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The role of the Black press (print and electronic) in the 21st century is more important than ever. (As this is written, the partial shutdown of the federal government is disproportionately affecting the Black community.) The ever-increasing prominence of social media increases, not lessens, the critical importance of a vigilant Black press that reflects the pulse of the community and is a strong advocate for its concerns. The rich history of the Black press provides an illuminating backdrop for better understanding its relevance, role and responsibility to the Black community.
In 1827, Rev. Samuel Cornish and John Russworm founded Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in the U.S. Its first issue proclaimed, “Too long have others spoken for us. We wish to plead our own case.” And the Black press has largely done so, giving voice to the struggles of Black people by singularly covering and conveying their aspirations, hopes and fears.
Black publishers, editors, journalists, and columnists have included historical giants such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Mary McCloud Bethune, Langston Hughes, James Welldon Johnson and W.E.B. Dubois. In Los Angeles, famed publishers include Colonel Leon Washington (L.A. Sentinel), Charlotta Bass (California Eagle), Chester Washington (The Wave) and Loren Miller (California Eagle).In 1941, John Sengstacke, publisher of the Chicago Defender, called together leading Black publishers and 22 publications were represented at that meeting. They formed the National Negro Publishers Association, which was renamed the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) in 1956. (L.A. Sentinel Executive Publisher/CEO Danny Bakewell, Sr. is the immediate past president of NNPA.)
In recent years there has s been considerable slippage in the role and accountability of the Black press. Today, key issues that disproportionately affect Black people include: poverty; immigration reform; public education, healthcare and the federal budget. Now, these, and other important issues are not regularly covered in depth or addressed editorially by some Black media. Historically, matters of special importance to the community were not only covered, but their importance stressed editorially and in special reports.
Of course, the Black press continues to report and editorialize about community concerns but does so far less frequently than in the past. There is also less regular substantive analysis of the problems and potential solutions and too little coverage of those Black leaders who are at times do not serve their constituents best interests. There is an apparent, politically driven reluctance to call out Black leaders whose performance is not in the best interest of their constituents. These are not frivolous accusations: Many local Black elected officials, and other leaders, have been convicted of criminal charges or thrown out of office for ethical malfeasance. And even though the Black press takes note of such cases, it too often minimizes their severe implications for the Black community.
The point is, the Black press’ role and responsibility as both watchdog and conduit for community views has diminished and the consequences are troubling. Reporting on events in the community is basic, but delving into their meaning is even more important. Unfortunately, the Black media tends to emulate mainstream media and, in so doing, erodes the trust of the community. Ultimately, however, the community itself has an obligation to hold the Black press accountable.
Black publishers cite money, or lack of same, as a major factor in their inability to provide greater quality and efficiency. This is a legitimate complaint but it fails to address quality, not as a byproduct, but integral part of the Black press’ mission. It doesn’t take more money to discuss or analyze key issues affecting the lives of Black people; nor does it cost any more to take a position on key issues (in or outside the Black community). Yes, it does take more bucks to recruit and retain top professional journalists but that would likely increase both quality and outreach.
The need to take a firm position on important though controversial issues affecting Blacks was the main reason Cornish and Russworm founded Freedom’s Journal; they felt it a responsibility and held themselves responsible and accountable for representing the interests of Black people.
Contemporary Black media does not consistently provide balanced, in-depth coverage and the negative implications cannot be overemphasized. Failure to provide critical analysis of pressing issues tends to aggravate a host of other complex problems that require not silence, but precisely the opposite, i.e., public discourse. Analysis by the Black media should encourage and engage the community in a mutually rewarding give-and-take that strengthens the Black community and the Black
The fact is, an engaged, and when necessary, agitating Black press that champions the community’s concerns is needed now more than ever. (Sit -coms and successful entertainers are hardly the best examples of Black progress.) Renewing the reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationship between the Black press and the Black community is critical for forward movement. But all said, the Black press remains an indispensable institution whose primary responsibility is to serve the needs of the community it serves.