A year ago today, I was in NPR's Los Angeles studios, providing commentary for the network's election night special. I'd worked a double shift, first as the host of the African-American focused show News and Notes, then rolling on into the coverage of returns and looks at ballot initiatives like California's Proposition 8. After Barack Obama was announced the winner of the U.S. Preidency and we wrapped up the special, I drove down Jefferson Avenue in Los Angeles ... and almost got carjacked. I've rarely spoken about the incident, but it's time for me to examine its resonance as I look back on the last year of American life, of black American life, and of journalism.
Before I go into what I learned that night, let me give you some backstory on my job as a radio host. News and Notes was not just a show hosted by me, a black woman; or intended for an all-black audience (our listernership was very mixed). Rather, News and Notes had an explicit mission of reporting on the African-American and African-Diaspora communities. The show was born out of the need to replace the Tavis Smiley show, once he left the network with a very public critique of NPR, diversity, and marking to multicultural audiences. Ed Gordon hosted the new show, News and Notes, for a time, and then I took the host seat.
That host seat was never very comfortable. The network threatened to cancel its African-American interest show more than once. We had done groundbreaking coverage of the South Carolina primary -- which I would argue was a tipping point where then-Senator Obama fully gained the support of civil-rights generation black Americans, many of whom had initially supported Senator Clinton. Yet the summer before the 2008 election, I remember speaking by cellphone to the acting CEO of NPR as I looked out over downtown Chicago, where I was staying for the Unity Conference for journalists of color. He'd read the blistering internal memo I sent urging management not to cancel the show because it would erode their credibility with the audience and undermine the network's newsgathering capacity on the election. In the end, the show was given a reprieve, but it was finite.
Our staff was cut and online media resources that had been offered to The Bryant Park Project -- another show that was eventually canceled -- were withheld from us, although part of our charter was digital innovation and we had highly skilled digital staffers. I know you know what I'm talking about. Millions of us have done the job death march ... when you know your job is dead, but you have to keep going anyway. In the waning months of our show, as excitement about the election built, we had to do the "Thriller" zombie shuffle every day. The stress of imminent cancellation made those of us there election night in the near-deserted studio a tense and terse lot. While people across the country texted and tweeted reports of ebullience in neighborhoods when Barack Obama was declared the winner of the election, I was in the studio with one engineer. I wanted, as someone who values firsthand reporting, to get the view from the crowd and see what was happening on the street.
After the election special wrapped, I headed towards an area that was supposed to have a spontaneous gathering -- the mostly black neighborhood torn by the pros and cons of gentrification, Leimert Park. As I sat at one light waiting to make a turn at a desolate intersection, a man draped in a comforter was crossing in the middle of the street I was about to turn onto; another man, dressed conventionally in jeans and a shirt, was following behind him. Both were African-American. In my exhaustion, naivete, or hopefulness (or all three), I imagined the man in the comforter was a mentally ill relative who the man in jeans was trying to stop and help. The light changed. I turned the corner slowly. As I did, the man in jeans turned away from the man in the comforter and lunged for the handle of my car door. In that slowed-down time, I looked back at him and saw a bulge that looked like a gun at his waistband under his shirt. I don't know if he had a gun, or if my brain searched for patterns in the confusion. I do know he intended to open the car door. I suspect I would have been left at the side of the road, or worse, pushed into the passenger seat. I was lucky. His aim was off. I sped up, drove on, locked the car door, and returned home. So much for seeing history in the making. Or maybe I just had.
As I drove off into the night, part of me wanted to turn around, find the guy, and yell at him. "[Expletive deleted] don't you know we just elected a black man as President? Why don't you act right for once?" If I were invincible, I would have pulled some Sistagirl rank and read him the riot act, then tried to find out why he was so destructive and irresponsible. But the danger of the situation made it unthinkable for me to pursue the story in that way at that time.
Flash forward one year. Thousands of journalists have lost their jobs; hundreds of thousands of black people have lost jobs, homes, or both. The recession has officially ended, but economist Nouriel Roubini's prediction of an L-shaped jobless recovery seems manifest. These days I am working in public radio in New York; writing my next book; and planning a new radio program. I drive the car that was nearly jacked on a dark Los Angeles street to Brooklyn and the Bronx to do my reporting. I still wish I knew more about that man who approached me. But when I see his face, as I do every now and then in my quiet moments, it renews my commitment to understand who has benefited how, and who has lost what, in the last year of American life.
Two decades ago, one of my journalism mentors introduced me to the concept and question, "Is it good for the Jews?" That question -- "Is it good for [my identity]?" -- is a hallmark of American political discourse. Sometimes we say it outright; other times we keep our musings to ourselves. Of course, every person has multiple social identities. Right now, at the first anniversary of the election of Barack Obama, I'm taking a hard look at what's been going on with black folks and with journalists. These are bracing times for both communities. But from our struggles come the seeds of revolutionary thinking.
We have a President who is also a Nobel Prize winner and a First Lady who can double dutch and garden for food. President and First Lady Obama are re-defining blackness at a critical time. But Princeton professor Melissa Harris Lacewell wrote an article for the Nation analyzing Gallup polls which show "two consistent trends in President Obama's ratings: overall decline and a widening racial gap between black and white Americans." Economist Julianne Malveaux writes that whether black Americans are better off warrants an "ambiguous yes," mainly for the promise of future policy changes. But a for right now, Malveaux writes:
In terms of the labor market we are emphatically not better off. The unemployment rate was 8.1 percent when President Obama was sworn in on January 20. It is 9.8 percent now. African Americans had official unemployment rates of 13.4 percent last January. Now the rate is 15.4. Those are only the official rates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that it estimates overall unemployment as high as 17 percent. Using the same formula, the African American unemployment rate is 26.7 percent, a Depression-era rate. If you are a renter who is also jobless, you probably have not seen any positive impact of the public policy that president Obama is attempting. Are you better off than you were a year ago? It depends on where you stand on the economic totem pole.
Of all the places that race operates in America, the church-sphere may be the most segregated, but journalism may be the most fractious. (I think of this just having read a galley copy of the memoirs of Gerald M. Boyd, the New York Times managing editor who was fired after younger black journalist Jayson Blair was revealed as a fraud. Boyd, who wrote the memoir as he was dying of cancer, asserts that he was unfairly painted as an apologist for Blair. The description of the Blair-era debates over the value of diversity echo ones I've had in my own newsrooms.) One of the gulfs that separates black and white journalists in a newsroom is often the sense of distance from a story. Most of the black reporters I know have family members or close friends who have faced a job loss; a home foreclosure; or a steep decline in the quality of living in their neighborhood because of other peoples' troubles. One of the sad debates that still goes on in newsrooms today is whether black (and non-white) reporters can be "objective" about their communities. I have always argued that in order to be fair, you cannot claim a false sense of objectivity. You have to look at your lived experiences, analyze how they may have prejudiced you, and fight against those prejudices.
Doing an inventory of your own prejudices and lived experiences can make you a more compassionate reporter; change how you approach people when asking them to tell their stories; and how much you rely on outside experts versus people with lived experience. Journalism has become, over the years, a white-collar profession when it once was a blue-collar profession. One of my friends, the award-winning journalist Jennifer Gonnerman (author of Life on the Outside), believes that journalism may once again become a working (wo)man's profession, now that so much of the money is gone. I'm not sure that will happen, but I do know that being a journalist these days requires the skills of an accountant, a diplomat, a marketer, a computer tech ... and yes, still those of a journalist.
What are those skills that a journalist must have? There are different ways to do the job, but I know I always have to mix a top-down knowledge (from statistics or study) with a bottom-up knowledge of seeing events unfold and talking to people on background. Although I do plenty of studio or telephone interviews, I take calculated risks to get rewards in the form of firsthand information. I've spent three days in the same clothes to cover Katrina; visited Klansmen; even walked into the treacherous halls of Congress.
On election night 2008, the risk came to me in the form of a failed attack. The reward, bitter at the time, was perspective that while for some people everything had changed, for others, nothing had. The man who came to scoop me out of my car was no more empowered at midnight in Los Angeles than he was before the Senator from Illinois was announced as President-Elect. I have no idea if he even knew the results of the election.
Right now, at the end of Obama Year One, I'm sure many people are evaluating whether their community did well. Was the last year good for the bankers, the homeowners, the small business owners, Detroiters, Washingtonians, farmers, the Amish, Muslims, the WASPS, the Jews? Was last year a good year for "your people," however you define them?
The more that we can evaluate who has gained and lost what in this period, and then discuss and share that knowledge, the more we can approach the next three years with skepticism but not cynicism, inquiry but not inquisition, and, yes, with hope. Hope is not the same thing as naïvete. Hope can drive away from danger and imagine a safer world, but not without hard work to make it so. Part of that work must include reporting, investigation, and journalism. We are still grasping for the best market model for media, but in the uncertain meantime, we continue to report on our communities and our world.
One year has passed since a new President was elected. For most of us, Presidential and even Congressional politics are not the biggest determinants of our happiness and success. Every day we make a choice: to face the uncertainty of the future with innovation, or to pretend we can use old models to succeed. For my people -- and that includes "the journalists" and "the blacks," as well as women and Americans at large -- this has been one rough year. But I see, not only survival but innovation. More people are gardening for food and for joy; creating neighborhood festivals; learning how to fix their own homes and avoid predatory home improvement schemes; and researching what businesses really deserve their patronage. We are less flush and less frivolous. But we are finding the joy in the struggle, and that is a beautiful thing to see ... and to be.
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