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Art Brodsky

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News for all the People: An Unflattering Portrait of Race and American Media

Posted: 11/03/11 11:49 PM ET

WTOP-FM is literally at the top of the radio heap in Washington, D.C. The all-news station is the top revenue-producing station in the country, billing $57.2 million last year, the only station in the top 10 not in Los Angeles (which had the number two station), New York or Chicago. It perennially is also the highest-rated station in Washington, outpacing all sorts of music stations and NPR. Recently, the station was sold as part of a 17-station, $505 million deal by its latest owner, Bonneville, to Hubbard Broadcasting, the latest in a long line of owners that included CBS.

But the station, complete with its "glass-enclosed nerve center," has a history that most people don't know, and would probably be shocked to discover. At the heart of the story is one James S. Vance (No, not the Jim Vance who is a Washington TV institution as a news anchor, although the irony is certainly there). Vance was the publisher of the Fellowship Forum, a newspaper associated with the Ku Klux Klan that was racist and anti-Catholic. The evaluators at the U.S. Commerce Department looking at the license application in 1927 said it would be "questionable whether such a station would be in the interest of public interest, convenience and necessity" -- because of its anti-Catholic propaganda, not because of its racism.

But Vance got his license anyway in 1927 as WTFF, for the Fellowship Forum.

That story comes from a new and important book, News For All The People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, by Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres. Gonzalez, a journalist and activist, and Torres, a former journalist turned activist, spent about eight years compiling and writing this book, and the depth of research shows as they weave two equally compelling and related, story lines.

The first is a story of how the media in America, going back to Colonial times, wrote about people of color, whether Native Americans, African-Americans or Latinos. The second is how people of color, in reaction to the misleading and false accounts being written and broadcast about them, tried to gain a foothold to tell their own stories through their own newspapers, radio stations and Internet sites.

These are the stories that seldom, if ever, get told in the sweep of media history in this country. While books are written about the Hearst dynasty, or the Medills and Pattersons, press barons of their time, an entire vital chapter of that history has largely been given short shrift, until now. Consider this book as a companion volume to Prof. Tim Wu's excellent book, Master Switch: The Rise and Fall Of Information Empires. Each book develops the theme of how industries start out as entrepreneurial ventures, then consolidate and try to drive out competitors. Wu's book is about those who did the consolidating.

Gonzalez and Torres tell much the same story, but from a completely different viewpoint -- those of those who were the victims of consolidation either from slanted reporting or ownership rules rigged against them by technological advances and government policy.

One of the book's greatest revelations is the extent to which "alternative" newspapers developed early in this country's history, starting in the 1820s. People of color published about 100 newspapers of their own by the time of the Civil War. The first black-owned newspaper, Freedom's Journal, came along in 1827. The first Hispanic paper was started four years earlier. The first Native American paper, the Cherokee Phoenix, was started in 1828. One of those, the Daily Bee, was started in February 1857 in Sacramento by a Cherokee named John Rollin Ridge, who was born with the name Yellow Bird. Ridge sold the paper in July of that year to one of his reporters, James McClatchy. That's how today's McClatchy chain started, and today it emerged from the slag heap of the newspaper industry owning 30 newspapers, having taken over the fabled Knight-Ridder chain and properties like the Miami Herald and Charlotte Observer and a reputation for investigative reporting.

It would be nice if the book were simply an uplifting story of spunky upstart media outlets, but that's not how it turns out as the book's twin themes demonstrate. What might be called the "mainstream media" of the time reports vicious, inaccurate and racist stories about any non-white population. Gonzales and Torres write, "It is our contention that newspapers, radio, and television played a pivotal role in perpetuating racist views among the general population." What newspaper in the 1800s reported as "battles" with Native Americans were, it turned out, massacres of women and children. It would take weeks, if not months, to get to the truth. Those types of stories in the book are legion.

When newspapers were strictly local, African-Americans or Spanish-speaking entrepreneurs might be able to correct the situation with their own publications. Then technology started to intrude in the form of the telegraph, dominated by Western Union and powerful MSM papers in the form of the Associated Press. The racist and inaccurate stories spread far and wide, business models changed, and smaller papers were forced out of business.

Radio was the first transformative technology to come along and, as in the instance of the Klan-affiliated newspaper, became the province of white owners. Even among that group, an ownership system set up by the government favored the powerful few, dominated by David Sarnoff and his Radio Corporation of America (RCA), from which NBC and later ABC were spawned.

Even as black ownership of media outlets decreased, Gonzalez and Torres write how African-Americans were hired by newspapers and, later, broadcasting outlets. The first act of the Republican Congress in the historic 1995 takeover of Congress was to eliminate the one vehicle, albeit ineffective, in place to encourage minority ownership of radio and TV stations.

Gonzalez and Torres take that trend right up to the minute, as the chronicle the fight for an open Internet, which the authors see as necessary now as newspapers were 150 years ago as a means for people to tell their own stories in their own way as an alternative to the narratives of others.

The book doesn't pull any punches on the politics of today and the intense battles over "net neutrality" which are heating up again even as we speak. They note that many minority groups are siding with big telecom in this fight, to maintain tight corporate control over the Internet. To Gonzalez and Torres, the "embrace of megamedia by established Civil Rights organizations represents the most startling and tragic setback in the modern history of the fight for social justice in the media."

That fight was hard in the 1820s, and it is just as hard now. Gonzalez and Torres have made an incalculable contribution to letting everyone know just how hard it was, how hard it is, and how hard it will be.

 

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