White media liberals and glass media houses

by Jared A. Ball, VoxUnion.com

Even as they decry the practice of exclusion among the mainstream press the white left-led media reform movement does the same to Black American and domestic or local news. While just a brief overview, one far from being exhaustive in its study, this commentary is both a postscript to past analysis performed on the subject and a prelude of more in-depth forthcoming work. However, following a recent study published by the white-left media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting or FAIR and in advance of my own participation at next year's Media Reform Conference in Memphis I would at least like to propose the following for consideration.

This is precisely why I make mixtapes. As crazy as it sounds to some FreeMix Radio: The Original Mixtape Radio Show, a Washington, DC-based freely distributed mixtape CD, is as likely to let an audience in on the real conditions of the United States, particularly Black America, or to allow for the airing of the real critical political hip-hop as any popular media including that produced from the white liberal left. In other spaces I have, and will continue to, analyzed the fact that maybe more than any other popular form of musical expression political, or at least non-abusive hip-hop, is least likely to gain access to any airwaves in the United States. Even my beloved WPFW Pacifica Radio here in DC with whom I currently work has an allegiance to jazz that relegates only 5 hours a week to hip-hop and that is it for the entire city when it comes to the particular form of which I now speak. This leaves our youth solely at the hands and whims of a commercial pop culture world which, in the words of Jonathan Kozol, is bent on their "cognitive decapitation." In terms of news or perspective little changes when it comes to the white left. We agree that the right-led mainstream news environment is a destructive mess and many of us consider even attempting change in that arena a hopeless waste of time. But perhaps we will yet again need to condemn our comrades on the left and further the development of more Black-centered progressive or radical journalism.

The October 13, 2006 edition of Counterspin -- the 30 minute weekly radio show from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting a white liberal media watchdog group -- was dedicated to their recent study on PBS' Newshour with Jim Lehrer which detailed the right-wing slant of the show and an overall lack of inclusiveness in major media. Among the report's findings were that on PBS's Newshour men appeared 4 times as much as women, republicans twice as often as democrats and that only 15% of all guests were so-called "people of color." But even with such distinguished guests as FAIR's own Julie Hollar (who also co-wrote the study) and media scholar Robert McChesney founder of the media reform group Free Press nothing was mentioned of their own inclusiveness failure rates. It must also be noted, parenthetically, that their standard of inclusion also remained fairly conservative in that it only measured republican versus democrat as if that latter is somehow enough of a distinction. In other words, their study would be even more damning were it to include even more white radical perspectives of communism, socialism, anarchy, etc. not to mention were it to include the varied radical concerns among African Americans (or Africans in America or New Afrikans). That is if inclusion of democrats is a standard then where are we to look for pan-Africanism or African Socialism?

But if we take their radio programs as signs of their particular range of coverage and perspective of that coverage, understanding as we do that FAIR, for instance, also publishes a print edition called Extra!, McChesney and Free Press all publish widely, etc. and so on, we would notice an absolute paucity of focus on African America. Future analysis will expand on this but I am enough of a listener and reader (I read McChesney widely and have interviewed him myself twice and even once emailed him with these very concerns) I feel confident in saying that similar findings would result.

The FAIR study mentioned uses invited guests as a leading component in their analysis. Being that I am not able to determine in all cases the race or ethnicity of guests by listening to them or reading their names in show summaries and recognizing that the inclusion of Black faces is not necessarily a guarantor of Black-centered or Black radical perspectives, I can make an assessment based on keynote topic selection as to whether or not particular attention was paid, in this case, to Black America. If we just look at the last calendar year and the primary or central themes of Counterspin we notice that only four of those themes were potentially specific to the conditions or struggles of African Americans and every single one was related to Katrina (shows on: 10/14/05, 1/27/06, 3/10/06 and 9/1/06). Each of these shows were follow ups on Katrina, but while we can give some benefit of the doubt, there would need to be further investigation to determine exactly what percentage of these stories were about Black people as opposed to issues of finance or the funneling of tax dollars via friendly no-bid contracts, etc. Even still, the horrific event some thought would bring media into more of a discussion of race and class has largely failed to do so even within the media reform left wing.

McChesney is no better in this regard. In his weekly one-hour radio show Media Matters there has been little discussion of race and the Black struggle or current condition and when there is his invited guest expert is likely to be white male. In roughly the last year he too has had only 4 shows which discussed race at all, and these not necessarily the condition of Black America or its ongoing struggle, and 2 of these shows had white male guests Robert Jensen (10/02/05) and David Roediger (7/24/05). I wrote him recently an email reminding him that during these shows while he twice referenced writer and journalist Glen Ford (formerly of Black Commentator and now BlackAgendaReport.com) he had yet to actually invite him on as a featured guest. McChesney did remind me of what I had known that in the 2 other instances Sundiata Cha-Jua (3/19/06) and Salim Muwakkil (1/29/06) had appeared bringing the grand total of Black guests to 2 in the course of roughly 50 shows in the past year.

In preparation for our participation in Free Press' upcoming conference on media reform my IndustryEars.com colleague Paul Porter too noted the lack of inclusion of Black voices and was even inclined to remark how "Free Press is the Clear Channel of Media Reform." Porter continued, saying that, "It has become blatantly obvious that the media reform movement is as racist as media ownership. While we continue to lose ground daily for some strange reason our efforts often lead us to align with the groups that marginalize us. Groups like Free Press and Democracy Now! have systematically added token voices to appear as our agenda's are the same. When you look at key reform groups over the years they consistently hire and speak to audiences that don't look or think like us. Until we collectively form a unified partnership we will continue to be marginalized and basically used until further notice. I am sure I will hear the benefits from some of you on why we need to align with larger reform groups but the proof has been in past history. I am most interested in change. Speaking at the Memphis media reform or conducting a panel is of no use unless it changes the landscape."

Oh, and that beloved media reform movement and Pacifica radio favorite Democracy Now!, which airs 5 days a week? In my 2005 study of that show I noted that of the 176 possible shows in the calendar year prior to the levies flooding in New Orleans only 21 shows or 12% had any focus on Black America. Of those 21, 10 were historical references to the Civil Rights era, including 2 about the historic -- yet re-emergent -- story of Emmitt Till, but only 4 with any contemporary focus. Of the 4 all were with the late activist Damu Smith surrounding much of his organizational work on issues of politics and environmental racism. One would hope that this powerful media outlet would not need to await another of the caliber of Damu before these issues gain coverage. Or perhaps such a figure will go unnoticed because of such inattention.

Now, this is not to say that the white left is the cause of the problem. But they are a problem. The pattern of abandoning Black American concerns for those considered more pressing or more exotic is again playing out in 2006. The fact remains, that listeners to the radio programs discussed above will have a greater working knowledge of Iraq, Israel or Palestine than of Black America. I am sure part of the response will be that there is a war or international news is sorely lacking in mainstream press. No doubt this is true. However, I think it is more of a return to the Black Power era of "you don't want us? The fuck you too! We can cover Vietnam or the environment or the whales!" It is necessary to inform the nation of its role in and relationship to international politics. However, an overly intense focus on international issues or to domestically tend only to cover issues at the highest federal levels that borders on copping out in that in each case the mostly white audience will feel appeased of its guilt in being complicit with a North American juggernaut and powerless to make real change. More attention to local and domestic concerns would be more likely to challenge people to become more active in fixing, internally, the nation that most of the world rightly recognizes as the greatest threat to world peace.

But what we are seeing now are the remnants of the Civil Rights and Black Power era sellouts and conformists who have abandoned any attempt at domestic revolution in favor of challenging mainstream coverage of federal-level or international concerns. In the end the white left follow an agenda set by the elite owners of media and the world and leave the rest of us unsupported, protected or covered. The issue of communication, as Mark Lloyd has said, is a civil rights one but we are not seeing the same kind of white liberal, progressive or radical journalism that supported those efforts and popular Black media has convinced us we need no such similar effort in Black journalism.

White America, as Dr. King said 40 years ago, has not done enough to condition itself out of white supremacy and there is a sense I get from this wing of political struggle that says, "we did that Black stuff already. You got your rights, you have celebrities and Black journalists. We're moving onward and upward." Well, despite the imagery Black America is no better off today than at any other time. We remain imprisoned, ill-educated, with poverty and segregation levels that rival any other point in our history. Plantation slavery remains the standard by which we measure the condition of African Americans which prevents us from seeing that what currently exists is not progress but the proverbial knife being pulled 5 inches out of a 9 inch deep wound as Malcolm X once made clear. And of any segment of the population who should be most able; given access, education and proclaimed criticism to see through the barrage of false imagery its our white friends of the upper-middle class left. But more likely is the reality that the trend remains much like Dr. King again said of the white left, they have "in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor" where it appears as though the "white segregationist and the average white citizen has more in common with one another than either had with the negro."

Dr. Todd Burroughs and I have argued for the creation of a B-SPAN, a Black national news service dedicated to year-round coverage of Black struggle and condition. I make mixtapes, do low-power and internet radio all of which is meant to support or exemplify underground and alternative journalism or the development of space for the expression of a decolonized culture. But more will need to be done in media and political organization if real progress is to occur. We must remember that the primary reason, despite a lack of intent to include from the white left, that Black Americans have eschewed "media reform" as a "movement" is because from the beginning it was and is understood that dominant media work for the dominant and that there is little chance of democratizing media in a decidedly un-democratic society. From Sam Cornish to Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Robert and Mabel Williams, Sam Napier, Malcolm X Black radicalism has always included an underground/alternative press component. None argued that reforming media would reform society they all argued that in order to reform or revolutionize society a supportive media would have to be created. And this is not exclusive to Black America. As noted by Lauren Kessler, radical journalism is a "tradition" not an anomalous "time-bound" occurrence. This brief look at the white left need only be a reminder that we cannot expect that movement to be ours. Black America, whether in journalism or larger political struggle, is fast-approaching complete isolation mostly from half-hearted and apolitical media inclusion and journalistic practice but also from a complete inattention from our white left comrades. As we work within we must also work without.

article originally published at http://www.voxunion.com.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey