On September 29, journalist and author Stacey Patton joined Rashad Robinson of ColorofChange.org and Joseph Torres of Free Press for a panel discussion at the Enoch Pratt Free Library as part of OSI-Baltimore’s Talking About Race series, on the subject of Media Bias and Black Communities. It was a really great, pointed conversation and the large crowd was deeply engaged, with a long line of people looking to ask questions.
Afterwards, we received many requests for a copy of Patton’s opening remarks which many people found especially poignant. She was gracious enough to send us a text copy, which follows. You can also hear audio of whole event here.
Please make sure to check out the info on the next two events in our Talking About Race series.
I’m a journalist and an historian and so I think it is important that when we talk about media bias and black communities that we add some historical perspective to this enduring problem.
The American mainstream media is working exactly the way it should. A racist society REQUIRES media bias. A racist society REQUIRES coverage of people of color that aligns and overlaps with broader racist sentiments and stereotypes. A racist society REQUIRES a news media that employs negative images of people of color to assure hope for white people, and the impossibility of success for the majority of black people.
It’s really quite simple: White people are normal and black people are failures.
The news media is yet another layer that colludes with “the state,” with law enforcement, and other structures and forces in the service of ensuring white supremacy.
A racist society REQUIRES stories about black pathology, black crime, black maladjustment, black family breakdown, black long suffering, black people as a problem rather than stories that cover the full gamut of journalistic beats. Rather than stories that present a full range of life experiences and interests of people of color. Rather than stories that humanize people of color. Rather than stories where people of color are sources or authorities on things like social policy, education, health, science, and government planning.
A racist society REQUIRES incessant reported statistics that measure black people’s inability to gain positive progress, on anything. When is the last time you picked up a newspaper or clicked on a story where black people were making strides beyond their white counterparts?
Those statistics act as “proofs” which feed a long historical discourse about how we are biological wired or unfit for full citizenship rights. Those reported statistics allegedly “prove” how our benighted condition is a result of our own innate inability to perform, rather than the result of serial forms of systemic racial devaluation. Statistics are simply quantified racialist theories that present white people as the standard measure of intelligence and all things “normal” and black people as the symbol of failure and pathology.
Our “otherness” and inferiority has become embedded as a historical fact and still remains a habitual and taken for granted feature of our mainstream news coverage which in turns shapes cultural attitudes, policing and social policies.
A racist society REQUIRES a news media that lies and tell us that the problems in black communities are not part of a long ongoing historical process that requires that we remain at the bottom of the social structure.
A racist society REQUIRES media narratives that provide white America with an ego stroke at the expense of people of color. A racist society REQUIRES news analysis that perpetuates the notion of American exceptionalism and presents social problems, such as chronic poverty and violence, as unique to blackness while obfuscating the fact that those same problems and conditions affect wide and diverse swaths of people across this nation.
And when you are a black journalist working in a white newsroom, in a racist society, you must continually devise strategies to present the experiences of black people and their communities in a way that white gatekeepers can or care to process them. The stories you pitch to your editors must conform to the interests, desires, or tastes of a white audience. A racist news media will determine that non-episodic everyday news coverage of people of color is a non-story.
Meanwhile, black victims of police violence are depicted as if they’ve emerged from some kind of terra incognita “where dragons be,” and the only thing that happens there, as far as many White people imagine, is that savage black people are inevitably murdered. And so, they are demonized and blamed for their own deaths.
Lack of diversity in newsrooms leads to replication of the same old narratives, and the privileging of the same voices at the expense of others.
American media outlets have been on blast since 1947 when the Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press criticized the media’s distortion of blacks. The commission said: “It is no longer enough to report the fact. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact.”
Then in 1968, the Kerner Commission criticized the lack of diversity in newsrooms and bias in coverage of communities of color. The Commission’s report concluded that we are living in two nations, “black, white, separate and unequal.” The report included an entire chapter about the impact the media had on the nation’s race relations. “We believe that the media have thus far failed to report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations,” the report said. It added: “The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man’s world. The ills of the ghetto, the difficulties of life there, the Negro’s burning sense of grievance, are seldom conveyed.”
The report also criticized the industry for being “shockingly backward” when it came to hiring, training and promoting African Americans. At the time, fewer than five percent of the newsroom jobs in the United States were held by African Americans. Today, despite the progress that’s been made in the hiring and coverage of African Americans and other so-called minorities, many critics say that the Kerner Report findings continue to resonate today.
In the late 60s, dozens of American inner cities became the sites of urban riots. As a result, African-American journalists employed by the black press finally found a door opening to mainstream media with some of them being able to recall the specific riot that resulted in their hiring. Other members of ethnic groups were hired in record numbers, slowly altering the complexion and ideals of American journalism.
Flash forward to 2000. A Freedom Forum study found that while the newspaper industry had hired 550 journalists of color each year since 1994, 400 had annually left the business. More distressing were figures showing that 596 journalists of color came into the industry in the year 2000, but by year’s end 698 had left. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of African Americans in mainstream newspaper newsrooms plunged 34 percent. (See LaBarbara Bowman’s ”Retention in Focus After Diversity Drops,” ASNE report: http://files.asne.org/kiosk/editor/01.may-june/bowman1.htm and Pamela Newkirk’s “The Not So Great Migration” in the Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 2011)
By 2014, the number of blacks working in newspapers continued to drop far greater than experienced by any other group. That same year, racial unrest in Ferguson and then Baltimore, caught the nation off guard because the largely white media missed all the warning signs.
So here were, a half-century later. Still calling out the mainstream media for its biased coverage of black communities. Forgive my cynicism, but it is clear that our corporate media does not care. Does not want to change. Does not want to diversify their newsrooms or their coverage because it would disrupt their agenda, which is to make money and preserve the status quo.
Imagine if residents at Ferguson or Baltimore were in the newsroom. Imagine if those trained in critical race theory or former activists were the newsroom. The narratives would be challenged.
Even still, those few of us that have been able to land positions in newsrooms often feel heat and criticism and racist vitriol online. White journalists are seen as objective and celebrated when taking. White journalists like Brian Williams, Maureen Dowd, Mike Barnicle and others can lie, plagiarize, make up stories and still work in the industry.
If you’re a white journalist, plagiarism and fabrication are “instances of exaggeration.” But if you’re black, they’re viewed and punished as straight-up lies. If you’re white, you’ve made a mistake. But a black journalist has actually committed fraud, and worse, is a FRAUD. No Black journalist would be able to get away with saying that something mysterious happened to their brain to cause confusion between what did and didn’t actually happen.
No one claims that Brian Williams’ misdeeds will harm the status of all white males in the newsroom. His skin color will never be cited as a reason behind the scandal, or as a distinct problem of his unethical character. Because as we’ve seen, it’s rare for established white males to lose their entire careers when they mess up due to a lapse in judgment—they find redemption. They may get sidelined for a while, even land new jobs or promotions.
Face it, white journalists don’t have the pressure of breaking down barriers, lifting up their race, and proving their worth on modern, high-tech plantations. If Brian Williams and those like him trip, the door won’t close. For black journalists, the door is barely open, and the slightest stumble will cause it to be locked and hermetically sealed for others for a very long time.
This is what white Supremacy looks like. It relies on the desire for white redemption and the different rules and standards applied to different races of journalists. The logic is that whites can find redemption because they are white, that whites are superior because they can be redeemed. If whiteness equals intelligence, morals, and authentic journalistic integrity, then Brian Williams cannot be a liar; he must be seen as someone who made a mistake, with a brain under the influence of ambition. Now look at him, just the other day covering the Pope’s visit to America. How’s that for redemption? The white media establishment gets to set the rules about ethics, decorum and professionalism.
Some folks would argue that the solution to this problem is to keep pushing and calling out the media to diversify. But I think our challenge is to find alternative means to address media bias without going to those who are the gatekeepers are the sources and beneficiaries of bias. We should take our cue from many of the black Lives Matter networks, which are not going to the state and asking it to change because the state is the very thing that keeps harming us.
And far too many news organizations practice cosmetic diversity. They give the illusion of diversity and use it as evidence of exceptionality, which disarms criticism – Look at those two black reporters in our newsroom. Look at our diversity, look at our progress. Meanwhile, their silence and refusal to protect their journalist of color from incessant attacks amounts to complicity with the larger racist structures.
Their silence and complicity allows mainstream media say “racism is over there not here in our newsroom,” all in the service of maintaining status quo, whether done implicitly or explicitly. The trolls are racist, FOX is racist, but not our liberal newsroom. But liberal media is often a trickster cousin of FOX. It is Fox by another name … a pig in lipstick is still a pig. Or as one of my black journalist friends puts it: the liberal media, which practices cosmetic diversity, is “white supremacy in blackface — the mask that smiles and lies.”
I’m putting my hope in a new generation of activists and journalists that is using the Internet as a tool to chisel away at media’s biased coverage of communities of color. They are challenging the master narrative. They no longer have to rely on telling our stories through traditional means whether it is a newspaper or a mainstream TV show. While I believe that the larger movement for Black Lives will place pressure on media not to ignore our stories, I am actually excited to see the reverse migration of journalists of color to alternate media.
I for one am looking forward to Black America finally becoming THE voice of Black America.