Missing a Million: The Million Man March, the Media, and Representation

Sean Posey

Bus loads of people from cities all across America arrived in the midst of waiving Pan African Flags and Nation of Islam drill teams on a sun-drenched fall day in the nation’s capital. Those hundreds of thousands of black women, men, and children-along with Indigenous peoples and some whites-gathered on the National Mall for the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March on October 10, 2015. For some, it marked their second march; for others, it was their first chance to participate in history in the making. Celebrities from Dave Chappelle to Russell Simmons appeared in the crowd, and much like the original march in 1995, a peaceful atmosphere pervaded throughout the event.

But for those not at the march, news of the day proved hard to come by. Major papers carried stores of the event way below the fold-if at all. In a move that outraged many, BET failed to provide live coverage of the march. It fell to CSPAN, a public service network, to carry the day’s events in their entirety. This is not a coincidence, for much has changed since the original march in 1995.

The consolidation of major media, the disappearance of “minority” owned radio and television outlets, and mass layoffs of journalists of color, have radically altered the landscape of news. The concentration of media ownership into ever fewer hands results in the crafting of public opinion by ever-smaller interests. What is the outcome? Wall-to wall coverage of riots in Ferguson and Baltimore (with precious little context) and minimal coverage of events like the anniversary of the Million Man March. Grassroots movements from Black Lives Matter to community driven efforts to support public schools face slanted coverage or virtual news blackouts. In a very real sense, these developments are eroding the last vestiges of the “Fourth Estate,” especially for communities of color.

Prior to the 1960s, black communities seldom received much media coverage outside of crime stories. In the South and in the industrial cities of the North newspapers usually featured only small columns devoted to “colored news,” often with ludicrous names such as “News Notes for Local Colored Folks.”[1] Simeon Booker and other black journalists broke new ground as reporters during that time, but ten years after World War II, only twenty-one black reporters wrote for white-owned newspapers.[2]

The immediate postwar period, however, represented the “heyday” of the black owned press.[3] ThePittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, the Call & Post, and the Michigan Chronicle, among others, provided a crucial perspective for underrepresented black communities in the growing cities of the North. Black journalists played a key role in covering and breaking some of the biggest stories of the civil-rights era. According to media scholar Robert McChesney, “The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s were able to increase minority media ownership, establish community radio stations, and create public access TV channels.” [4]

But by 1977, only one television station and fifty radio stations were considered “minority owned.” In response, in 1978, the FCC stated that diverse ownership of media outlets constituted “a public interest” objective. The Commission quickly initiated a program offering a deferral on capital gains taxes to any company planning on selling a radio or television station to a minority owner. The Commission also convened a “Minority Ownership Task Force,” which pushed for the creation of a “Distress Sale Policy.” The policy allowed for “a broadcaster, in hearing for the non-renewal or revocation of its license, to elect before the hearing to sell the station to a minority owned company for no more than 75 percent of fair market value.” [5] In 1982, they amended the capital gains program and allowed tax certificates to be issued to investors who offered seed money to minority entrepreneurs interested in buying a broadcast station.

The Distress Sale Policy resulted in the creation of thirty-eight minority-owned stations between 1978 and 1992. The policy led directly to the creation of Radio One, the largest black-owned radio broadcaster in the nation.[6] The tax certificate and capital gains program resulted in the transfer of 288 radio stations and 43 television programs to minority owners.[7]

Yet the era from the 1970s to the 1990s also witnessed the rise of the conglomerates. According to McChesney, “From the 1970s to the end of the 1990s, in a dramatic transformation, the U.S. media system came to be dominated by a handful of media conglomerates-Time Warner, News Corp., Viacom, and General Electric.”[8] New attitudes toward media mergers and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 greatly abetted the situation.

In 1995, Congress ended the FCC’s tax certificate program, essentially labeling it as unfair set-aside for minorities. It proved to be a harbinger of something even darker. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was originally advanced as a piece of legislation which would help foster competition, promote more diverse ownership of media, and “increase access” to the world of communications; in reality, just the opposite occurred. The act helped herald a new generation of media consolidation, which proved devastating for communities of color. According to the new rules, one company could own as many as eight radio stations in a single market. It also reversed rules governing how many television stations a company could own in a single market and at the national level.

The results soon became apparent: twenty-six black-owned radio stations quickly ended up in the hands of white-owned companies. Clear Channel in particular devastated the ranks of black and minority-owned radio stations. According to Jeffrey Layne Blevins, “Clear Channel was able to combine the ratings from each of its stations and then show advertisers how many more listeners they attracted than independently owned-and-operated stations in the same market…”[9]

The situation in the television industry is even worse. The number of black-owned television stations declined to zero in 2013. That same year, Soul of the South, a digital television network, attempted to fill the void. But by 2015 it appeared as if Soul of the South would fold as financial problems continued to dog the company. And Howard University, also currently suffering from serious financial difficulties, is now considering auctioning off WHUT, the university’s public access station, to the FCC. WHUT is the only public access station in the country run by a historically black institution.

The number of television stations owned by blacks has since increased to ten, but access remains an enormous problem. This year a federal court in California dismissed a twenty billion dollar lawsuit against Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Spearheaded by Byron Allen of Entertainment Studios Networks, Inc. and the National Association of African-American Media, the suit alleged that the cable giants conspired to block access to black-owned networks. Despite the reversal, the case reopened in August-highlighting the continuing issues with ownership/access for African Americans in the media.

Large corporations now own many previously black-run news/entertainment outlets and key venues serving black audiences: The Root ( Univision), BET (Viacom), and even Essence (Time Inc.). Black consumers rely more on television news than do whites or Hispanics, and though several new channels aimed at African Americans emerged in 2012, only one featured any kind of news-oriented programming. [10] In 2012, BET dramatically shortened airtime for Don’t Sleep, a show featuring former CNN anchor T.J. Holmes. Don’t Sleep was designed to be in the vein of Stephen Colbert or John Stewart, but it apparently failed to find an audience. [11] Holmes left BET in 2013. Viacom’s BET, perhaps unsurprisingly, also originally planned to schedule the BET Hip-Hop Awards at the same time as the Million Man March.

Other communities of color face a similar situation. Hispanic owned and operated television stations constitute less than 2 percent of the total market. Asian stations represent less than 1 percent, and female-owned stations are less than 5 percent of the market.

The situation in the world of newspapers and print journalists is more complicated, but also disheartening. After the gains of the civil rights era, it seemed like a promising time for black journalists and black newspapers. But the end of formal segregation had the ironic effect of scattering black audiences across a variety of publications, which impacted many of even the most well known black papers. The number of African American publications (two-hundred, most of which are weeklies) remains at a relatively constant level. Circulation numbers, however, are down for some of the largest papers. The Philadelphia Tribune is one of the only black-owned papers to witness a circulation increase in recent years.

The National Association of Black Journalists formed in 1975 with high hopes, but the number of black journalists working has declined by nearly half since the late 1990s.[12] Nearly a thousand black journalists lost their jobs in the decade after 911 alone. The NABJ recently reported that 33 percent of widespread layoffs in the industry involved a person of color. With such depressing statistics, it is no surprise there a fewer journalists of color to spearhead stories and cover events like the Million Man March, even if mainstream publications were inclined to do so.

With such a dearth of available outlets, the world of Facebook and Twitter has come to the fore as a means of propagating news stories. Black Twitter in particular emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. The thousands of tweets about the trial-many following up on and responding to each other as the proceedings unfolded-drew an enormous amount of attention. Buzzfeed went as far as to say “it seemed like the Zimmerman trial wasn’t really on the mainstream Twitter radar until Black Twitter’s conversations about witness Rachel Jeantel became too numerous to go unnoticed.”[13]

Professor Meredith Clark describes Black Twitter as “a temporally linked group of connectors that share culture, language and interest in specific issues and talking about specific topics with a black frame of reference.”[14] Black Twitter, though highly diverse and heterogeneous, often drives much of the conversation around topics of interest to the black community, topics that are usually floating underneath the surface of the mainstream news cycle.

In September 2015, Facebook users and Black Twitter exposed an employee of Polaris Marketing Group after he posted a picture of a co-worker’s child on his page that was subsequently the target of racist remarks. Social media activists uncovered the owner of the page (Geris Hilton, real name Gerod Roth) and also identified the child in the picture, whose mother was notified of the incident. Ife Johari-co-founder of the Occupy the Hood movement and a well-known activist-played a key role and helped drive the Twitter hashtag: #HisNameIsCaden. Soon, both black media and the large cable networks picked up on the story. It showed the power of Black Twitter, and it also revealed the weakened state of old black media. Johari summed up the situation by stating that “Black Twitter really IS our Black media…”[15]

If the twentieth anniversary of the Million Man March garners such lackluster coverage, then it is easy to imagine all of the other stories that are not covered by an ever-more concentrated media oligopoly. The decline of the black media itself is a poorly covered topic, even as its effects continue to be felt. “African Americans and other minorities have come to the business world late, and without family-inherited wealth,” says James Winston, president of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters. “We find ourselves with every disadvantage in terms of becoming successful entrepreneurs in broadcasting and in new technologies.”[16]

The structural problems facing black media are greatly exacerbated by the enormous consolidation of media in general that has occurred in the past few decades-an issue which affects each and every American. Not only must initiatives like the tax certificate program be reinstated, but the entire nature of media must be rethought and reformed. The “Fourth Estate” for the black community is already on life-support, but media in general is becoming simply another commercialized industry run by an oligopoly. “For democrats, this concentration of media power and attendant commercialization of public discourse are a disaster,” says Robert McChesney. “An informed, participating citizenry depends on media that play a public service function.” [17] Reviving publically oriented media coverage for the most vulnerable populations (African Americans, communities of color, and women) must be the first step in an effort to reverse the decay of the media in general and prevent it from becoming one more victim of a neoliberal system.
Notes

[1] See The Youngstown Vindicator circa 1930s to the mid-1950s.

[2] David Randall Davies, The Postwar Decline of American Newspapers, Vol. 6 (Westport: Praeger Publishing, 2006), 66.

[3] Clint C. Wilson, Black Journalists in Paradox: Historical Perspectives and Current Dilemmas (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing, 1991), 80.

[4] Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy (New York: New Press, 2013), 93.

[5] Federal Communications Commission, Financial Issues Subcommittee Recommendations to the Federal Communication’s Advisory Committee on Diversity for Communications in the Digital Age , June 1, 2004.

[6] Ibid,

[7] Jeffrey Lane Blevins, “The Death of Diversity in U.S. Broadcast Ownership,” CityBeat, January 15, 2014.

[8] Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, (New York: New Press, 2013), 120.

[9] Blevins, “The Death of Diversity in U.S. Broadcast Ownership.”

[10] Emily Guskin, Amy Mitchell, and Mary Jurkowitz, African American: A Year of Turmoil and Opportunity, The State of the News Media, 2013 (Pew Research Center, 2013).

[11] Richard Prince, “BET Scales Back on T.J. Holmes’ Show,” The Root, November 4, 2012.http://www.theroot.com/blogs/journalisms/2012/11/dont_sleep_ratings_cause_bet_to_scale_back_tj_holmes_show.html(accessed October 12, 2015).

[12] Monica Anderson, As News Businesses Take a Hit, the Number of Black Journalists Decline (Pew Research Center, 2014). http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/08/01/as-news-business-takes-a-hit-the-number-of-black-journalists-declines/ (accessed October 14, 2015).

[13] Shani O. Hilton, “The Secret Power of Black Twitter,” BuzzFeed, July 16, 2013.http://www.buzzfeed.com/shani/the-secret-power-of-black-twitter#.jjDnln0Jb4 (accessed October 19, 2015).

[14] Donovan X. Ramsey, The Truth About Black Twitter,” The Atlantic, April 10, 2015.http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/04/the-truth-about-black-twitter/390120/ (accessed October 18, 2015).

[15] Johari, Ife, Twitter post, October 6, 2015, 10:23 a.m.,https://mobile.twitter.com/IfeJohari/status/651447690484707328

[16] Kristal Brent Zook, “Blacks Own Just 10 U.S. Television Stations. Here’s Why,” Washington Post, August 17, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/08/17/blacks-own-just-10-u-s-television-stations-heres-why/ (accessed October 19, 2015).

[17] Robert W. McChesney, “Making Media Democratic,” Boston Review, The Future of Media? (Summer 1998).

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