For the Journalist's Bookshelf
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Richard Prince's Book Notes™: About the Craft
Anyone familiar with the history of African Americans in journalism knows the words, "We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us." They come from the inaugural issue of Freedom's Journal, published on March 16, 1827, establishing it as the first African American newspaper. Among the books by or about black journalists in 2007 was an examination of Freedom's Journal, the landmark publication that author Jacqueline Bacon writes has heretofore not been investigated comprehensively. Included below are five other books that examined the subject of journalism from an African American perspective. Other nonfiction books by and about black journalists will be covered in the coming days.
Jacqueline Bacon, a San Diego-based writer and scholar, has "Freedom's Journal: The First African-American Newspaper" (Lexington Books, $80 hard covers; $29.95 paper).
Bacon responded at length when asked why contemporary journalists of color should be interested in "Freedom's Journal."
"First, many of the problems with so-called 'mainstream' media that created an important need for Freedom's Journal to fill are still at issue today," she wrote: "Conventional press coverage of minority communities tends to portray people of color in negative ways, focusing on crime and poverty and offering patronizing solutions; African-American leaders and other leaders of color are treated with disrespect and their ideas distorted; issues of concern to people of color are misrepresented and trivialized; and press coverage of Africa is frequently inaccurate and racist.
"Freedom's Journal shows us how important minority voices and minority (and other 'alternative,' for lack of a better term) periodicals are to provide the fair, accurate, and thorough coverage that is lacking. And many of the issues that Freedom's Journal treated continue to resonate (in ways that reflect the history in between but with surprising continuity), such as the relationship of the United States and Africa (and other parts of the world), reparations, Liberia, and the best methods for combating slavery and the slave trade globally.
"Journalists of color would be interested in the ways that their coverage of these issues builds on the work of their forebears — and they also might be intrigued by the fact that, in some cases (such as discussions of problems in Liberia) African-American journalists of the nineteenth century anticipated current discussions and problems.
"Second, the journalists at over two hundred black newspapers of today follow in the footsteps of those who worked on Freedom's Journal, a legacy that is often mentioned in African-American newspapers, who frequently discuss the founding of Freedom's Journal and quote from its columns (the 'plead our own cause' line as well as others). . . .
"Finally, Freedom's Journal's history reveals a fact that is not well-known but that is crucial to accurate American press history: the founders of the black press were ahead of the white press in many areas, particularly in their commitment to portraying various perspectives on issues (which was not a feature of the partisan mainstream press at the time) and their critique of America's failure to live up to its ideals. This indicates that the creation of Freedom's Journal — and, as a result, the inauguration of a strong black press in the United States that continues to this day — is not just a key event in the history of African-American journalism but American journalism in general.
"Indeed, I would argue that American journalism as a whole has much to learn from the story of Freedom's Journal and the establishment of the black press, particularly at this time. Recent crises and the loss of faith in the so-called mainstream press suggest the American press needs to reestablish its mission and to learn from history how to become the institution that it should be.
"It is interesting that while the mainstream press in many ways seems to have lost its way, this does not seem to be the case with African-American newspapers (which, although they experience controversies about coverage from time to time, like all outlets, have not experienced the major problems we have seen at many mainstream outlets). There was, for example, that study from twenty years ago that found that 70 percent of the readers of African-American newspapers trusted what they read, while only 40 percent of readers of major daily papers felt that the news they read was credible; I would suspect that, if redone today, the gap would be even wider.
"If one avenue for addressing and attempting to solve current problems is to return to the history of the American press and to reexamine its ideals, goals, and mission, the history of Freedom's Journal would seem to have relevance for all journalists."
Les Brownlee's career of more than 60 years included becoming the first African American to join Sigma Delta Chi, the fraternity now known as the Society for Professional Journalists, the first to work for a white Chicago daily, the Chicago Daily News, and the first black reporter at WLS-TV, the Chicago ABC affiliate. He also worked at Ebony magazine and the Chicago Defender.
"Obituaries can be particularly clumsy and limiting," Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass writes in the foreword. Through no fault of their own, the dead are put into someone else's context, shaped and molded to fit the requirements of the living. . . . Les Brownlee, my teacher . . . solved the problem the way a good reporter would solve it, by refusing to be scooped on his own story, by writing this book. And what a story it is."
"Les Brownlee: The Autobiography of a Pioneering African-American Journalist" (Marion Street Press, $24.95) was published in February, 15 months after Brownlee died at age 90. "He uses it to recount a life that ought to interest journalists or anyone interested in journalists," Dave Zweifel wrote in the Capital Times of Madison, Wis. "His journalistic career is a model for a multimedia journalist way ahead of his time," Laura Washington wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times. "Brownlee took a lot of body blows to get there, and he revels in the telling."
Writing in a breezy style, Brownlee leaves no doubt about his influence on others. Brownlee mentions that one benefit of working the "banquet beat" at the Chicago Daily News was, "I talked more than a dozen young people into journalism. At least three went on to become stars in the field: Russ Ewing, a TV reporter; Monroe Anderson, a reporter and TV executive; and John White, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame at the same time I was in 1993."
Brownlee also mentions the narrow thinking he had to overcome at the Chicago Defender, where he was both reporter and later advertising manager, and at Texas Southern University. Washington called this the book's chief disappointment: "Brownlee's dalliances with the humble and famous are all lightly sketched with little context, leaving the reader longing for meatier fare."
Those who knew him well knew there was much more than Brownlee's breezy writing and an amiable nature. "Over the years I was able to go beyond his always-present good humor and discover the African-American whose good nature and warm friendship masked a deep and ongoing anger against the prejudices and mistreatment he had suffered at the hands of bigots," Herb Kraus wrote in the Headline Club Bulletin. "His remarkable and unique thoughts on race had an exhilarating effect on all readers, especially this one," said Chicago's veteran oral historian, Studs Terkel.
Neil Henry, an associate professor and interim dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, has "American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media" (University of California Press, $24.95).
An old-school journalist who teaches new-school students, Henry, a former reporter and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and Newsweek, writes, "It may sound naive to some, but it wasn't very long ago that a degree of trust existed in the basic relationship between credible source and professional reporter, reporter and editor, journalist and publisher or station owner, news organization and community. But on nearly every level, and for a multitude of interrelated causes, this factor of trust in journalism has eroded significantly in recent years — in an era marked, paradoxically, by exceptional new powers to inform."
The book has received mixed reviews. In the Austin American-Statesman, Russell Cobb wrote, "'American Carnival' never quite comes together as a whole. Many of its parts are fascinating, but the reader is left to wonder what to make of Henry's larger argument. Is journalism any worse now than it was, say, 30 years ago?"
One of the parts is a chapter on media coverage of race. Citing research by Maurine Beasley of the University of Maryland, Henry notes that the heralded muckraking publications of the early 20th century — Collier's, Cosmopolitan, McClure's, Everybody's and Arena — had a glaring flaw: They "largely failed to investigate one notable social crisis: the lynching of black people in the South, by far the greatest ongoing injustice against human rights and civil society. During a ten-year period, 883 lynchings took place in the United States, the vast majority — 796— committed against blacks in the South. The muckraking magazines generally ignored the subject. But when they did address it, they frequently condemned the victims for the unspeakable acts of which they had been accused— often the rape of white women — rather than condemning the lynchers."
Anglophiles and Pan-Africanists especially might be interested in "A Century of Black Journalism in Britain: A Kaleidoscopic View of Race and the Media (1893-2003)" by Lionel Morrison (Truebay, Ltd., £15 [about $30 U.S.] , paper). Morrison, who describes himself as a "campaigning journalist and media trainer for 50 years," has compiled a reference book that liberally uses documents and papers from his own work in the push to desegregate the British media. South African-born, he left for Britain as an exile in 1960, and helped to create the Afro-Asian Journalists Association in Djakarta, Indonesia, and the Pan African Journalists Union in Accra, Ghana. In Britain, Morrison became the first black president of the National Union of Journalists in 1987.
Americans will find some parallels with efforts by black journalists in the United States. For example, Morrison includes an essay from 1975, the same year the National Association of Black Journalists was founded in Washington.
"There can be no doubt that the physical presence of black journalists in editorial offices would be a great psychological filip to sane race relations reporting," he wrote then. "Their presence would neutralize, at the least, rabid racism in editorial offices, where it exists, and they could be on hand to provide the necessary background material, nuances and subtleties which make up the black scene. I am not saying that black journalists should be employed solely for reporting about Black people. No, what we should press for is the employment of black staff per se, not just to be employed in areas with large black populations, but even on papers operating in all-white areas." (Author's italics.) Available from amazon.co.uk.
Sam G. Riley
If you are a black journalist, it's possible that you will see yourself mentioned or profiled in Sam G. Riley's two-volume "African Americans in the Media Today: An Encyclopedia." But it will cost you: The boutique Greenwood Press has listed a cover price of $175, meaning this is meant for libraries. One volume shows Oprah Winfrey, Bob Johnson and Lester Holt on the cover; the second has Richard Parsons, Russ Mitchell and Gwen Ifill.
Large and small mistakes and omissions of some basic data, such as dates of birth, make it obvious that Riley did not contact everyone profiled here, and Riley acknowledges, "Due to the specter of identity theft, some of the individuals profiled in this reference work did not want that information made public. Also, in on-camera television work, the need to be (or at least appear) forever young also might have been a factor in reluctance to reveal one's age. . . Because of the heavy volume of dishonest messages with which all present-day e-mail users must cope, there were times when some journalists were understandably dubious about requests from a stranger for personal information . . ."
"Why, then, did a white journalism professor of late middle age —and a Southerner at that— choose to write this reference work?" Riley asks in his introduction. "Two of the journalists contacted for information about themselves asked me this question directly, albeit very politely; and the same question was implied in the tone of quite a few others who apparently were not comfortable coming right out and asking.
"First, I chose this project because, as best I could determine, no one else was doing it. Second, the considerable strides made by people of color working in our nation's news media have largely coincided with the years I have been teaching and writing about journalism. To my way of thinking, the success stories of the 246 individuals profiled in these pages are, viewed collectively, a very important larger story of positive change in our society.
"It is a story that needs telling— to record recent history and, I hope, to inspire minority youngsters who might be interested in media careers. Third, without wishing to sound sanctimonious, I did this project out of profound respect for the talent and accomplishment of people who, compared to myself, have had extra obstacles to overcome in their careers — people whose forebears had to suffer our nation's greatest shame: more than 240 years of slavery followed by another century of rampant discrimination. The matter of race remains an issue of raw-nerve sensitivity in our nation, yet conditions today are so very much better than they were prior to the 1970s. I feel honored to have had the opportunity to contribute, if only in a modest way, to celebrating and chronicling this important change in American society."
"Journal-isms" is cited as a source for some of the entries, and its author is one of those with a listing. In addition to the biographical information, examples of the work of the journalist profiled is sometimes included.
As reported here in June, Janice Terry completed an oral history of pioneering black journalists begun by her husband, former Time magazine correspondent Wallace Terry, to the praise of critics. "Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History" (Carroll & Graf, $16.95, paper) is the work of a pioneer black journalist whose coverage of the Vietnam War led to "Bloods," the 1984 book of oral histories of African American soldiers. Wallace Terry died in 2003.
"Wally spent years researching 'Missing Pages,'" Janice Terry wrote. "He intended to write a two-volume work. But he had finished only the first volume when he died of a rare disease called Wegener's granulomatosis, which strikes about one in a million people.
"Wally was barely 65, and I was devastated. It took me several years to muster the emotional strength to go through his files. But when I found the manuscript for 'Missing Pages,' I knew that it was my turn to take up the obsession."
Included are Carl Rowan, Ethel Payne, Joel Dreyfuss, Ben Holman, John Q. Jordan, Tom Johnson, Karen DeWitt, Max Robinson, James Hicks, William Raspberry, Henry M. "Hank" Brown, Leon Dash, Barbara Reynolds, Chuck Stone, Bernard Shaw, Austin Scott, Earl Caldwell, Carole Simpson, Ed Bradley and Terry.
Sharon Broussard offered a glimpse of the book in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
"James Hicks, a reporter for a black news service also featured in 'The Race Beat,' this year's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the press and the civil rights movement, tells an intimate story about the hostility and contempt the black press received in Mississippi during the Emmett Till trial.
"The sheriff greeted Hicks and other black reporters every day with a racist slur. 'Oh man, I was so mad,' he said. 'We sat there smoldering.'
"Up North, there were additional dangers. Ben Holman, the first black correspondent for CBS, secretly joined the Nation of Islam in 1961 for a news assignment. Its security guards beat him up.
"'They're punching me. Kicking me. I'm bleeding all over the place. I'm big. But God, they're bigger than me,' remembers Holman.
"At times, hostility lacerated the newsroom, too. Carole Simpson, who worked for NBC in the 1970s, heatedly recalls when a television executive asked her, 'Where's your apron and cap? Aren't you going to serve?' She did not give a servile answer.
"The bravery of such pioneers means that nearly 8,000 minority journalists report to work in newsrooms each day. But sadness for what might have been suffuses 'Missing Pages.'
"'That's the difference between the two of us,' Holman told his boss, Dan Rather of CBS News. 'I know I can never become Walter Cronkite. But one day you can.'"
Amy Alexander, in the Washington Post, told more about the book:
"Karen DeWitt, a former Washington correspondent for the New York Times, describes traveling to a rural area outside Fayetteville, Ark., in 1978 to write a mood piece on how folks in the provinces felt about President Carter; she fretted quietly about the possibility of being harassed — or worse— by racists. 'As I drove across the city limits, I knew I was integrating the town with my very presence,' she recalled. Yet, by approaching patrons in a local bar and restaurant gingerly, she gained safe entry. By the end of her visit to the Long Branch Cafe, DeWitt had made friends with most of the residents in that all-white village. She doesn't have to say it explicitly, but her gender is what made her 'safe' to the residents. 'By eight or nine o'clock, the place had filled up,' she says cheerily. She had a meal, drank some brew and even sang 'Banks of the Ohio' with some of the denizens.
"Such well-told anecdotes, about regular Americans, past presidents, big-time entertainers and legendary newspaper journalists (black and white) give 'Missing Pages' its heart. That these expertly drawn observations come from African Americans who believed in themselves and their profession adds value that is likely to increase with the years."
Janice Terry adds, speaking of a Washington event, "I did a book signing at B. Dalton at Union Station in September and sold every copy they had in the space of an hour and a half. And the story I would tell as an example to those who stopped by my table to inquire—blacks as well as whites—was the one of Jimmy Hicks at the Emmett Till trial, how the white sheriff greeted these black journalists, these professional men, every morning. The younger people would stare at me, their mouths agape, frozen in disbelief. The older people weren't surprised at all. But they would all buy the book and some would even buy two—blacks and whites."
Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
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