This piece originally appeared in briefer form in Colorlines.
It’s hard for people of color to achieve racial justice if we’re unable to tell our own stories or control the construction and distribution of our own narratives. This is why it’s important to remember a report released 50 years ago that documented the media’s role in contributing to our nation’s racial divisions.
In 1967, riots in cities across the country like Newark and Detroit left more than 80 people dead. President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — better known as the Kerner Commission (pictured) — to study the causes of the riots and to prevent them from happening again.
A year later, the Kerner Commission released its historic report, which warned that our nation was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”
The report examined issues impacting race relations like unemployment and policing. But it also devoted a chapter to the media’s role in contributing to our country’s unrest.
The report criticized the news media for hiring few Black journalists and editors and urged the industry to take action to remedy this problem.
It also criticized the media for failing to “report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations.” It noted that “far too often, the press acts and talks about Negroes as if Negroes do not read the newspapers or watch television, give birth, marry, die, and go to PTA meetings.”
And that “by failing to portray the Negro as a matter of routine and in the context of the total society,” the report noted, “the news media have, we believe, contributed to the black-white schism in this country.”
Now, half a century later, the problems outlined in this report persist. There is still a lack of journalists and editors of color working in established news organizations, and news coverage still fails to serve the information needs of our communities.
In addition, the news media continue to contribute to the racial divisions in our country. A racist candidate who is now our racist president exploited this to his advantage throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
The Kerner report was published at a time when civil-rights groups focused greater attention on democratizing our media. By the late 1960s, Black and Latinx civil-rights groups across the country began challenging local broadcast licenses for failing to serve the needs of the community. This mounting pressure forced newspapers and broadcasters to integrate their newsrooms and to improve their coverage of communities of color.
Not enough progress
Today, journalists of color working locally and nationally are producing amazing work that has allowed voices in our communities to be heard. But despite their presence, racial disparities still exist throughout the media industry. And the narrative about our communities hasn’t changed.
The white-dominant press historically has covered people of color as a threat to society. Even though people of color have challenged and often disrupted this racist narrative, the dominant narrative about our communities holds firm. It has been hardwired into our nation’s consciousness due to institutional and structural racism in the media system and in our society.
White people have always controlled the mainstream media. That’s why members of the Black community told the Kerner Commission they mistrusted the news media.
They believed the media were “instruments of the white power structure” and that “these white interests guide the entire white community, from the journalists’ friends and neighbors to city officials, police officers, and department store owners. Publishers and editors, if not white reporters, they feel, support and defend these interests with enthusiasm and dedication.”
The media system, like the educational system, criminal-justice system and many other systems that exist in our country, wasn’t created to help people of color. Throughout history, media outlets have constructed a racist narrative that dehumanizes our communities in support of an agenda that promotes and protects white supremacy.
As the Kerner Commission stated, the news media had failed “to meet the Negro’s legitimate expectations in journalism,” and that the white press “repeatedly, if unconsciously, reflects the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.”
Legacy of racism in the media
Communities of color have been targeted and harmed by fake news and media manipulation since colonial times.
In 1690, the first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences, portrayed Indigenous people as barbarous and savage. The Boston News-Letter in the early 1700s said that the local Black population was “addicted to Stealing, Lying and Purloining.”
Newspapers have played a central role in fomenting riots that targeted communities of color. In 1898, for example, Josephus Daniels, the publisher and editor of the News & Observer, played a critical role in helping to orchestrate the overthrow of the local government in Wilmington, North Carolina, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Black residents and the burning down of the local Black newspaper — the Daily Record.
During the civil-rights movement, media outlets in the South, including WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, opposed integration. The WLBT station manager, a member of the Jackson White Citizens’ Council, used his station’s public airwaves to promote and protect segregation.
Today, there is an illusion of choice when it comes to news and information we receive due to the internet and all the cable channels that exist.
But for the past century, policies have concentrated control of our media — from broadcast stations to cable franchises — with powerful white-owned or controlled companies. And the ideological, political and business agenda of these owners and companies has continued to support a white-racial hierarchy.
Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group perpetuate racist narratives to support a hateful political agenda. And during the 2016 presidential campaign, many media companies willingly turned over their powerful platforms to Donald Trump despite his racism and misogyny.
CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves said as much at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in 2016:
“Who would have thought that this circus would come to town? But, you know, it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS ... So, what can I say? It’s — you know, the money’s rolling in, and this is ... I’ve never seen anything like this. And, you know, this is going to be a very good year for us. But — sorry, it’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Go ahead. Keep going.”
Moonves wasn’t alone in his excitement over Trump. In March 2016, The New York Times reported that Trump had received close to $2 billion worth of earned media coverage, which far outpaced the amount any Democratic or Republican candidate had received. Racism was good for business.
Meanwhile, online platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter also play a powerful role in shaping the public narrative on race, and they, too, have profited from racism, and have failed to prevent their platforms from being used to manipulate the public by exploiting racial divisions in our society. These companies have allowed targeted ad buys that discriminate against people of color and have let rampant hate speech thrive on their platforms.
This is why mistrust of the media persists. And despite the fact that many media companies and white journalists have produced incredible work through the years that defended the basic rights of people of color, the mainstream media have been less willing to produce the kind of journalism that seeks to expose the root causes of systemic racial inequities in our society.
'Walls of white resistance'
In 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the press and other white institutions in his book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? for abandoning the Black community’s struggle for equality following the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
His words are just as relevant today:
“For the vast majority of white Americans, the past decade — the first phase — had been a struggle to treat the Negro with a degree of decency, not of equality. White America was ready to demand that the Negro should be spared the lash of brutality and coarse degradation, but it had never been truly committed to helping him out of poverty, exploitation or all forms of discrimination.
“The outraged white citizen had been sincere when he snatched the whips from the Southern sheriffs and forbade them more cruelties. But when this was to a degree accomplished, the emotions that had momentarily inflamed him melted away. White Americans left the Negro on the ground and in devastating numbers walked off with the aggressor. It appeared that the white segregationist and the ordinary white citizen had more in common with one another than either had with the Negro.
“When Negroes looked for a second phase, the realization of equality, they found that many of their white allies had quietly disappeared. The Negroes of America had taken the President, the press and the pulpit at their word when they spoke in broad terms of freedom and justice. But the absence of brutality and unregenerate evil is not the presence of justice. To stay murder is not the same thing as to ordain brotherhood. The word was broken, and the free-running expectations of the Negro crashed into the stone walls of white resistance. The result was havoc.”
The power of the internet
All of this speaks to why it’s so critical for people of color to own and control our own media outlets and communications infrastructure: so we can tell our own stories without depending on media gatekeepers that have no interest in our liberation. But people of color own few full-power broadcast stations and even fewer cable networks.
This is why the fight over the future of the internet is a critical racial-justice issue. Today, racial-justice leaders from Black Lives Matter and activists in the immigrant-rights movement are using the internet to organize online and tell our own stories without asking for permission.
However, the current fight over the future of the internet also continues the long struggle that people of color have waged to democratize our media system.
Last December, Trump’s Federal Communications Commission voted to eliminate its Net Neutrality rules, turning over control of the internet to big broadband companies like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, which are determined to interfere with, slow down or censor online traffic.
But racial-justice and civil-rights groups like the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and 18 Million Rising, alongside my group Free Press, are pressuring Congress to overturn this decision and protect the digital rights of communities of color.
If these efforts are unsuccessful, the big broadband companies will be free to block, slow down or interfere with any political speech they disagree with — which will result in silencing those voices in our communities that so desperately need to be heard.
This is why we have to dismantle institutional and structural racism in the media: so we can create a new and accurate narrative that empowers and informs our communities rather than harms us. Otherwise, the Kerner Commission’s criticism of the media will remain tragically relevant 50 years from now.