It has been two years since Free Press’ Black staff launched the Media 2070 project with the publication of a 100-page essay that examined how anti-Black racism has made up the DNA of our nation’s media system from colonial times to the present.
The arrival of our essay in October 2020 occurred just months after the Minneapolis Police Department’s murder of George Floyd. The national outrage over Floyd’s public execution resulted in the largest demonstrations in our nation’s history, with racial uprisings taking place in all parts of the country.
The uprisings further visibilized the role that institutional and structural racism have played in inflicting harm on the Black community. It forced many social, corporate and political entities to respond to this historic moment, too often with only symbolic pledges to do better. This included media institutions.
Several news organizations were also forced to respond to the moment after Black journalists and other journalists of color challenged them to address systemic racism within their newsrooms and institutions. That year, The Los Angeles Times and the Kansas City Star apologized for their histories of racism.
The persistence of racial hierarchies
Media 2070 was born at a time when our nation was being challenged to acknowledge how the racial inequities that exist today are the result of centuries of extractive racial capitalism. Efforts ranging from the 1619 Project to the activism of racial-justice movements provided a diagnosis of the foundation that present-day systemic racism was built on. This history has remained unknown for too many people in our nation, including members of the Black community.
It is not as if this history and stories were never told before. But when our school systems fail to adequately teach this history and powerful media companies too often ignore it, these stories remain forgotten, allowing racial capitalism to endure.
And then there is the long history of our government’s role in destroying movements that challenge a political system that benefits the few and powerful at the expense of the many. These actions speak to the current effort by many local public-school systems that have banned teaching the history of racism in our country as well as the history of struggle among women, the LGBTQIA+ community and other oppressed groups.
The Media 2070 project is our effort to provide a diagnosis that explains how our media system — like so many other systems in our country — wasn’t created to serve the health and well-being of Black people. Our essay documents how government policies have ensured that powerful white-controlled media companies are able to weaponize anti-Black narratives to further the political goal of upholding racial hierarchies.
In recent years, there has been greater attention focused on the primary role that powerful media companies have played in orchestrating racial terrorism. The University of Maryland’s Printing Hate project — a partnership with several HBCUs — explores how U.S. newspapers have fueled racial violence, a theme that is also addressed in the books Wilmington’s Lie and Journalism and Jim Crow. These efforts and others are critical to understanding how our media system and its institutions have actively participated in the subjugation of the Black community.
Our Media 2070 project is also an effort to provide a remedy to the diagnosis we are seeking to redress. We are fighting for media reparations to reconcile and repair the harms that media institutions and government policies have caused the Black community.
We are in the process of developing the reparative actions that are needed to redress these harms. Media reparations will require a number of actions over time to create a media system where narratives that reinforce the myth of Black inferiority are dismantled — and an abundance of Black-controlled media platforms are created to serve the health and well-being of our communities.
Sharpening our diagnosis
As the Media 2070 project celebrates its second anniversary, we want to restate our commitment to sharpening our diagnosis so we can better understand the repair that is needed.
We’re working to shift culture and develop the kinds of policy ideas that are needed to create a reparative future. One of our efforts this year was the creation of a short documentary — Black in the Newsroom — that weaves together a picture of anti-Blackness in the media through the story of journalist Elizabeth Montgomery and the systemic racism she faced while working at The Arizona Republic. The film recently won best documentary (short film) at the Detroit Black Film Festival.
This year we also co-hosted a two-day virtual colloquium on race, racism and the U.S. media with the University of Houston Law Center and Georgetown Law. The colloquium explored “historic and contemporary racial discrimination in all modalities of modern media.”
During that gathering, University of Southern California Professor Mark Lloyd reminded us that “national and local communications ecologies suffer from the vestiges of Jim Crow, a structural racism that harms not only people of color but all Americans.”
He called for greater understanding of local media ecologies in crafting solutions that will address historical harms.
“If we focus on one particular kind of media at the exclusion of others, if we do not look at the entire communications ecology and how it affects other pieces of how local communities get their information, then we are missing the forest for the trees,” said Lloyd. “ … The question in front of us really is, are there plausible mechanisms to make sure that communities can actually have access to reliable information that they need, have access to voice and where we could actually fund good journalism in local communities.”
Antoine Haywood, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School of Communication, discussed how Public, Educational and Government (PEG) channels such as Philly Cam (Philadelphia) and People TV (Atlanta) have given people of color the opportunity to use multiple forms of technology to build social capital in their communities and to tell their own stories.
“The one thing that I’ve noticed is that folks really … are motivated to have access to education,” said Haywood. “They really … want to have access to storytelling tools. And also to be able to connect with one another. And these centers, when they function in a very inclusive and a safe-space way, can facilitate these types of ... democratic communications [and] interaction[s] that people are looking for.”
Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn noted how agencies like the FCC are influenced and impacted by “political decisions” that lawmakers make that reinforce inequities in our society.
“Commissioners — news flash — are political creations. They are also policy validators and they are cementers of regulatory legacies. Those of us who walk on concrete or cement know that once that cement is laid, it's firm. It is difficult to remove. So the question and challenge before us is that are we willing to do what it takes to chisel to the point where we can lay a different foundation. This foundation, however, will not be rebuilt if we choose to do so with just a singular agency.”
UCLA Professor Safiya Noble discussed how algorithms have harmed the Black community through “the rollback of civil rights” and the “degradation” of Black women and the LGBTQIA+ community online. She also noted the importance of understanding how political decisions were made in the development of new technologies — and how these decisions were designed to “contain colonized people.”
“As we listen to the mainstream narratives about the internet as kind of this intellectual, academic and to some degree military project, that project, even in its inception, was a response to the non-aligned movement … and the desire to keep military — and more specifically, scientific information — away from the third world and the non-alignment movement. So we have to understand these histories so when we think about what network technologies and what tech companies themselves are, they are implicated in these histories that are tied to the post-colonial impulse to control and contain colonized people around the world, including, internally, colonized people in the United States.”
MediaJustice founder Malkia Devich Cyril discussed how information systems fuel racial capitalism through the extraction and the accumulation of wealth.
“I think about our information systems, recognizing that they are not only complicit in the distribution of white supremacy, but they’re mechanizing, in its production. They are central to its production. When we think about that … this is because these systems exist within the context of racial capitalism. That system in which white supremacy and capitalism are mutually supporting systems in which they derive social and economic value from this particular racial hierarchy.
“So if we understand white supremacy as a material system, of relations of power, production, culture, ideology, safeguard[ing] social policies, that both intensifies the extraction of labor and ensures the accumulation of power for white supremacy, then we can begin to understand that our information systems are part of that productive process. They are not distinct from it. It’s not some new idea.
“Media reparations, essentially, it’s an acknowledgment of the central role that these systems play in reproducing these relations of power.”
Devich Cyril also stated that reparations are required to redress the harms our information systems have inflicted.
“We recognize that media reparations are not only about recouping for past injury; they are also about transforming the current relations of extractive and exploitative power relations ... And they require some specific corrective actions not just to correct the past but to prevent the continuation of these practices in the future.”
Alicia Bell, one of Media 2070’s co-creators, reminded participants about the importance of dreaming of a world in which media reparations exist. Bell noted that Black resistance has always created “the portals that will get us to the [reparative] future.”
“As much as there has been a history of harm, there has also always been a history of resistance,” Bell said. “It has always, always, been Black journalists, Black media-makers, Black artists, in a variety of ways, who have been resisting these narratives, these false histories, these stories that are told about our folks, and are told about the folks we are in community with. And that legacy continues today.”