At The Crossroads - The dire straits of Black media
When Charles Tisdale, publisher of Mississippi’s Jackson Advocate, died in July, Black media, particularly the Black press, was left with a considerable hole to fill. Tisdale, who was 80, was not satisfied with the state of the Black press. Indeed, he was most upset with the lack of support he was receiving from his community. Only a tiny fraction of the 425,000 residents in the Jackson metropolitan area—43 percent of whom were Black—were willing to fork over a mere 50 cents for each edition of the paper.
This is symptomatic of the dire straits of the Black media. Circumstances worsened in August when Chauncey Bailey, a courageous reporter and editor of the Oakland Post, a Black weekly newspaper, was assassinated on the streets of Oakland. Bailey’s tenure at the Post, however short, was a boon for the paper. He even was beginning to test his abilities in cable television, where the Black media, except for superfluous programming, is virtually nonexistent.
In general, Black newspapers haven’t shown any notable change in style, content or distribution since the 1960s, if the Amsterdam News and other Black weeklies are reliable indicators. Over the last quarter of a century or more, the Amsterdam News has existed with never more than two staff reporters, relying on interns and freelancers for its coverage. And if the situation at the Amsterdam News, the oldest and largest Black newspaper in the country, has shown little change in the number of staff reporters it employs, things must be absolutely deplorable at the rest of the nation’s Black weeklies and two or three dailies.
Except for the Final Call, published by the Nation of Islam, there is no national Black newspaper. Since the late 1990s, thanks to the Internet, Blacks seeking the news have retrieved the bulk of their information from cyberspace, which in too many cases cannot be trusted.
Black radio is equally dismal, especially with respect to the coverage of hard or breaking news. At one time, in the New York City metropolitan area, listeners could count on a variety of talk shows that dispensed news about the community that was missing from the mainstream media. Such is not the case anymore, with WLIB-FM and WWRL-FM shifting their programming from talk shows to gospel or Caribbean music. It wasn’t all that rosy before the switch, since very few of the stations had a news team or a Black radio news section alert to the happenings of the day.
The absence of news reportage at Black-owned radio stations has been an almost singular concern of Glen Ford, executive editor of Black Agenda Report, whose columns are required reading on the Internet. “Black-oriented radio journalism in the nation’s capital has plummeted from 21 reporters at three stations 30 years ago to four reporters at two stations today. WPGC-FM (Infinity-Viacom) fields one reporter and Howard University’s commercially operated WHUR-FM employs three,” he wrote recently. “Black Washington’s dominant radio influence is Radio One, the 66-station chain founded by Cathy Liggins Hughes, valued at $2 billion. Hughes employs not a single newsperson at her four Washington stations, a corporate policy reflected in most of the 22 cities in which Radio One operates. The chain is the dominant influence in at least 13 of these markets. (Radio One also programs five channels of XM Satellite radio and has launched a Black-oriented television venture with Comcast, the cable giant.)”
Other than BET (Black Entertain-ment Television), once owned exclusively by Robert Johnson, it is pointless to even discuss the status of Black-owned and operated television. And unless you can receive the broadcasts of Gil Noble’s Like It Is on ABC-TV out of New York, or Ed Gordon’s Our World or Tavis Smiley on PBS, you are bereft of any real substance from the small screen.
While there is an abundance of magazines, they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to consistency on vital issues affecting Black America. When Essence was purchased by Time Inc., there was a concern that the occasional fluff would permeate even more pages in the publication. Overall, the magazine, like Ebony and Jet, continues to be as serviceable as it is predicable, and there remains a lack of coverage of hard news and international affairs.
The Internet has been a vital source of communication and information for Black America, but there are still millions who have neither the means nor the interest to participate in this potentially valuable medium, so it remains critical that newsprint, radio, television—the old forms of getting the news—improve and step up to the plate or the mike or the camera and even this can’t be the final word.
Herb Boyd is an award-winning author and journalist and the national editor of The Black World Today.
By Herb Boyd