Race and media in the United States

IN 2006, the Wilmington Race Riot Commission published a 600-page report on a 108-year-old riot. The commission, established by the state legislature, documents how in 1898 white racists drove a Black mayor from office, burned down the Black-owned newspaper, killed as many as sixty Black citizens, and installed the leader of the insurrection, a former Confederate Army colonel, as mayor. This marked the only successful insurrection by an armed band against a local government in US history.

Neither state nor federal law enforcement intervened to stop the insurrectionists. In the end, no one responsible for murder, mayhem, and the unlawful seizure of power in Wilmington was ever brought to justice.

The commission report also documented how some of North Carolina’s biggest white-owned newspapers contributed and “directly fomented and assisted the armed coup.” Foremost among the racist papers was the News and Observer of Raleigh, published and edited by Joseph Daniels, a Democratic Party stalwart, who went on to be President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the navy. Daniels made it clear in his autobiography that he and other editors of white-owned newspapers in the state used their papers to whip up fear and anger against Blacks.

The Wilmington race riot is but one of the many forgotten histories of how minority media has been compromised, suppressed, and literally obliterated in its role to document the trials and tribulations of a people oppressed. In News for All the People Juan González and Joseph Torres have compiled a comprehensive history of race and the media in the United States. Furthermore, unlike histories of the media dynasties, such as the Hearsts or Medills, this book tells the story of those the dynasties crushed on their way to the top.

The history of racism from colonial times to the present traced in the evolution of the media broadens our understanding of why institutional racism persists. González and Torres begin with the understanding that while “freedom of the press” is a founding principle, it is often circumscribed and certainly managed in the interest of those who own and control media outlets. This class imbalance only strengthens the institutional discrimination toward minorities.

News for All the People illustrates through numerous and sometimes astonishing examples that “only by understanding the evolution of press ownership in America, and the close connection between major media companies and the nation’s political and business circles, can we begin to understand the persistency of racial segregation and bigotry in the news.”

In bringing this history up to the present, González and Torres remind us, “Access to instant news has become so indispensable to modern society that major media companies now wield unprecedented influence over public thought.” More does not always mean better: “Despite this incessant chatter, many Americans remain remarkably misinformed about the world around us.”

While the efforts of big media outlets to exercise more and more control over what news is fit for the mass of people to consume have been largely successful over time, González and Torres show that there has always been another side—the courageous efforts of minority journalists. In 1827, Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper in America was established to fight against what its editor saw as an “incorrect representation” of Blacks in the press of the day. Closer in time is the story of Ruben Salazar, a founding member of the Chicano Media Council, who was killed by a tear-gas canister fired by police into a crowd while he was covering a Chicano Pride rally in Los Angeles in 1970. 

Minorities from every community are represented here. We learn that the founding editor of the Sacramento Bee was John Rollin Ridge, a Cherokee. Another Cherokee helped found and edit the San Diego Union in 1868. The chapter on the struggle of the Chinese immigrant community to overcome some of the most virulent attacks ever launched in the United States lays bare a history rarely recognized in history books. The authors here recognize that they have only opened the door and that much work remains to be done to give a comprehensive picture of the Chinese press and its courageous fights. For example, the authors note that even the best histories of American journalism miss the dates of the first Chinese publications by more than twenty years.

News for All the People covers a lot of ground and opens a new window on race and its depictions through the history of the media in America from colonial times to the present. In their conclusion, González and Torres note that their work “provides abundant evidence that the white racial narrative has always been more virulent and exclusionary whenever our information system was most centralized and controlled from the top.”

This historical trend documented in News for All the People was starkly confirmed in the first act of the historic Republican Party takeover of Congress in 1995—the elimination of any assistance for minority-owned radio and TV stations. Thus, this is not a story that gets better with time. Today the fight against this trend is centered in the fight to keep an open Internet, which the authors identify as in the same vein as the struggle of the independent newspaper 150 years ago.

News for All the People should be a standard text in all journalism schools. The struggle for press freedom is a constant if unrecognized struggle. Now we have the real story in a book, as Bill Moyers notes, “we’ve needed for a long time.” 


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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