Race, Politics and American Media

author: Juan Williams, National Public Radio
author: J. Phillip Thompson, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Center for Future Civic Media, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: David Thorburn, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: March 20, 2014,   recorded: October 2009,   views: 1978

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The collapse of print and other traditional news and the rise of celebrity culture have contributed to the sharp decline of in-depth stories involving race and society, say these two speakers, in a discussion that’s replete with personal anecdote.

Juan Williams sets out detailing his childhood dreams to break into the newspaper business. He read all the New York papers for baseball coverage, “and noticed no people of color telling their stories … The absence struck me.” From prep school through college, Williams found internships at progressively larger papers, which had at most a handful of black reporters, and often denied those the right to bylines. But the turmoil of the ‘60s, recalls Williams, led to a wave of more militant black journalists who demanded respect and greater attention to their own communities.

In spite of some gains, Williams does not see signs of great progress over the years. President Obama’s election may have led to more African-American commentators, but Williams is the only regular person of color on Washington’s Sunday morning talk shows, which he describes as “conversations among elite white males.” Nor are there African-American anchors: “It always comes down to, ‘Is the audience going to relate to a black male as lead dog?’”

Williams deplores the “pandering” that big media institutions engage in with people of color. An executive at a black cable network, rejecting the idea of a news show, told Williams that the black men “who would identify with you like to watch sports and pornography…” Magazines like Ebony, Jet, and Essence focus on the “fabulously rich singer or superstar,” and avoid discussing the nation’s social and economic crises. There’s “no investment of money, or placing journalists in a position to tell you critical stories … to find the political power players who have their fingers on the levers causing distress in lower income communities. It doesn’t exist.”

J. Phillip Thompson believes that the waning of local newspapers like New York’s Amsterdam News marks the end of one of the last resources communities of color have to learn about issues affecting them. As a former public housing manager in New York, he knows the importance of reporters scrutinizing the words and actions of politicians. Now “I’ll read about a shooting in a mainstream newspaper. But the voice of community and debates I heard all the time I don’t read about.”

He traces a class divide in black America today that’s different from previous incarnations. For instance, black officials representing majority black districts “don’t want issues, don’t want people excited.” Elected leadership, he says, is not focused on addressing “fundamental problems like jobs, the fact that people can’t pay mortgages, raise families. Instead of dealing with that, officials move onto other issues like Skip Gates being arrested off of his porch. That’s unfortunate, but it’s just not a vital issue in black America.”

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