Carnell of BreakingBrown.com, on Facebook only yesterday “so let's put them on blast, shall we...”, and linked to a page of representative snippets.
If anything, Ms. Carnell is too kind. Arguably, the black press has been dead a long, long time now. Most black reporters work for white-oriented, corporate-owned outlets. What used to be “the black conversation” is now locked down and mediated by Sony, CBS-Viacom, Clear Channel, and the like. Broadcasters, even black ones, no longer, or in some cases never have regarded Black America as a polity, with its own traditions, values and aspirations.
“The owners and managers of commercial black radio and TV are not the least concerned about our past or future, our housing or health care crises, the black imprisonment rate or the digital divide or the education of our young or the dignified security of our elderly. To them we are just a market, passive consumers to be sliced and diced according to marketing industry guidelines.”
There was a time when the black press played a key role in tying together and defining local and national African American communities, when it truly echoed many of the authentic voices of a people struggling for justice and dignity. But that was the black press of a hundred years ago, the black press of the early 20th century. It wasn't perfect. The black press of that era reflected the class and other biases of its publishers and editors. All the same, black reporters and editors were producing content for African American audiences under an economic regime largely independent of white corporate America. This was the black press in the eras of Jim Crow and the urban ghetto, up till the sixties and even the early seventies.
Jim Crow and the urban ghetto were both contraptions that almost entirely separated black from white America, while allowing the nation's corporate elite to benefit from black labor. Thus in those times, African Americans were free to create our own institutions which often paralleled those of the larger society that enclosed us. In the times of Jim Crow and the urban ghetto, the black press was often a fierce and relentless foe of segregation in all its forms. But at the same time the struggle against Jim Crow was unfolding, other far-reaching changes were taking place.
The years when Jim Crow was finally lifted, and black professionals like journalists were able to work outside the black press in significant numbers were also the years corporate America stopped needing black labor. As late as the 1960s, firms were still locating to the Gary, Indiana and the south side of Chicago to take advantage of ready pools of willing black workers. In the 1970s that ended.
When US elites no longer needed black labor, they no longer needed the old ghetto that enclosed all blacks and separated them from the larger society. Black professionals and some others fled the neighborhoods where they once lived side by side with their poorer relatives, while white corporations openly vied with black businesses which segregation had once protected, for the black consumer dollar.
With the collapse of the ghetto that once confined rich and poor blacks to live cheek by jowl in close proximity with each other, the black press lost much of its reason for existence. There's a National Association of Black Journalists, true, but it's largely a professional advocacy group for journalists at white institutions. What does that mean in practice?
It means that black newspapers and the NNPA, the national trade association for black newspapers openly admit that their chief purpose isn't just to get advertising dollars, but to be the black voice in print of those advertisers. An NNPA CEO told us as much last year.
News for black audiences? Forget about it. A look at the web page of the Chicago Defender on July 11 shows the pattern. In the “our city” section there are ten stories. Seven are Associated Press stories. Only 3 are written by local reporters. On the site of the Atlanta Daily World, the five top stories contain one AP piece, two press releases from local government, one press release from another source, and a single story by a local reporter. The black print press exists to sell ads, nothing more and nothing less.
It means that among the most generous sponsors of last month's NABJ national conference, was British Petroleum, the homicidal and ecocidal corporate criminal conspiracy responsible for what may have been the worst oil spill in history just offshore from New Orleans less than two years earlier. BP got to host its own “career development breakfast,” a panel of black execs from Chevron, BP and Exxon-Mobil “moderated” by a CNBC reporter. (Comcast-NBC was also a major sponsor of the conference.)
NABJ also thumbed its nose at black New Orleans in a session that presented the closing of more than a hundred New Orleans public schools and the firing of all staff, the wet dream of charter and privatization advocates, as “educational reform.” One could take a look through the conference program book and doubtless find several more examples of the distance between the professionals of NABJ and the lives led by ordinary African Americans in New Orleans as elsewhere.
Black journalists are no longer advocates for the interests of African Americans. Their blackness doesn't call them to protect the interests of ordinary black families and communities, who are suffering from grossly disproportionate unemployment and poverty, from over-policing, the forty year war on drugs and mass incarceration. Their blackness is only relevant as it reinforces their claim to specialness, namely the crumbs of affirmative action in hiring, promotion, and in rare cases the ability to own print or broadcast outlets.
This is the twenty-first century. This is a corps of black journalists adrift without paddles in the big white corporate shark pond, doing what they think they have to, or think they want to. We can't count on them for much of anything.
With the exception of a very few outlets not dependent on corporate advertising dollars, like the Final Call, the black press is pretty much dead. It's time we acknowledge this truth, get over it, and move on.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the Georgia Green Party. Contact him through this site's contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.