Juan González is a staff columnist for New York’s Daily News, a two-time winner of the George Polk Award for commentary, co-host of Democracy Now!, and former president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, where he was inducted into its Hall of Fame. With Joseph Torres, he is the co-author of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, recently released by Verso. Ernest R. Sotomayor recently talked with González about some of the issues explored in the book. (Disclosure: Sotomayor was consulted by González for feedback on the book as it was written.) This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Give us a lesson on what really happened when it came to people of color in this country, and their place in developing news media.
People of color were involved almost from the very beginning of the country in terms of developing their independent voices. They were able to do that for two reasons. One, they were excluded from the existing news media systems of their day because no African Americans or Latinos or Native Americans were involved in the early newspapers. And, two, there was government policy that allowed them to do that, and it was called postal policy.
You had over thirty African American newspapers before the Civil War, you had close to a hundred Spanish language newspapers before the Civil War, and twenty five in the city of New Orleans alone, you had a half dozen Native American newspapers and several Chinese newspapers, all developed before the Civil War because there was a government policy that if you could print a paper, the government would deliver it.
The main job of the postal system for more than a hundred years was delivery of newspapers, not letters. And this was the result of policy decisions made by the founders of the nation that dissemination of news and information was vital to the preservation of the republic. This was an information policy decision and a communications policy decision that allowed the United States to have more newspapers per capita than any other nation in the world.
Your journalism career has intertwined with a lot of activism in social issues, and always with the stated goal of promoting democracy. How did that affect you as you did this book?
My main concern was my frustration with the inability of those of us who are journalists to do our job well. And with all the pressures that the industry is under, and all of the other problems it has encountered in recent years, it was increasingly clear that it was becoming difficult for journalists to do their job, but I did not understand precisely why—not only just in terms of providing the kind of information that the American people need, but also in dealing with this intractable problem of racism, of coverage that was not racially inclusive, and that of the lack of diversity in the newsrooms. So what I was trying to do was get a sense of how our system of news got to where it is today. That’s what caused me to embark on this journey, to go back to the earliest period of journalism and take it to the present, to try to understand—independent of individuals, independent of companies, independent of enlightened strategies—why our system has been so resistant to change.
Do you feel, after examining what has happened in the last 300 years, that there is really a future ahead where the “system” is going to be far more accommodating, especially as we go into the Internet age?
What I learned is that there has been a general sense of progress, from a media system that began in Colonial times essentially as intelligence for the elite, and gradually became more and more of a system that at least purports to or attempts to provide news and information to the vast majority. So there is an arc of history from the news for the few to news for all. However, government policy plays a far greater part in that media system than I had expected or understood. Yes, there has been progress; however, that progress can be set back unless the new round of decisions about the Internet and about the digital era respond to the needs of the majority of the people.