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E-Letter To Bill Maxwell and the St. Petersburg Times Re: Na´ve Views Of Media Hurt Blacks

Your article "Na´ve Views of Media Hurt Blacks" is thought provoking and a badly needed addition to the underreported subject of the relationship between Blacks and the "mainstream media". I especially appreciate how you brilliantly address the role of advocacy in news reporting and how Blacks often mistake the difference between accuracy and advocacy in journalism - to their own detriment.

You are absolutely correct to point out that media coverage is a byproduct of many things in addition to a search for the truth. The target audience, advertiser interests, ideology of the publishers, editors and reporters and resources of a publication all determine what qualifies as news, which news is covered and how it is covered.

Blacks principally have four problems with the media, all of which I think are legitimate. First they believe that the media is simply not accurate. Secondly they believe that Black issues and news are underreported. Third, they believe that the media has a bias of reporting "negative" stories, particularly crime-related, when covering black communities. And lastly, blacks believe that the mainstream media is not an advocate for positive change or just causes in the Black community.

You are correct to indicate that there are clear distinctions between how the "Black" Press covers the Black community and how white corporate media cover the same. And to a degree, I agree with your characterization that Black media traditionally champion causes while the corporate media tries to provide broader coverage of events and news in various communities. However, I think you miss something in your analysis.

You write:

"Many of our expectations of the press are naive. For example, the overwhelming majority of blacks believe that mainstream newspapers, like their black-owned counterparts, should be unapologetic advocates of black causes. Fort Lauderdale's two black newspapers, the Broward Times and the Westside Gazette, carry news and features that deal exclusively with black interests. Nearly all of their articles intentionally portray blacks positively. The mainstream Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, however, prints news of interest to all segments of the population and rarely cheerleads ethnic causes. It is in the business of making big bucks, while being a good corporate citizen. My point? Black people should know the difference between the two types of newspapers and adopt realistic expectations."

I understand what your point is and much of it is true however I think that you must be clearer about a couple of facts, the first of which is that not all "ethnic causes" are treated equally by corporate news outlets. And on this point I disagree with your characterization of Blacks as na´ve.

I think that your view of Blacks is rather simplistic if you think that Blacks want white corporate media outlets to be like Black newspapers. And that is the impression that your piece gives.

Far from that, I think that Blacks very clearly understand the difference between the "two types of newspapers" and contrary to your depiction, Blacks do have "realistic expectations". What Blacks recognize and which you concede in your piece is that the media does tend to unfavorably portray Blacks. You wrote, "Most blacks I know believe that, more often than not, the press paints us negatively. I mostly agree"

How could you admit to this truth and that you agree with it and then call Blacks na´ve for voicing displeasure at that fact and expecting that such practices come to an end?

You go to an extreme in implying that Blacks can't tell the difference between the motivation and interests of a white corporate publication and a Black community newspaper.

Blacks don't want the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel to become the Broward Times; Blacks don't want the New York Post to become the Amsterdam News and Blacks don't want the Philadelphia Inquirer to become the Philadelphia Tribune. They just want the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, New York Post and Philadelphia Inquirer to stop portraying Blacks as negatively as they do and to even stop lying on Blacks. It really is that simple and direct of a desire - not the unreasonable one that you surmise.

Blacks want these three media outlets to report accurately, report frequently, report positively as well as negatively and advocate for right and just causes and editorialize on behalf of Black causes; to advocate for Black causes like they do various other causes.

Your dichotomy of the "two types of newspapers" needs to be a bit more nuanced. You give the impression in part of your piece that white corporate newspapers somehow don't advocate for causes - especially "ethnic causes", as you put it. And then you conclude your piece with a wonderful suggestion that Blacks lobby white editorial boards. This is inconsistent. You should be clearer - white corporate papers absolutely advocate and champion ethnic causes.

We at review at least 50 domestic newspapers a day and their editorial pages and we can tell you that nothing but advocacy, often for ethnic causes, takes place on editorial pages across this country.

That is why I am so much in support of your recommendation that Blacks write letters to the editor and meet with editorial boards in order to influence coverage. The strategy is an effective one and I believe, in the short and long-term, would show positive results.

Your piece is a wonderful contribution to a subject that has been ignored for too long and you should be commended for raising it from the dead.


Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, September 6, 2000

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