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Racist History Of American News Media?


This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the sound of Cleveland's soul music is rediscovered. We talk about the new box set of songs from the Boddie Recording Company in just a few moments.

But now, we take a deep look at race and class divisions that have long colored American news media, from the very first paper to the abundant websites today. A recent book traces how racism was perpetuated through reporting and how, at the same time, many journalists of color worked hard to create a more democratic press. That meant fighting rounds of corporate battles and challenging government policies that afforded media power to groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

So where does that history bring us to now, especially as media is changing ever more quickly with the rise of blogs and instant news feeds on Twitter? What does that mean for the power of and freedom of journalists and the influence of government?

Joining us now are the authors of the book "News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media." Juan Gonzalez is the co-host of the TV and radio news show, "Democracy Now." Joseph Torres is the senior advisor for government and external affairs at the national media reform group, the Free Press.

Gentlemen, welcome to both of you.

JOSEPH TORRES: Thank you, Tony.

COX: Now, let me ask you, Joseph. You write in the book about the beginnings of ethnic-owned media in America, for example, with El Misisipi, the first Spanish-language paper, 1808. Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper, 1827. Then a year later, Cherokee Phoenix, the first Native American paper, and Golden Hills, the first Chinese-American paper, 1854.

You go on to suggest in the book that things are hardly any better today in terms of media ownership and influence. What happened? Or better still, what did not happen?

TORRES: Government policy back when the first ethic newspapers began to be founded, it allowed for the creation of newspapers. The post office actually delivered their newspaper and didn't censor the delivery of news. It was a decentralized system. A few gatekeepers in place of the - allowed the voices of many to be heard.

Today, we have a system and we have scarcity, because only a certain amount of licenses they give out in airways, right, or a certain amount of stations. And because of that, government decisions places the hands of control of these licenses in the hands of a few, which pushes us out.

COX: Juan, when you talk about the Internet, for example, it would appear at first blush that this would be the gateway for people of color to really get involved in media access and media ownership and media influence. Is that happening, or is that not happening?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, initially, it has happened, just as it happened in early radio. You had a lot of decentralization, a lot of new voices coming into play. But then a time comes when the government has to establish rules and regulations. And, unfortunately, right now, we're seeing in battles such as the battle over net neutrality that major media companies who now control the pipes through which all of this content on the Internet flows are attempting, once again, to become gatekeepers, control the flow of information, that of video, voice, everything that comes through the Internet.

So net neutrality, that's the new way that the battle is shaping up in terms of who gets heard and how they get heard.

COX: Now, you write that today, cable and telephone companies control 97 percent of the residential broadband market. AT&T accounts for 42 percent of all customers. What's the impact, would you say? I'll come to you, Joseph. What's the impact of that on content for people of color, and what is the government's role in that?

TORRES: So these companies provide the onramp to the Internet. And so if a customer only has two choices, whether you get your cable or you get your Internet connection from a phone or a cable company, they have tremendous incentive to slow down and manipulate speeds and traffic and favor their own traffic. So if you're at Comcast, you're going to favor NBC content because you own it, and you're going to slow Netflix or you're going to slow down NPR or you're going to slow down other folks who cannot pay to make sure access to their sites are seen - are access to the fastest speeds by the public.

COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We're talking about the book, "News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media." We are joined by authors Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres. Joseph, is there anything, in your opinion, stopping journalists and news consumers, for that matter, from taking a more active stance on their own behalf?

TORRES: We feel like it's critical for journalists to stand up and make sure the policy that is passed in D.C. allows for the greatest number of voices to be heard. Unfortunately, at times journalists have been afraid to get involved because they are going against the corporate desires, let's say, of their owners to own more property and make more money.

COX: You talk in the book about it, and you give examples, of a number of journalists of color - African-American and Latino - who have, in fact, been active. You mentioned one, for example, Pedro Gonzalez, who used radio news to fight what he saw as the injustice of his time. Juan, do we not see that kind of muckraking anymore among today's journalists of color?

GONZALEZ: You do see it but unfortunately the pressures of today in newsrooms where everyone is downsizing in the commercial media and the advertiser-driven model of most of the news media in the company is falling apart, that there's a lot of fear in newsrooms today, fear of are you going to be the next person laid off. Are you going to displease your media supervisors, editors, and owners?

And so I think that that level of fear is dissuading many people from the kind of entrepreneurial or courageous reporting that we've seen in the past.

COX: Where would you say, Juan, that we will be 10 years from now in terms of minority media ownership and influence?

GONZALEZ: That is one of the great ironies, that at the very moment when the non-white population of the United States is at an all-time high and will soon perhaps reach, by 2040, a majority of the population, that minority ownership of major media companies is declining. So we're facing the potential for a non-white majority in the country toward the second half of this century being almost excluded from ownership of the major media of the country.

COX: Now, we are in an era that has been described, Joseph, by many as multicultural. Does that mean, then, in terms of journalists of color that there is not the desire necessarily for people to be written about as their own individual group and that this multiculturalism means everybody writes about everybody then?

TORRES: No. I don't think that's true. Look at TV, for example. You look at a company like Univision. In a lot of markets in this country they're the number-one rated station in their local markets. There's still a tremendous desire for people of color to understand what's going on in their community and look for news and information that's about them.

So you see that in the Spanish language press in particular and I think, no, I think that because of the lack of information we still receive in the mainstream press, I mean, if you're Latino you're basically covered as an immigrant. There's no really other information written about you rarely in the mainstream media. And so you do look for alternative publications or magazines, ethnic press, Spanish language media to get that news and information.

COX: There are some blogs and ethnic-oriented websites that are already there and that are working, would be the best way to describe them. Is it your contention that this is as good as it is going to get?

TORRES: Now, that's not our contention. Our contention is that we have to make sure the Internet remains an open platform to allow entrepreneurs, African-American, Latino, who knows, to be able to excel to create new products. But if you have a closed Internet, the gatekeepers will push away the small entrepreneurs and it'll just be controlled by big non - basically white-run institutions and it'll replicate the same kind of media system we've been trying to dismantle in traditional media.

COX: Juan, what's been the response to the book so far?

GONZALEZ: Well, I think the response has been tremendous in the various cities that we've gone through, not only by the journalists who feel the deep crisis in their industry - we've had big turnouts by media reform groups and by journalists and ordinary citizens concerned about the direction of our media system.

COX: Juan Gonzalez is the co-author of the book "News For All the People: the Epic Story of Race and the American Media." He is the former head of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Now he is co-hosting the TV and radio news show "Democracy Now." He joined us from the studio there in New York.

Co-author Joseph Torres is the former deputy director of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. He is currently the senior adviser for government and external affairs at the Free Press. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington D.C. studios. Gentlemen, thank you both.

TORRES: Thank you, Tony. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.