04/30/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Challenges to Black Media Under President Obama

As we approach another anniversary commemorating the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it is appropriate to pause and reflect on the challenges confronting Black Media under an Obama presidency.

Historically, the press has been characterized as the "Fourth Estate," a balancing factor to our three branches of government. Protection of public comment and reporting about the activities in the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary (and even individuals within these organizations) is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.

Magazine, newspaper, radio and TV reporters of the "Black Media" continue to appear uncertain, still searching for balance between their celebration and constructive criticism of this country's first African-American president. To date, adulation and celebration seem to be the dominant themes. However, adulation and celebration are no substitute for clinical, objective evaluation as to whether or not one or more of the prominent policies developed and proposed by President Obama are in the near- and long-term interest of the African-American community.

Predictably, so far President Obama is focusing on those major issues predicated on the political and economic doctrine that a rising tide of an improved economy, affordable health care, and employment prosperity will lift all boats, including those of African-Americans. Whether such policies, assuming successful implementation, will in fact positively affect all groups has yet to be determined. After all, the rising tide only lifts boats that are floating. Its power is useless to those unlucky craft stuck far down at the bottom of the ocean.

Black Media has its own diversity of political, social and economic commentators in the media marketplace of ideas. Persons like Armstrong Williams, Shelby Steele, Tom Sowell, Glenn Loury, Roland Martin, Dr. Cornel West, Juan Williams, Tavis Smiley, Tom Joiner, Stanley Crouch, to mention only a few, are needed now more than ever. The issue is not whether one agrees with their respective points of view. What is important is that points of view more diverse than the blind adulation we're seeing must be expressed in this new "Age of Obama." It seems to me a man of character, as Barack Obama appears to be, would expect -- and respect -- nothing less.

Indeed, it is a sign of the political immaturity of Black Media that someone so qualified and articulate as Tavis Smiley has been, in effect, treated as "less acceptable" by some Black Media because he critically questioned some of the actions or inactions of candidate Obama, instead of speaking in lock step adulation as others.

Black Media has a unique role it can play in the national discussion about the continued criminalization of the use of marijuana. This issue is now front and center in the news in connection with the rising gun violence in U.S. border states and in Mexico. This violence is occurring in the fight over the distribution and sale of drugs to and in the United States. Recently, President Obama, in response to numerous questions in his first online discussion, was asked about the legalization of marijuana. His answer was a succinct "No." Now, since so many African-Americans are incarcerated in state and federal prisons because of their non-violent participation in the sale of marijuana. Why has no reporter or columnist in Black Media challenged President Obama over the possible wisdom of decriminalization of the purchase and private use of marijuana or our government's failed policies related to massive illegal immigration from Mexico?

This is the on-going value of reporting, as opposed to the somewhat limited value of cheerleading. Our airwaves and newspaper pages do not need to be littered with free passes for a man who has defied history. The election is over, and now many diverse interest groups all will have their own perspective on whether or not his leadership benefits them. This includes African-Americans, who must judge his actions from this vantage point now.

The most important challenge confronting leadership in the African-American community, and its media, is a rededication to the pursuit of educational excellence and greater assumption of responsibility for personal conduct which creates social pathologies adverse to the health, welfare and safety in our communities. HIV/AIDS, high percentage of out-of-wedlock births and drop out rates of African-American males from High Schools; the high percentage of incarceration; and almost 50% of all murders committed in the United States are of African-Americans. There may be more African-American men between the ages of 18-22 in prison than enrolled in college.

America owes a great debt to John Johnson, founder of Ebony and Jet Magazine, and to Dr. King. Both celebrated and affirmed the kaleidoscope of talent and beauty of the Black experience in America. Both demanded the best from us. One can only imagine what they would make of Black Media's failure to hold the president's feet to the fire, regardless of his heritage. Critical and constructive analysis of President Obama's policies and their impact on those issues most affecting the African-American community is more important than ever, and certainly more useful than our Black Media's continued uncritical celebration of our new president.

Clarence B. Jones, former editor & publisher of the New York Amsterdam News, lawyer, draft speechwriter for Dr. King, is currently a Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute, Stanford University. He is the author of "What Would Martin Say?" and the upcoming autobiography "Memoirs Of A Wintertime Solider."