The Black press has, and should, play a significant role in the Black community. And, Blacks being disproportionately affected by the economic meltdown makes the Black press all the more important. The following article by Erin Aubry Kaplan, (Watts Times (May 14, 2009) raises provocative questions that widely discussed, would help increase needed give and take between the Black press and the Black community:
The last twenty years-roughly the last generation-has been, to put it mildly, tough for Black folks in Los Angeles.
We had a civil unrest redux in 1992 that left neighborhoods permanently crippled. We’ve had a crack epidemic that’s bred health crises, homelessness and broken families. We’ve watched public schools fail our kids who consistently rank at the bottom of standardized test scores and just about every other measure of academic progress.
We’ve watched Black gang violence and incarceration rates escalate. And we’ve had a massive surge of Latino immigration that’s shifted the context of all of these ills and made it that much more politically tricky to craft the race/specific solutions that we still need. Hard times indeed!
(It is) …Complicated in a way that our forefathers and foremothers could hardly have imagined. But you wouldn’t know that reading Black print media. It’s not that Black newspapers don’t give us sobering news; they do. They faithfully report the latest distressing accounts and statistics about health, employment, education, court cases, etc.
But they rarely connect the dots, which is the most critical thing any newspaper does. Too often, in the local Black press, there are no ongoing analyses of issues and no discussion of who or what might be most responsible for the problems that plague us all. Sure, there are plenty of opinion pieces. Black folks have no lack of opinions-but that’s not what I’m talking about. Opinion pieces by definition are self-contained and modular, many of them syndicated and printed elsewhere.
I’m talking about a viewpoint of the paper itself, the state of its weekly mission to inform readers of news developments most germane to the Black communities it covers, and then to tell us what those events mean. Of course, I’m presuming that mission. I’m presuming the journalistic concern about “us.”
Let’s face it, the front pages of many local Black papers have long reflected concerns that are much more about social value than social justice-stories about entertainers and awards dinners, glowing pieces about politicians who’ve accomplished little more than being friends with a publisher or editor-in-chief. The light-on news, heavy-on pop culture approach is not exclusive to Black media, of course; all print media (especially in L.A.) is scrambling for ways to bolster readership, especially young readership, as print continues to decline in profitability.
But fiscal realities, notwithstanding, Black media has always had a special charge to be what the mainstream press is not. That means that if it doesn’t regularly vet issues of importance to Black folks, if it doesn’t grant 1,000 words to a story that the L.A. Times grants none, it’s (largely) irrelevant. I don’t mind a write-up on an awards dinner that the L.A. Times ignores on principle-that’s part of the charge.
But that coverage often isn’t balanced by more serious, in-depth stories and analyses that call for ambition and vision that the Black press put on autopilot a while ago. (Improved coverage calls for more money and resources, too, but that’s not the root of the problem.) Too much Black media feels dangerously close to irrelevance. This isn’t good news in the age of Barack Obama.
Accountability is …the buzz word of the Administration of the first Black president in American history and the Black press should be taking the lead in the discussion of whether that accountability is actually happening or whether it’s so much political hokum. Unfortunately, L.A.’s Black press has often not been an agent of accountability when it comes to Black folks. Like most other Black press, it sees itself as an advocate of Black people, and criticism of Black people is often viewed as antithetical to advocacy. That’s nonsense, not to mention outdated.
A lack of criticism translates into silence on too many issues that desperately need to be voiced aloud-education, immigration, the crimes of the criminal justice system, scary “wedge” issues like gay marriage and abortion rights. A Black paper should be identifying the stances and actions of politicians and so-called leaders on all of these things and more; it should be articulating an agenda of Black interests that our leaders have collectively failed to articulate themselves.
If that agenda is lacking-fine, the papers’ constituency will push back and help hash another. But it’s that kind of engagement, that kind of give-and-take that’s so vital to the life of any newspaper and that’s so absent in the Black press at a very crucial moment in time.
Obama is a wonderful symbol that heartens all of us; running banner photos of him and his model family is irresistible to Black media that’s been starved for pure good news for too long. But if it turns out to lack substance, especially where (important) Black issues are concerned, we’ll only have ourselves-and the reticence of the Black press-to blame.
(Erin Aubry-Kaplan is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Times Opinion pages and a freelance journalist who contributes to many publications, including Essence, Salon.com, Oxford American and The Crisis.)
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.