In the early 1980s, Ben Bagdikian’s famous book The Media Monopoly concluded that fewer than 50 firms dominated U.S. media, with the result that journalism was increasingly losing its ability to address the role and nature of corporate power in the U.S. political economy. By the time the fourth edition of The Media Monopoly was published in 1992, Bagdikian calculated that mergers and acquisitions had reduced the number of dominant media firms to two dozen. Since 1992, there has been an unprecedented wave of mergers and acquisitions among media giants, highlighted by the Time Warner purchase of Turner Broadcasting (CNN, TNT) and the Disney acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC.
Fewer than ten gargantuan, vertically integrated media conglomerates now dominate U.S. media. Many of the details of these firms’ dominance can be found in Robert McChesney’s 1997 book Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy.I cite these statistics to point out that much of what we know about our world is framed by corporate interests. Virtually all of our information, our cultural narratives, and our global images derive from institutions whose major goal is to pay handsome dividends to stockholders. In profit-making media properties–the dominant kind in America–there has always been an inherent tension between the interests of the publishers/owners and the interests of the news gatherers, but these days there are few countervailing forces opposing the power of profit. Market logic rules the roost. As one of my friends never tires of pointing out: “The IMF and all those other MFs now run everything from Argentina to Zimbabwe.” They have no competition, either ideological or material. And the global commercial media market, using new technologies and the IMF-fueled trend toward deregulation, has been one of the most striking accomplices to this growing market hegemony. U.S.-based conglomerates, along with a handful of Europe-based firms and a smattering of Latin American and Asian operations, now dominate the global media market. The non-U.S. revenues of firms such as Disney and Time Warner have climbed from around 15 percent in 1990 to almost 50 percent as we near the millennium.
It’s the growth in commercial advertising that’s stimulating the rapid expansion of the global media market. And it’s the growing importance of advertising that accelerates a process some have termed the “tabloidization” of news media. The equation of sensationalism with profit is tough to resist. Nuances are avoided because nuances are bad for Nielsens and other gauges of market penetration.
For African Americans and others who have been victimized by a biased and distorting media, this environment presents yet another barrier to social justice–the search for which, after all, is a nuanced affair that manifestly violates marketplace logic. That’s why America’s victims have looked to the alternative media as a balancing force. The alternative media is positioned to resist the lure of the bottom line, question the value of market logic, and provide useful information for citizens rather than deliver data designed to tantalize, titillate, or otherwise tempt consumers. And that’s why for African Americans in particular, the growing corporatization of media is an extremely dire development. Black-owned media operations are becoming increasingly rare as corporate conglomerates continue to gobble up media properties with alacrity, which means the mainstream’s tendency to distort the image of African Americans will not face any strong challenge. In fact, it’s likely that the media’s Afrophobic tendencies will be encouraged and reinforced. It was those biased tendencies that sparked the development of what may have been the first model of alternative media in the country–the black press. Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm began publishing a newspaper called Freedom’s Journal in 1827 to counter the antiblack, proslavery sentiments that were being widely published in the New York media. The black press was born in the spirit of protest, and for much of this country’s early history most African-American leaders were also journalists. The notion of objective witness is a notion alien to black journalism. In fact, black journalism was considered something of an adjunct to the movement for racial equality in this country until at least the late ’60s.
My case is illustrative: I got into journalism initially because of my activist inclinations, though I wound up at the Associated Press, a journalistic institution that is perhaps the most dedicated to the notion of “objective” reporting. I began my journalism career at the AP in Newark, New Jersey, in (shudder!) 19. . . a long time ago. Although the city’s population at the time was about 65 percent black, I was the first full-time black reporter hired at the Newark bureau. The city had exploded in 1967 in one of those so-called long-hot-summer urban riots that caught on, like, well, wildfire in the late ’60s. There were more than 160 outbreaks of urban disorder in 1967–the so-called “summer of love”–and there were even more in 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis. More than 300 cities followed Newark’s example and went up in smoke. The mainstream media needed to know what was going on in these restless, violent ghettos; the acrid odor of burning cities added urgent credibility to those radicals who routinely threatened black revolution.
White reporters could no longer do the job of reconnoitering the rebellious black masses. . . . The situation was a major incentive to hire black journalists
White reporters could no longer do the job of reconnoitering the rebellious black masses. A turbulent wave of black nationalism had given voice to long-seething resentment about media coverage of the black community, and white journalists were obvious targets for this resentment. The situation was a major incentive to hire black journalists–the only ones who could gain the necessary access to our troubled inner cities. What’s more, the Kerner Commission (formally known as the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders), which was charged with finding the reasons for the long-hot-summer rebellions, had concluded that the United States was headed dangerously toward “two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.” It blamed the urban unrest on persistent racial discrimination and a historical legacy of disadvantage, but it also singled out the nation’s news media for censure. The media treated African Americans as invisible, the commission concluded, and failed to communicate to white audiences “a feeling for the difficulties and frustrations of being a Negro in the United States.” The report chastised the media for being “shockingly backward” in not seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting blacks. At the time, blacks made up less than .5 percent of all journalists.
Urban riots were bad for business. That, coupled with the embarrassment caused by the Kerner Commission’s report, triggered an aggressive attempt to add some color to the country’s newsrooms. The AP hired me while I was still a full-time student. Once on the job I would do thousands of rewrites, cover the stories editors assigned, and initiate a few myself; it was the best writing experience I could have had. But it also taught me that the mainstream’s news judgment was clouded by biased and antiblack presumptions that were so deeply buried they were virtually invisible to white editors. It seemed to me that what journalists were calling objective reporting was, in fact, a ratification of a racist status quo. While working for the AP, I would write stories that followed the traditional “objective” formula (“writing for the milkman in Nebraska” was how they put it) and then rearrange the piece and send it to Muhammad Speaks, the most popular and widely circulated alternative publication of the period.
I inject this bit of personal history to make clear how black journalists who work in the mainstream are forced to adopt a bicultural perspective. It’s a kind of double consciousness in which you view the world through the lens of the mainstream while holding on to another vision. It’s always difficult to hold on to this other vision because black mainstream journalists, like all mainstream journalists, are encouraged by the ethic of deep cynicism that characterizes the journalistic profession to reject, devalue, or even ridicule it. It was difficult for me, too–I struggled to maintain my activist commitments while plugging away for those Nebraska milkmen. So when the opportunity came to leave the mainstream for the alternative media, I jumped at the chance. And I’ve been there ever since, though I’ve migrated from the black press to the so-called left press.
I’ve maintained connections to mainstream media, however. These connections have earned the suspicion of some of my fellow left-leaning journalists, who see a virtue in marginality for the sake of being marginal. But movement journalists are either poor or very busy. Sometimes both. My ideological beliefs and political commitments were insufficient excuses for not paying my two daughters’ college tuition. I had to make a way, and I understand the pressure to forget the struggle. I understand the attraction of mainstream journalism and why so few talented black journalists choose the route of alternative media. Indeed, adherence to the dogma of objectivity is rewarding; however, that dogma also obliges a journalist to deliver data that is so thoroughly decontextualized that it obscures rather than illuminates. The search for truth requires an understanding of context.
The alternative journalistic tradition I work in seeks above all else to establish some sense of context. For example: What’s the context for four New York City police officers shooting at a young black man 41 times and hitting him with 19 bullets? What are the social assumptions that allowed four cops in Riverside, California, to fire 27 bullets at Tyisha Miller as the 19-year-old sat in her disabled car?
Part of the context of those tragedies is a society that uses its criminal justice system to address its most grievous social failings. How do we as a society manage to look ourselves in the mirror while about 12 percent of the U.S. population represents about 50 percent of all prison inmates? According to a number of studies at least one-third of all African-American men in their 20s are under the control of the criminal justice system. In our large cities the rate is nearer to 40 percent. In the past five years, African-American women have experienced the greatest increase in criminal justice control of all demographic groups. Decaying social conditions and jobless communities are channeling large numbers of
inner-city African Americans into the underground economy of drug commerce. This in turn is nourishing an entirely new industry–the prison industry–that uses black youth as its primary raw material and has developed its own self-perpetuating dynamic. This is a social catastrophe! But instead of confronting the crises of civilization that allow this horrendous waste of human potential, what do we do? We build a prison-industrial complex designed to extract profit and institutionalize this crippling social flaw. It is the perfect example of a scavenger culture in which the wealth of growing numbers increasingly depends on deepening social decay.
And that’s just the issue of incarceration. There is a depressing litany of negative statistics outlining black people’s peril in every index of social well-being. From the cradle (infant mortality) to the grave (life expectancy), African Americans as an aggregate are ranked at or near the bottom. Now, we can interpret this social catastrophe as a class problem disguised in racial garb, as many in the left-leaning alternative press, with their new focus on the divisiveness of identity politics and “essentialism,” are once again urging us to do. But the clear racial disparities make sense to me only as a peculiar feature of the unique racial dynamic–that is, 12 generations of chattel slavery and four more of American apartheid–that characterizes American history.
Photo © 1999 Andrés Rojo
Within the United States, that dynamic has been the invisible motivator of many of our cultural eccentricities. The media has long camouflaged that motivation, and has been a major force in orchestrating public animosity toward African Americans. White supremacy was conventional wisdom for most of America’s formative years, and the media was the conveyor of that wisdom. The legacy of these attitudes persists, and unfortunately it persists even in the so-called alternative media. In fact, at this point in history the alternative media seems to be less hospitable to African American participation than the mainstream, though it theoretically is more welcoming.
This is a paradox that has become more pronounced in recent years. The dynamic that reproduces the disparity is a curious one, and while not as pernicious as traditional mainstream exclusion, it is a function of America’s white supremacist history. Before the mainstream began nudging its doors open to blacks in the late 1970s, the alternative media was one of the few public venues open to black writers and other media workers. Like the black press, it was openly partisan about issues of racial equality and tended to attract the best and brightest of those seeking media careers. Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes, for example, were frequently featured in the left-leaning alternative press, especially during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s; in fact, it was publications of the left (The New Republic, The Nation, Modern Quarterly, Saturday Review) that gave that development an international resonance. The alternative left, which was cultural as well as political, had a thing for Negroes and it was pretty much reciprocated–except by those hard-eyed Garveyites and other black nationalists. But despite the unusual access offered by these publications, they still only occasionally published black writers and none had blacks in positions of editorial leadership. Black-oriented journals such as The Crisis (the NAACP’s excellent house organ, which was edited by DuBois), Opportunity (the Urban League’s journal), and The Messenger (the journal of the Sleeping Car Porters union of A. Philip Randolph) were where much of the influential writing appeared.
the reluctance of the alternative media to aggressively seek out and value black input is a scandal of a higher order
This was the status quo through the Roosevelt years and the civil rights ’50s. In the 1960s, things began to change a bit. The Vietnam conflict provoked great concern, and the antiwar movement initially attracted a swirl of interracial protest. There also was some common cause between some black cultural radicals and the beat and hippie thing, but African Americans soon seemed to start having second thoughts about America’s so-called alternative culture. Those thousands of whites who volunteered to do civil rights work suddenly were turned away by black activists who sought to gain control of their own liberation vehicles. Issues of black identity trumped the struggle for equal access and rejected it for the cause of “black power.” Since that time, black activists and movement intellectuals have been leery of entanglements with the white alternative press–and that leeriness has been mutual.
But the reluctance of the alternative media to aggressively seek out and value black input is a scandal of a higher order. When faced with the historical context of a mainstream media that served to rationalize white supremacy and “manifest destiny,” it’s truly incredible that the alternative media has not really confronted those fundamental premises. Instead, we have a corps of articulate lefties bemoaning the proliferation of identity politics. Arguing that race is a fiction (or a social construction), why, they ask, do we cling to antiquated notions of black and white? Why indeed? A better question would be: Why are indices of social well-being so racially disparate? Why are black prisoners 54 percent of all prisoners but only 12 percent of the population? Why are African Americans on the low end of every index, from infant mortality to life span? Is there something inherently criminal or sickly about black people? From where I stand, it seems clear that the deprivations wrought by Jim Crow segregation are one reason for black Americans’ disproportionate miseries. But another cause is something much deeper and therefore more difficult to address.
Wealth and cultural wherewithal were coercively and wrongfully diverted from enslaved Africans and their progeny to whites through slavery and discrimination for 16 generations, producing a lopsided distribution of wealth and cultural capital by race. Common resource pools produced by everyone’s labor (and especially the free labor of newly minted African Americans) were distributed by white decision makers overwhelmingly to other whites. Both advantages and disadvantages were transferred intergenerationally, to be compounded and bequeathed to us today. For African Americans who were deprived of resources the result has been poor performance and poor quality in employment, education, and so on–the disproportionate miseries mentioned earlier. The status quo that helped form generations of African Americans was flagrantly Afrophobic, and blacks as well as whites were deeply affected by those attitudes. The long-term and widespread popularity of items such as bleaching creams and hair straighteners and the continuing use of epithets such as “liver lip” and “nappy hair” and “black African” are all testament to blacks’ internalized Afrophobia. These attitudes cannot simply be ignored as unimportant to the racial debate, yet commentators of both the left and right downplay them as quaint and irrelevant. Not so, say I: The legacy of slavery has thrust on African Americans special concerns about cultural identity that can’t be swept away by the urgings of the neo-Enlightenment left. The white supremacist assumptions embedded in Western culture are active and debilitating sources of racial oppression and are as corrosive to the idea of social justice as are more explicit expressions of bias.
But many in the neo-Enlightenment crowd–particularly Jim Sleeper–see that identity debasement as a positive factor. This too has a recent historical precedent, and links the ’90s with the ’50s. The beat movement, which embraced an existentialist philosophy and Buddhist theosophy, offered withering critiques of bourgeois culture. For many beats, African Americans became the embodiment of cultural insurgency and self-creation. The white artists and writers who generated the movement esteemed African Americans as organic existentialists, living examples of beings who were in touch with the transcendent spirit of improvisation. Jazz, the music of improvisation, was their thematic genre. Norman Mailer’s 1958 essay “The White Negro” was one of the clearest and most embarrassing examples of how crudely these young leftish intellectuals exoticized African Americans. The beats’ cultural take on bourgeois America evolved into a hippie sensibility on one hand and insurgent, New Left politics on the other. This fusion of politics and culture marked a lively divergence from the sterile political environment that nurtured the hard-nosed left press of the past. Images of blacks were appearing more prominently as the cultural left pretty much adopted the beats’ notion of African Americans as cultural icons. The left argued eloquently for an end to racist exclusion. Many of the left-leaning publications that sprang-up during this period–Ramparts, East Village Other, Berkeley Barb, Chicago Seed–occasionally even employed black writers. But that was unusual. Black Americans not only were excluded from all but ceremonial leadership in left organizations, they also rarely served as movement journalists.
Unfortunately, that remains the case. In 1995, Nation columnist Katha Pollitt revealed the open secret that left publications are more segregated than mainstream journals. If the left press has an ideological commitment to racial equality, why isn’t that reflected in its workforce? If the personnel–as well as the personal–is political, then what does that say about the racial politics of the progressive media?
The neo-Enlightenment folks have brought things full-circle. Their crusade against identity politics is another example of how the left needlessly distances the real concerns of African Americans while privileging an abstract “commonality” that has existed only in white America’s imagination. Like the beats of the ’50s, these vulgar anti-essentialists once again are romanticizing African Americans as self-created citizens ready to join others in the job of democratizing America without the “crutch” of racial identity to hold them up. Still uncomfortable with black nationalism, the left seeks ever more novel ways to devalue it. Issues of white supremacy figure heavily in this mix, and these issues must be addressed if progressive journalism is to live up to its promise.
It’s all a matter of context. That’s why the nascent “whiteness studies” academic movement and its new abolitionist-activist counterpart is a looming hope. This developing field provides a context that allows us to examine the construction of whiteness as a historical, social, and political process. It reveals how whiteness is linked to the ascendancy of race as a gauge of human value and how assumptions of white supremacy have become normalized–pervasive yet invisible. It is that invisible hierarchy that must be exposed and–pardon my jargon–deconstructed before the left press can exemplify its mission.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times magazine. He is an Op-Ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune, and a member of the editorial board and columnist for the Madison-based Progressive Media Project. He also serves on the board of the Chicago-based Community Media Workshop. This article is an adaptation of his speech to the 1999 Media Alliance membership meeting.