by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
Syndicated hustler Michael Baisden, eager to become kingpin of Jena Six fundraising, launched a slanderous campaign against every Black group that doesn't have access to ABC radio's corporate reach. Baisden's principal target: Color of Change, the mass-based Internet organization that raised and distributed over $200,000 for Jena defendants' legal fees in record time. Baisden used his 50-station network to defame Color of Change, in "reckless disregard of the truth," and was soon forced to issue a fraction of an apology. But Baisden's crimes only serve to dramatize the fact that near-extinction of Black radio news - the mechanism that could have stopped the junkyard dog in his filthy tracks - has left African Americans at the mercy of "media leadership." We must reclaim the commercial airwaves that reach 80-90 percent of Blacks.
Blacks Need Radio News, Not Michael Baisden's Slanders
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
"How did Black-oriented radio devolve to such garbage?"
"The perception of my staff is that he's a little shady, he's a little shady," said nationally syndicated pimp-jock Michael Baisden, on November 5, viciously slandering James Rucker and the courageous organization he helped found, Color0fChange.com. Baisden and his idiot crew of radio sidekicks were on the howl, urging Black listeners in over 50 markets "don't be sending [sic] money to people" other than himself to assist in the legal defense of the Jena Six. "Speaking of the money that's not getting there..." Baisden passed the mic to Marcus Jones, father of Michael Bell, one of the teenagers caught up in the racist Louisiana Black roundup that led to a massive protest in September.
"James Rucker," said the father, "we want you to quit collecting money for our kids." Jones claimed "the families" hadn't seen any of the money, that a $10,000 contribution from British rock star David Bowie had somehow "wound up in the Color of Change's hands," and that the defendants' relatives "don't know who they are."
"You heard it here!" hollered Baisden, claiming "I made him [Jones] wait two weeks so we could get all the legal aspects of it down...and that's why we have to step up and DO IT" - meaning, Michael Baisden should become the money-raking kingpin of Jena Six fundraising.
"Baisden was forced to tuck his tail between his legs and issue a half-hearted, disingenuous 'apology.'"
Every word from the junkyard dog's mouth was a lie. By November 9, Baisden, who calls himself the "Bad Boy" of radio, was forced to tuck his tail between his legs and issue a half-hearted, disingenuous "apology" to Color of Change. As thoroughly documented by James Rucker and his team, the organization had already distributed $210,809.90 of $212,039.90 collected to attorneys for the Jena Six - including the lawyer for Michael Bell, Marcus Jones's son. They had the cancelled checks and funding requests to prove it, as well as signed authorizations from the teenager's families - including Mr. Jones. David Bowie's high profile $10,000 contribution had gone directly to the NAACP, which had promptly published a press release to that effect, back on September 18.
"Michael Baisden...is using his show to recklessly attack an organization that has a clear record of doing the real work he claims is important, in Jena and beyond," said Color of Change. It is true - and, we at Black Agenda Report believe, legally actionable - that "Michael Baisden has shown a reckless disregard for the truth." We urge Color of Change not to let that squealing pig go. His written and Internet-posted "apology" is insincere and incoherent, while his slanderous and libelous radio message, repeated and recorded over the course of weeks - that Color of Change, the ACLU, Friends of Justice and others were engaged in fraud - cast doubt on the victims' reputations in the minds of hundreds of thousands of listeners. Any recantation must have the same force as the original allegation. That means Baisden, the low-life with no shame or scruples, should be required to give as much radio time to his apology as he invested in his brazen assault.
But these are matters in which only the parties involved have legal "standing." The larger question is: how did Black-oriented radio devolve to such a nadir that a hustler like Michael Baisden is tolerated, much less syndicated by ABC Radio (with an "After Dark" version on Black-owned TV-1). Baisden operates in a Black radio environment in which there is no institutional mechanism to prevent his fits of megalomania, perverse rants, false and damaging tirades, and self-serving gutter schemes.
That's because we no longer have news on Black radio. In the absence of facts, lies rise to the top.
Facts Don't Matter Anymore
"The Black public is rendered defenseless against the hustlers who inhabit the medium that reaches 80-90 percent of African American households."
It is inconceivable that, thirty-odd years ago, Baisden could have "fixed his mouth" to savage a conscientious, grassroots, progressive organization like Color of Change. During the early-to-mid-Seventies, Black-oriented radio employed hundreds of local newscasters whose job was to ascertain the facts about community conditions and political projects and movements. A Baisden-like character would never have dared to step into such legitimate news questions as, Are Black organizations defrauding the public under the guise of raising money for victims of racism? That's a news function, a big story. Any reporter at the station - or rival stations - would demand, "Where are your facts, Baisden?" - and the damage would have ended before it began.
But Black radio, for the most part, no longer employs news departments. In Washington, DC, where 21 reporters from three Black-oriented radio stations once plied their trade, only four news slots now exist among the six stations currently "serving" the Black public. (See "Who Killed Black Radio News," May 29, 2003). While both Black-oriented and Black-owned radio have multiplied many-fold in the past 30 years, locally-based reporting - the kind that would have stopped Michael Baisden in his sleazy tracks - is near-extinct. The Black public is rendered defenseless against the hustlers who inhabit the medium that reaches 80-90 percent of African American households - the true, but pitifully unresponsive, Black Mass Communications Network.
It has become a crime-scene. Only a few of the 50-plus radio stations that carry Baisden's worthless program employ newscasters. As a result, even at the local level there is no one present whose job it is to investigate the facts and call a halt to the madness.
Baisden's crimes against truth pale in comparison to the injuries African American political formations have suffered in a news-less environment. Black America is bereft of tools of accountability, especially in broadcast media. Uninformed talk shows proliferate, some hosted by righteous men and women, many others that are nothing but fountains of mindless nonsense, and a few that have become cesspools of Baidenesque behavior. But the wounds go far deeper than that. Three-plus decades of no-news has stifled the growth of new Black leadership, substituting "media leaders" in the place of community leaders. We all know who they are - it's a very short list.
"Slime will continue oozing from the airwaves until we create broad-based formations to confront commercial media."
The logic of corporate media consolidation - in which Black owners act just like white owners, and ABC-creatures like Baisden get away with anything as long as it is destructive to Black interests - can only be definitively countered by a movement to re-establish Black news operations at all radio stations that target Black audiences. (See "Bring Back Black Radio News - The People's Network," January 10, 2007.) This is a quintessentially local project, but one that should be nationally coordinated so that local lessons can be shared.
We can denounce Michael Baisden ad infinitum, but slime will continue oozing from the airwaves until we create broad-based formations to confront commercial media - no matter who owns it. Black inaction on that front has resulted in bleeding wounds to the African American body politic:
A crippled Black leadership-creation process. Leadership is developed in struggle. However, the elimination of news on Black-oriented radio means that local community struggles and their leaders are unknown to those not directly affected. Budding leadership dies on the vine, frustrated and marginalized due to lack of effective access to the masses of African Americans tuned to Black-oriented radio. Over time, the media vacuum-induced failure to produce new leadership drains the pool of experienced organizers and honest community spokespersons, grays the ranks of leadership, and substitutes individuals that have never been involved in grassroots struggle - precisely what has occurred over the last three decades of decline in Black-oriented local radio news.
Accelerated community social disintegration. The news desert obviously leads to neglect of those organizations struggling to improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. The information vacuum also prevents various neighborhoods from forging solidarity in the face of common problems, but instead fosters juvenile and dangerous street-hype competition between them. Groups engaged in similar work in the same city operate in isolation from one another. A case in point: Latinos were able to put over a million people on the streets of various cities to make their views known on immigration, primarily through the connecting medium of Hispanic radio, which gave voice to the various local organizations that would mobilize the masses.
Conversely, literally thousands of locally-based Katrina-related projects were launched by churches and other Black community organizations in the wake of the disaster, but no million-person march developed around this issue. Black-oriented radio had no mechanism - no local news - that could have knit these isolated efforts together in a common project. Had local news operations existed, the Katrina-based protest would doubtless have led to citywide Black activist alliances across the nation - the seeds of a new "movement." That opportunity has been lost.
The deformation of relationships between Black politicians and their constituencies. No local news means that local political campaigns receive no coverage in the medium that overwhelming proportions of Black voters consume: Black-oriented radio. This puts progressive Black candidates at a severe disadvantage, since African Americans must get their "news" through the prism of television and newspapers that do not pretend to specifically serve the Black community - as do even white corporate-owned Black-oriented radio stations. No matter how many events progressive candidates schedule, none will be covered by news-less Black-oriented radio.
Only those Black candidates with advertising dollars can afford to reach their constituencies directly. The result: an increasingly corporate-sponsored cadre of local and national Black elected officials that has betrayed the progressive Black Political Consensus and are held accountable only by "general" news media outlets. As Chicago Black activists have stated, Harold Washington probably could not be elected mayor in today's news-less Black radio environment. And we know that former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's message went no further than the participants in her many campaign events, since there was no coverage of the campaign by the medium that her core constituency consumes: Black-oriented radio.
Deepening dependence on corporations by traditional Black institutions and political formations. During the era when Black-oriented stations were expected to have a local news operation, community mobilization and education projects were the staple of news on Black radio. Organizations validated their existence to the Black community by the projects they launched, and new organizations sprang into existence on the strength of the mass appeal they garnered through coverage of their activities. None of this is possible in the absence of local news coverage on Black-oriented radio. The public space in which the Black polity examines itself, engages in dialog with itself, disappears.
The result: a retrenchment by established organizations such as the NAACP, which engage in far less mass activities than in the previous era largely because it is not practical to reach the Black masses; the disappearance of organizations that had thrived with little money because their activities were covered by local Black-oriented radio; and the non-birth of thousands of local formations that could and should have been born. Aging activists such as Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton now shape their schedules around getting the attention of "general" news media - the only way to reach masses of Black folks, aside from talk show deals with Clear Channel and (Black-owned) Radio One - while the NAACP desperately seeks to consummate a marriage with corporate sponsors.
The warping of the Black world view. A generation and more of younger Blacks have no model of what coverage of their own communities would sound like. They are left to invent their own ways of interpreting reality, without benefit of a regular menu of facts. Commercial products - recordings - dominate mass Black youth perceptions of their own communities, with no hourly interruption by news about what is really going on. When rappers declared that hip-hop was the news media of Black youth, they were literally correct, because by the time the genre exploded, there were very few news departments at the radio stations they listened to.
The forced establishment of news operations at corporate-owned Black-oriented radio stations will not ensure good coverage of Black communities, but it will provide concrete models to critique, which is what politically healthy communities do. In the current situation, there is nothing to talk about unless some rapper says it, or a talk show host feels strongly about the subject or event. Most importantly, the local community activists who will actually force this addition to local formats will, by virtue of their own struggles with ownership, wield significant influence over the content and character of the news. That is their reward, as it should be.
"In the current situation, there is nothing to talk about unless some rapper says it, or a talk show host feels strongly about the subject or event."
The Internet Route to Activism
Bloggers jumped into the vacuum to defend Color of Change in its hour of crisis, and will be called on for the foreseeable future to fill the void left by the demise of Black radio news. However, make no mistake about it: we cannot overcome the destructive power of mass media on the Internet. What Internetizens can do is reach activists, and those who are seeking routes to activism. The Jena demonstration was an inspiring example, and Color of Change is the best Black model to date for bridging the gap between "real world" activism and online agitation.
Color of Change and its allies have shown that the Internet can summon forces quickly, assemble information efficiently, and at least temporarily introduce some element of accountability into the Black political process. The organization, with 400,000 members, thwarted Congressional Black Caucus plans to enter into an unholy televised presidential debate alliance with Fox News - for which they have no doubt earned many (African American) enemies. Although Baisden's attack was unprovoked and witless, it serves to inform our ranks that internal enemies beholden to big capital and their own petty ambitions are situated closest to the jugular - and must be confronted.
Flush ‘em out, and flush ‘em down.
Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].