When President Donald Trump publicly used a slur to describe mostly Black NFL players who took a knee to join Colin Kaepernick in protesting the killings of African-Americans at the hands of law enforcement and the many injustices that minorities continue to face, not one of the high-profile athletes turned to the Black Press.
African-American celebrities, and other Black icons who would join them, took their message to white America through mainstream media.
Spike Lee, who’s declined numerous requests from the Black Press, instead chose CNN and Anderson Cooper to deliver his message.
LeBron James, already a legend at 33 and who famously called Trump a “bum,” also took his message elsewhere.
Bobby Rush, the esteemed Illinois congressman and former Black Panther, probably put it best when speaking about the Rev. Robert Lee IV, a white man who has also taken up the cause of anti-racism and a descendant of the Confederate general.
“Do me a favor,” Rush said. “Let me take the message to my people in the Black community and you take the message to the white community and, if it works out, we’ll meet.”
A spokeswoman for the National Association of Black Journalists also noted that getting Black celebrities and movers and shakers to interview with the Black Press has been a problem.
Time and again, modern African-American icons, either directly or through spokespeople, have declined an interview or even comment to Black-owned newspapers, who only seek such access when there’s news to be told, not for trivial and fanatic purposes — these reporters are too busy.
When Cuba Gooding Jr. was making headlines last year, starring in a popular FX miniseries about O.J. Simpson, famed Washington Informer photographer Roy Lewis spotted the star at a D.C. hotel. When he asked Gooding if it’s OK to snap a photo for the Black Press, Gooding said no.
When a Black Press reporter approached Gooding about comment on portraying Simpson, the star remarked how fun the job was but added that he didn’t want to be quoted.
When the hit show “Empire” became must-see television, Washington Informer journalists’ attempts to get comment from D.C. native Taraji P. Henson were routinely unsuccessful.
“Those folks are about selling and personally profiting from Black cool, from Black genius, from selling their access to Black people, from selling themselves,” said Rinaldo Walcott, an associate professor and director of the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. “They are still working in the tradition of the Black body as commodity to be sold to white people and whiteness. They still operate from a position whereby white notice, white endorsement, white validation is the pinnacle of success.
“They are bounded and shaped totally by racial capitalism,” he said. “So, we live with the contradiction folks proclaiming to care about and desiring the freedom of Black people might ultimately only be interested in how close in proximity to whiteness they can use blackness to achieve.”
In the opening song of the 1990s hit television series “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Will Smith proudly raps about being born and raised in West Philadelphia.
“On the playground is where I spent most of my days,” the song goes, as Smith boasts about where he’s from, not more than a stone’s throw from the oldest continually published African-American newspaper in the country, the Philadelphia Tribune.
Smith’s voice, however, remains absent from that paper.
Born in poverty in Mississippi and later raised in the inner city of Milwaukee, Oprah Winfrey went on to take Chicago and the world by storm and become the “Queen of Media.”
She counts among the richest and most prominent African-Americans in the country, yet her voice has been absent from the Black-owned Chicago Crusader newspaper, which for more than 75 years has been at the forefront of the battle for civil and equal rights for folks who look like Winfrey.
Newsworthy events have occurred around such superstars and icons as Jay-Z, Beyonce, Barack and Michelle Obama, Common, Jamie Foxx, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Tyler Perry, Serena Williams, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Janet Jackson, Drake, Chance the Rapper, Ice Cube, Steve Harvey and even the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Yet none would provide commentary to the Black Press.
The late Washington Informer Editor Denise W. Barnes, an unabashed champion of Black Power and Black success and a fan of the rapper/actor Common, once angrily told officials at a local venue to get lost after twice previewing a concert and appearance by Common yet failing to land an interview.
Later, she instructed a reporter to feature Common’s charity work, but when reached, his publicists blew off the newspaper, refusing to grant an interview.
Current Washington Informer Managing Editor D. Kevin McNeir recently said he had been so fed up over his reporters’ persistent attempts to get a comment from Sharpton that he threatened not to cover a recent march the reverend held in the District.
Pleading Our Own Cause
“The Washington Informer is the voice of Wards 7 and 8, people in those wards depend on The Informer, the Black Press,” said former D.C. Mayor and Ward 7 Councilman Vincent Gray.
Of course, there are exceptions.
When Magic Johnson started his Aspire TV network, he immediately obliged the Black Press with an interview.
When boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard journeyed to Panama to meet with Roberto Duran on the anniversary of their legendary “No Mas” fight from 1980, Leonard, a Palmer Park, Maryland, native, called The Informer.
When Stevie Wonder didn’t have time for an interview before his 2014 D.C. concert at then-Verizon Center, the legend instructed his publicist to provide front-row tickets for the Black Press.
Prior to and during his scandal, comedian Bill Cosby has granted one-on-one interviews to Black newspapers, a conglomerate that include legendary publications such as the New Pittsburgh Courier, the Amsterdam News, Los Angeles Sentinel, St. Louis American, Houston Defender, Jackson Advocate, Atlanta Voice, the New Journal and Guide, and the Miami Times.
Politicians like Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and even Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, who’s white, have long championed the Black Press.
“You have the trust of your readers at a time when people don’t trust the media and that’s a precious commodity,” Kaine said. “Here’s a segment of media where there is not the traditional suspicion … all the studies show that people have a higher trust in them than they do in other media and the people who do read it, they really bank on it.”
The Black Press is celebrating its 190th anniversary and, as nicely chronicled by Dr. Clint C. Wilson II of the Department of Journalism at Howard University, the history is rich.
In 1827, a group of prominent free African-Americans from states along the Eastern seaboard met in the New York City home of Bostin Crummell to discuss means to communicate their views on the various social, political and economic issues that commonly confronted them and their respective communities.
Although Black citizens utilized the church and social and fraternal organizations as a means of collective expression and dialogue, the usual channels of public media — particularly newspapers — were denied to them.
Exacerbating the problem was the fact that elements of the established press routinely denigrated African-Americans in print, even to the extent of questioning both the integrity and morality of the entire race.
The most significant outcome of the meeting at Crummell’s house in the winter of 1827 was the decision to begin publication of the first newspaper produced by Black Americans, Freedom’s Journal.
Two attendees at the meeting, Rev. Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm, became the paper’s editors.
Although well-intending white citizens sometimes defended the honor of African-Americans in public forums, the editors of Freedom’s Journal proclaimed in the first issue, “Too long have others spoken for us. … We wish to plead our own cause.”
Today, the Black Press remains synonymous with freedom fighting, continues as the voice for the voiceless and, through its pages, has defined what it means to speak truth to power.
A host of freedom fighters and civil rights leaders have historically granted interviews or even penned columns in many of the 211 African-American-owned newspapers that make up the Black Press. Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells, Langston Hughes, Mary McLeod Bethune and, of late, Jesse Jackson count among them.
And today, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a onetime assistant to Martin Luther King Jr. and one of the famous Wilmington Ten, serves as president and CEO of the Black Press.
“We have to understand that once we make these athletes and celebrities icons, we have lost control of them and how they relate to our community,” said Larry Smith, publisher of the Florence Community Times.
“They are now feeding on national and international media that will get their name out there and highlight their work, until they fall from grace or the next person comes along,” Smith said. “Let the icons be icons, but we should only respect those who respect us.”
Dorothy Leavell, the chair of the National Newspaper Publishers Association — which represents the Black Press — and publisher of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers, said she seldom ask celebrities for interviews because many often believe they’re above even those who are responsible for their success.
“I come from a city where at least two of those celebrities have had the honor to build their careers, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey. My reporters were treated with respect by Jordan during his playing days, unlike Oprah,” Leavell said. “Recently, they tore down the building that Oprah built and I did not hear one cry of regret from the Black community because Oprah was not about the Black community. She should be reminded, however, that her white idea of owning a network didn’t work until Tyler Perry — whom I understand isn’t community-minded, either — brought his products to her network.”
Leavell noted that Perry’s popularity largely is because of his “Madea” character, which endears him to African-Americans only as “escapism of our misery from racism.”
She then had a word of caution for Sharpton and TV One host Roland Martin.
“If he has forgotten the bridge that brought him across, shame on him,” Leavell said of Sharpton. “Also, I know how Roland was propelled into the national spotlight and he owes a debt of gratitude to the Black Press, especially the Chicago Defender.”
Black stars need to support Black businesses — as one grows, we all grow, said Phyllis Hicks, publisher and managing editor of the Omaha Star.
Natalie Cole, publisher of Our Weekly in Los Angeles, said when Black leaders fail to support the Black Press, an oxymoronic situation proliferates.
“We don’t get the story, which would give our readership a great boost, while the general market media receives direct and exclusive face time,” Cole said. “Imagine if they actively supported the Black Press and what such would do for our readership. We have always needed one another, but all too often, as Black leaders continue to ascend up their ladders of success, they ignore the very media which need them the most.”