At the end of January, I organized and moderated a panel at Temple University’s School of Media and Communications called “Separate But Equal? The Role of the Black Media in the 21st Century.” The title of the panel was deliberately provocative, because I wanted people to consider whether having media outlets that cater to specific ethnic groups was regressive and racist or a progressive sign of the times. The four panelists, representing the worlds of television, radio, newspaper, and digital media, never truly answered that question, but they did offer plenty of evidence that today’s black press provides a valuable service to a community that continues to be underserved by the mainstream media.
As a journalist, as a black woman, and as a media observer, it occurs to me that some people might believe that the time has long since passed when a separate black media is necessary. We no longer live in a (legally) segregated society, so why would we need a segregated press? In my opinion, the answer is, we don’t. We don’t need a separate black media in the 21st century, but we deserve to have one. And therein lies the difference between past and present.
In 1827, when the first black-owned and operated newspaper was launched by a group of free black men in New York, it satisfied a very important need in the black community and in society at large. The mandate of Freedom’s Journal was to counterbalance the character assassinations against black people printed in the mainstream press and to serve as a public voice against slavery. As time went on, the black press continued to be both activist and informant for a community that was routinely ignored and maligned by the mainstream media.
Today, the role of the black press isn’t so easily defined, as the needs of the community have expanded and the mainstream media have become more inclusive. Still, I do believe there is room in the media landscape for any number of media enterprises catering to black people; if there can be magazines for craft beer brewers and urban chicken farmers, then there can be magazines for black people who live in Harlem or black women between the ages of 25-35 who enjoy fashion. And not for nothing, I pretty much feel the same way about other ethnic groups having their own media products as well. (Clearly, Condé Nast and Hearst must agree, as they both recently launched fashion magazines for Latinas.)
Not everyone shares my opinions, especially those responsible for keeping a black media enterprise alive in today’s difficult economy. The panel I hosted at Temple led to a radio program on the same topic on NPR affiliate WHYY’s Radio Times in early February. Sara Lomax-Reese, president and general manager of WURD Radio, Pennsylvania’s only African-American-owned talk radio station, and Irv Randolph, managing editor of the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest, continuously running African-American newspaper in the United States, joined me on the show.
Lomax-Reese disagreed with my assessment that a separate black press is no longer a ‘necessity.’
“I think it is vital and critical to have a specific outlet for this population,” she said on air. “The mainstream media is still very separate and there are not a lot of opportunities [for black people] to speak and to be heard,” she said.
Randolph concurred. “The pathologies and the exceptions are covered well in the mainstream media, but everyday black people are still marginalized,” he said. “We still need [the black press] to show black people as normal.”
Lomax-Reese also pointed out that in order for the black media to truly compete with mainstream media outlets, ownership is key. “It takes money to have the ability to tell your own story,” she said. “And until we have more economic freedom, it’s going to be very hard to change the media landscape.”
Despite going into the show convinced that black media outlets are beneficial but not crucial, I could hardly disagree with Lomax-Reese and Randolph. Not when the latest issue of The New York Times fashion magazine, T, forgot to include a single model of color in the entire 224-page issue. And not when the mainstream media still can’t seem to find enough reporters, writers, or on-air talent of color to truthfully and artfully tell our stories.
Still, I don’t want the black press to simply be the antidote to a racist mainstream media. I want to elevate the form so that it is an organic expression of people wanting to tell black stories, celebrate black artistic expression, and examine the issues important to black people, independent of whatever the mainstream media is doing or not doing. In other words, a vibrant black media and a more inclusive mainstream media should both be available to the public. The two ideals are not mutually exclusive, nor should the failure of one be the raison d’etre of the other. Separate? Yes. Different? Sure. But absolutely equal.