The media on race: which side are they on?

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 12.08.12 AM

I didn’t know this post would have an epigraph, and then I saw the above by Steven Salaita as I made my final edits on this post.

The recent coverage of the ongoing protests at the University of Missouri have led me to reflect on how the news media covers black pain, protest, and free speech. Certainly, by weighing in on the topic now, I’m late to the game, so I draw attention to a couple pieces that I think articulate the reasons why black protesters would be distrustful of the media. Moreover, in looking at the work of one of our local journalists, I aim to look at a microcosm of the larger problem in journalism in covering black lives.

As a nation, we need to have important conversations about race. As an educator, I understand that facilitating these conversations is a significant part of my profession. I take that responsibility seriously. It represents my most significant but rewarding challenge. But one news story–or even one tweet from a local news station–will reach a far larger audience in one minute than I might reach in a career in the classroom. How the media frames events will shape the way people understand them. We need the members of the press to take their roles seriously. When they don’t, we must call them out. When they do their work well, I think they will find people actually want to grant them access. A free press is essential for the function of democracy, but a press that disseminates its bias does not help democracy. We need better.

On Sunday, a friend texted me an image of a tweet by George Brown, the web content manager for WREG, the CBS affiliate in Memphis. Brown, an on-air personality as well as the person who can decide what classifies as news online for WREG, linked to a CBS story about the University of Missouri football team’s decision to boycott football activities until university president Tim Wolfe stepped down.

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 12.15.55 PM

Brown’s tweet focused on the team’s football performance (they’re 4 and 5 right now) rather than the political statement they chose to make. His tweet denied the players’ political agency, reducing their role from students and citizens to football players, pawns rather than autonomous subjects. I immediately publicly questioned Brown’s callous tweet. Here’s why: Brown holds the power to shape perceptions of reality through his role at WREG; therefore, it is concerning to see him turn a powerful act of student protest into a cheap punchline. In his first response to me, which he soon deleted (the image below is retrieved from the email notification I received of his response), he asked me not to “make it political.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 10.37.28 PM

It is political, but I am not “making it political.” The football players made it political. Reacting to a series of racist incidents on their campus that had been ignored by their university’s administration, they decided to act together and make a political statement. On a campus with a hostile environment for students of color, the football players demanded change and dialogue. For them, it was political and important enough to sacrifice playing football. Anyone who joked about the players’ action failed to recognize these students’ political statement and to hear their voices.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 10.42.46 PM

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 9.50.00 PM

In a response to a separate tweet, one in which I called out Brown’s position of privilege, a point a student of mine helped me see, Brown identified as a graduate of the University of Missouri and clarified that he “was making fun of the entire team FB record.” He also acknowledged a “serious issue.” Brown never used his ethos as journalist and alum to call out the Missouri administration. Hostility and racism drove students to boycott their own university and refuse to represent it. The players threatened to deny the university millions in revenue from their unpaid labor on the field. For the members of the football team, the situation demanded that they stand and act as more than football players and that they use their platform to demand change. That’s no joke.

The problems at Missouri are certainly far larger than a journalist and web content manager for a Memphis CBS affiliate. At the same time, I think we have to worry when someone who produces, shapes, and disseminates information can recognize neither his clear bias nor the position of privilege from which he can “joke,” by his own admission, about the situation. We need a media that works to understand the black pain that drove members of an SEC football team to stand in solidarity with their fellow African American students against an administration that failed to respond to their needs. We need a media that recognizes the black pain that drove a student to engage in a hunger-strike. Nobody who thought deeply about these aspects of the situation would make a joke. What else is certain is that newsrooms all over the nation have their own George Browns. He’s not an exception. He’s the rule. What’s so bad about George Brown’s blindness to his own privilege and the racist ideology embedded in his response is that it’s so typical. There are thousands of George Browns.

Rather than engage me further on Twitter, George Brown blocked me. That’s fine. He has the right to do that. Some of his 1600 followers certainly follow him because of his role as a public figure in Memphis, but he has the right to have a personal account. Clearly he does not want to use Twitter as a platform to discuss, reflect on, or question assumptions about racism and privilege. But does his station use their platform for these purposes? It would be nice to see news stations participate in real dialogue about the representation of race in their work.

WREG in Memphis uses “On your side” as their slogan, but which side are they on? It’s an important question. The WREG Twitter account has 65.3 thousand followers. Through Facebook, the website, and, most importantly, live TV broadcasts, WREG has a broad reach in a city that is 63.3% African American, that is among the worst in the nation for income inequality, and that has seen its public schools essentially re-segregated in the last few years. How people in the Memphis metropolitan area understand racism, protests, privilege, inequality, civil disobedience, and the confluence of these issues in the current events in our city, region, nation, and world can be influenced by how the media shapes it. When I wrote about the University of Memphis and Zandria F. Robinson for The Whole Horse Project this summer, I pointed out that WREG, in its initial headline, referred to Robinson as a “controversial professor” in a headline they later edited (the final version labeled Robinson’s tweets rather than her as “controversial”). The initial news coverage, however, passed a verdict on Robinson before people knew details about the situation. Fortunately, Robinson had left the University of Memphis on her own for another job. After the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the media put these young victims on trial. The media is too often complicit in the perpetuation of white supremacist ideology.

When Brown, like many journalists, weighed in on the events at the University of Missouri, he chose to think about the “free speech” issue surrounding the “safe space” on campus intended to keep out journalists.

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 8.28.30 AM

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 11.04.34 PMScreen Shot 2015-11-10 at 8.28.30 AM

When Brown read a CBS News headline about protests at his alma mater, he saw the opportunity to make the team into a punchline. When Brown read news about protestors being denied access to the protest site, he saw injustice. That’s a selective lens. He complained about this on his professional Facebook page. Brown wasn’t alone in this. Journalists all over expressed outrage when they felt that their group had experienced a hostile environment. Writer and former journalist David Simon (someone whose work I genuinely and generally respect) suggested, on Twitter, that the students acted as “fascists” in attempting to restrict media access:

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 11.52.07 PM

Countless other members of the media also weighed in on this specific incident at the University of Missouri. In these responses, the disconnect is alarming. Why do they think black protestors would trust the mainstream media in the U.S. to frame a narrative about their protests? For the protesting students, the media, like the university itself, exists as an institution that has been unconcerned about and unresponsive to their lived experiences. Let me be clear: we need the media to educate our citizenry. Yet, with their track record, can we trust them to educate us?

As I was thinking about writing this blog post, two important pieces on the topic emerged. Everyone should read the following pieces for more context on the relationship between media coverage and race.

In The Washington Post, Terrell Jermaine Starr, in “There’s a good reason protesters at the University of Missouri didn’t want the media around,” highlights the media’s refusal to take black pain seriously:

The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.

Establishing a “safe space” was about much more than denying the media access; it was about securing a rare space where their blackness could not be violated. Yes, the hunger strike, the safe space and other student demonstrations were protests, and protests should be covered. But what was fueling those protests was black pain. In most circumstances, when covering people who are in pain, journalists offer extra space and empathy. But that didn’t happen in this case; these young people weren’t treated as hurting victims.

Starr continues with a synthesis of the reasons African Americans should be skeptical of the media:

The unfair portrayal of black people in the news media is well documented. In one study analyzing news coverage by 26 local television stations, black people were rarely portrayed unless they had committed a crime. A 2015 University of Houston study found that this imbalanced coverage may lead viewers to develop racial bias against black people because it often over-represents them in crime rates. Recognizing this kind of bias in news media, black Twitter users started the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag to call out news images of Mike Brown that many felt criminalized him in his death.

Read Starr’s piece. Click on the links in the above excerpt. Educate yourself. Early in my teaching career–way back when I was a master’s student at Indiana State University, I taught Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things in a writing course. The book is accessible to first-year students. I hoped students would think about how representations shaped perceptions. From Glassner’s book, students understood quickly how much a headline or repeated word could alter the way they would view a person or group. The tricks and stereotypes the media use about African Americans have been well identified and scrutinized, but these tropes still make newscasts on a nightly basis. In the moment of #BlackLivesMatter, we see the media relying on the same damaging narratives and techniques that Glassner and others have illuminated.

Later, I read Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s “Fascism,” a forceful essay in response to David Simon’s cry of fascism and the larger context of the racism at the University of Missouri. McMillan Cottom works through the various reasons that the student protestors should not trust the media. The following short excerpts capture the crux of her argument.

The press shapes as much as it documents.

The media rarely calls people racists.

After reading the work of Starr and McMillan Cottom, I realized that a lot of what I had been thinking about had been said, so I don’t need to say much more here. Read their pieces.

Sometimes the press shapes narratives by choosing where they start a story or where they cut it off. Other times they shape by deciding whose voices they include in interviews and whose they omit. But the press shapes narratives. Some journalists do this quite well. Others don’t. Some empathize and listen and dig for context. Others play comedian and joke about black political agency. Some simplify. Others rush their copy. Here’s what I do know: we need better information. We need fairer representation. We need a press that can identify and label instances of white supremacism and privilege. We need a press that’s not afraid to say “racism,” “white supremacism,” or “white privilege.” We need a press that can define those terms and show them in action.

We also need a press that does not change the topic. The movement from black pain to “free speech” serves as a distraction, pulling away from the harder to tell story of systematic and sustained oppression at a predominately white institution. When print and TV media changed its focus to free speech, they drew attention to another institution, their own, and ignored the larger context of oppression that demands nuance and context. The shift in focus undermines the significance of black pain and black lives.

Tonight, Jason Stanley, Yale Professor of Philosophy and author of How Propaganda Works, spoke at Christian Brothers University. Stanley’s book argues that the media, newspapers and TV, often change the focus in a way that brings out racist ideology. At the end of his talk, he suggested that if we allow the press to change the narrative so that law and order, a focus on criminality, becomes the focus, we have ourselves to blame if we don’t call them out. We might have to call out the media so that they understand that they’re often producing propaganda rather than news.

With its “if it bleeds, it leads” approach, the press, particularly national and local TV news, has too often benefited from the “black beast,” “‘hilarious’ black neighbor,” “super predator,” and “welfare queen” tropes. Perhaps the Missouri School of Journalism can be a site for a reform of journalism education as the entire university works to repair a broken culture. Future journalists need to understand the complexity and reality of black lives and stop relying on pre-packaged caricatures of blackness. Critical race theory should be a key component of that education so that the response to black pain is inquiry… or empathy… but certainly not comedy.

Black pain is nothing to laugh about, and it matters more than football. The biggest victory of the year for the Missouri Tigers football team happened off the field. They discovered their voices as citizens. We all won, really.


I have to thank Sean MacInnes and Gabrielle Pilgrim for helping me work through the ideas for this piece and making sure it was ultimately about the broader issue.