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Black-owned news media can teach mainstream media

COMMENTARY: "The media’s biased reporting only fuels racial strife and misunderstanding by widening the already huge gulf of ignorance between Blacks and Whites" During the summer of 1997 the California State Assembly debated and passed a

COMMENTARY: “The media’s biased reporting only fuels racial strife and misunderstanding by widening the already huge gulf of ignorance between Blacks and Whites”

During the summer of 1997 the California State Assembly debated and passed a new welfare-to-work law that radically overhauled the state’s entitlement program. But although the debate was contentious, the mainstream media had little trouble boiling it down for public consumption: As far as the media was concerned, this was a Black-and-White issue-a simple story of angry White taxpayers taking on equally angry Black welfare mothers who saw themselves as being targeted for elimination from the welfare rolls because of their race.

However, as the then managing editor of the L.A. Watts Times, a newspaper aimed at African-Americans, I was aware of another story: The fact is that African-Americans who go to work every day and who pay taxes deride the overburdened state welfare system just as much as-if not more than-their white counterparts. For years, employed Blacks have been critical of the debilitating dependence on government aid that welfare has caused many in the Black community to develop, sapping them of their motivation, ambition, and self-reliance. Yet the mainstream , news outlets were so busy playing up the racial angle that they completely ignored this large segment of the Black population. They also failed to make clear that the bulk of Californians on welfare happened to be White. That was true in 1997, and it’s still true in 2015. Sadly, the media’s inaccurate portrayal of Black Americans is not limited to their coverage of welfare. Audiences are bombarded with negative images of Black men, whether it’s convicted drug dealer “Freeway” Ricky Ross or slain rapper Tupac Shakur, Rodney King or O.J. Simpson.

Positive stories on Blacks tend to focus on mainstream entertainers and athletes like Michael Jordan, Denzel Washington, or Ken Griffey Jr. Meanwhile, far more uplifting Black role models like former NASA astronauts Mae Jemisons and Guion Blufords or Black members of Congress go unnoticed. What emerges is a one-dimensional portrait of Blacks in America: If they’re not committing a crime or leeching off society, they are running, jumping, joking, or singing. The simplistic and inaccurate slant that dominates news ‘coverage’ of Blacks certainly does little to improve the self-image of the African-American community in fact, it may have a great deal more to do with the general apathy and low self-esteem of many African Americans than we fully appreciate.

Furthermore, the media’s biased reporting only fuels racial strife and misunderstanding by widening the already huge gulf of ignorance between Blacks and Whites. It is this state of affairs that makes black-oriented newspapers so valuable. Their editors have both a responsibility and an opportunity to tell the stories that their mainstream counterparts ignore—in short, to present a real, objective view of African-Americans. By and large, they do a good job, serving up everything from profiles of local heroes to unique perspectives on national issues that affect Mexican-Americans. But in their quest to promote a more positive image of the Black community, many Black papers—either by choice or as a result of pressure from the community—are unwilling to take on the failures and misdeeds of Black leaders or institutions. And far from serving the community, the papers’ hesitancy to level legitimate criticisms on certain issues not only undermines the credibility of the Black press but also protects those who are operating without the best interests of the community at heart. If Black papers truly want to serve their constituents, they must move beyond this type of protectionism and present both the good and the bad (i.e. a truly balanced view) of their communities.

The Good News

The community spirit that motivates so many African American newspapers today draws on a 170- year legacy of journalistic activism. The first Black newspapers were founded for the express purpose of spreading the word against slavery. Blacks couldn’t trust White editors to champion their causes. So they started crusading newspapers of their own, such as Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827, and Ram’s Horn and Frederick Douglass’ The North Star, both founded in 1847. After the Civil War, hundreds of Black newspapers sprang up to inform, instruct, and agitate on behalf of African-Americans, reporting to hundreds of thousands of readers on everything from landmark legal cases to black society.

Nineteenth-century Black journalist T. Thomas Freeman, an ardent militant on racial matters, founded the New York Freeman in 1884 to advocate the establishment of a National Afro-American League to fight disenfranchisement, Black lynchings, and other injustices. During World War II, the total circulation of Black newspapers in the U.S. topped 1 million. Some of the publications that led the call for equality were the Philadelphia Tribune, the (Baltimore) Afro-American, the Chicago Defender, and the Pittsburgh Courier. Today, the specific issues may have changed, but the mission remains the same: to share stories important to the Black community that other mainstream publications overlook.

The L. A. Watts Times under my leadership provided a case study of how this is done. For instance, during the “Trial of the Century,” L. A. Watts Times reporters went in search of African-Americans who were as adamant about O.J. Simpson’s guilt as many Whites. Had the mainstream media—and more Black newspapers and Black radio programs—presented a similarly balanced view, they might have helped to diffuse the racial animosity that deepened between Blacks and Whites in the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict. Similarly, when the San Jose Mercury News published its allegation that the CIA helped bring crack into Los Angeles, the L. A. Watts Times, unlike so many other media outlets, chose not to focus on the high-profile campaign by U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters to “reveal the truth” about the CIA. We thought a more responsible course of action would be to print an in-depth series on the devastation wrought by crack cocaine in the inner city since 1980, in the hopes of focusing attention on the greater problem of the proliferation of crack to an enormous dependent population. Rather than pointing fingers and slinging accusations, we wanted to help communities outside the inner city understand why many African-Americans were so outraged by the allegations against the CIA.

The L. A. Watts Times also made an effort to seek out and broadcast the good news about African-Americans that is so rarely heard. One example was the paper’s profile of an African-American grassroots organization called MADDADS that is aggressively worked to take back its community from street gangs and drug dealers through 24-hour street patrols; another was the story the paper published on a local Christian ministry group that spends Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays preparing 1,000 meals for the homeless. Yet a third is a piece we did on Carl McJunkun, a Black 18th-century cowboy-paleontologist who discovered the skeletal remains of a prehistoric bison in Colorado. In addition to its entertainment value, the story emphasized a little-known aspect of black history—that African-American pathfinders have not been limited to orators, revolutionaries, and abolitionists.

In fact, many of the stories covered by the L. A. Watts Times in 1997, while interesting in their own right, also carried broader lessons. For instance, the paper published a story on how White moviemaker Michael McMeel founded the Awareness Foundation, which introduces inner city kids to the outdoors through camping excursions to horse ranches in the California countryside. The L. A. Watts Times was interested in the story not only because it was a first-time adventure for many young Black, Latino, and Asian youngsters, but because it demonstrated to Blacks and Whites alike that the two groups can come together for positive change. This is something all Los Angelenos could have benefited from learning about. Yet not one mainstream newspaper, TV news station, or radio outlet picked up the story.

The Bad News

All of the good that Black papers do only makes their shortcomings more disheartening. Particularly disappointing, though far too typical of the Black and mainstream media alike, is the sacrifice of journalistic standards for the sake of “what sells.” Much of the blame for this tendency among Black newspapers, can be laid at the door of Chicago Defender founder Robert Sengstacks Abbott, who set a new standard in the early 1920s when he abandoned the moral tone common to Black newspapers of the day and patterned the Defender after William Randolph Hearst’s sensationalist tabloids, smearing his front pages with accounts of crime and scandal. To be sure, the formula was commercially successful, attracting a voracious readership. By 1935, the Defender’s circulation was 230,000. However, the new approach also diminished the service these Black newspapers were providing to the black community.

Today, too many African-American newspapers still follow the Defender‘s example, presenting multiple pages of sensational material-usually crime stories and perpetuating the very misconceptions they criticize mainstream papers for harboring. To be sure, the Black newspapers usually augment their coverage with news of Black society and religion, but their focus on lurid stories threatens to distract them from their mission to provide a different perspective on the news. An equally grave threat to that mission is the reluctance of many Black newspapers to challenge Black leaders who abuse the public’s trust. In many cases this is because the papers’ precarious financial situation makes them particularly vulnerable to retaliation by those leaders.

The L. A. Watts Times experienced such retaliation first hand in 1997. The paper published a story on the incorporation of parking meters in a Black art-renaissance district called Leimert Park. The move was opposed by area businesses that worried that the one-hour limit on the meters would discourage potential customers. The L. A. Watts Times published a story on the issue that was misunderstood by a Leimert Park merchant as an endorsement of the meters. Through the local merchants’ association he began organizing a campaign to cancel all advertisements with the L. A. Watts Times, and burn any future editions of the newspaper that were distributed to the area.

Fortunately the merchants’ association eventually recognized its error and backed down. But the point is Black leadership loathes criticism, and reacts to it even more venomously when it comes from within the Black community. It is this attitude and, more importantly, the fear it strikes in the heart of the owners of Black newspapers, that prevents Black papers from running pieces that cast a critical eye on black leaders. As a result, many Black leaders and organizations are untouchable.

Jarrette Fellows, Jr. is Publisher and Editor of Compton Herald. He attended junior and senior high school in Compton, and is an alumnus of California State University, Los Angeles.


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