Roland Martin, Jemele Hill, Toure, Charles M. Blow and Don Lemon share their insights on what it means to be a black journalist today. – By Jacinta Howard
We live in a world where media, in all of its forms, is more powerful than ever before. We take a look at some of the most prominent black voices in mainstream media to get their take on delivering information, the influence of social media and what it takes to survive as a black journalist in what is still largely a predominately white, male industry.
Host, Managing Editor
TV One’s NewsOne Now
Is there any one topic or story that you feel you were especially helpful in sharing with the masses and are proud of based on public response?
Yes, voter suppression. It was our TV One coverage in 2011 and 2012 that led to me being named the National Association of Black Journalists 2013 Journalist of the Year. We hit the issue every Sunday on Washington Watch. We covered all of the angles, let folks know when the voter deadlines were coming up, as well as every effort to suppress our vote. This is why we must own our own media outlets. We dictated the story. For us, black folks are not a demographic to appeal to, we are the demographic.
What do you think is the key to engaging audiences and encouraging active participation in any particular issue?
First, we have to recondition the minds of black people. If you turn on the TV, all you see are awards shows and black folks laughing, joking and entertaining. I’m fine with all of that, but damn, if we don’t understand and appreciate the value of news and information, we are destined to live in some dark days. So what we try to do at TV One NewsOne Now is make the news and information inviting and usable. First, we ask the question, “Why should they care?” We then ask ourselves, “How can this change someone’s life?” When you start there, everything else follows.
What story or issue are you currently most interested in that you feel hasn’t received adequate attention by mainstream news outlets?
Missing black women. Mainstream media doesn’t give a damn when a black woman comes up missing. Media execs are largely white men. When a white woman comes up missing, they see their mother, wife, aunt, sister, daughter and niece. One of us? Nothing. We’ve made that a staple on TV One. We are sending the signal to our audience: our women matter. Black women, you matter. If they don’t care, fine. But we do.
What’s your single biggest goal as one of the most prominent voices in black media?
To make it very clear that the black media isn’t the minor leagues. I have the skills to work at any major media outlet in the country. I have always had those skills. But I chose to take my talents primarily to black media. We need to send the message that A-level talent can work and thrive in black media. I like not having to ask someone for permission to cover a story. I like deciding where I’m going to go and not asking someone, “Pretty please.” Again, “we wish to plead our own cause.” I’m not trying to ask someone “Can I?” I’m saying, “I will. Just watch me.”
ESPN’s Numbers Never Lie
Sports and politics/social issues often intertwine, as we’ve recently seen with Donald Sterling and even with Michael Sam. What are your thoughts about how and why sports and politics share the same space?
Sports and politics essentially have become the same. For the first half of my career, sports, politics and for that matter, race never seemed to create the dialogue or traction that it creates now. Overall, I think it’s good. In sports, the running narrative is that it’s a meritocracy. And while it can be, the sports industry can’t afford to arrogantly think it has been exempt from the cultural, social and political differences taking place outside of sports.
You’re originally from Detroit. What’s the one thing like you’d like to see happen to get the city back on track?
Detroit has undergone severe damage to its infrastructure, but I don’t think that’s unique for a major, urban American city. I just want Detroit to receive the benefit of the doubt that other major, urban cities receive. Chicago has a murder rate that is astounding, particularly when it comes to the number of children killed. But no one intrinsically thinks of Chicago as a bad place. L.A. has a persistent gang problem, but no one warns people not to go there. I recently took my coworker and friend, Cari Champion (host of ESPN2’s First Take), to Detroit and she loved it! I just wish I could change how people perceive Detroit and Detroiters.
Being a black woman in sports journalism must come with its own special set of challenges. What’s one challenge you were faced with in your career that you feel you successfully conquered?
For any woman in sports, you just have to get used to being doubted. There are people who truly believe ESPN only hired me because I’m a black woman, even though from an industry standpoint, it’s clear that sports media has no deep involvement in wanting to see women or women of color as prominent figures in this industry. But that’s the hand you’re dealt. I don’t mind it because I’m a competitive person and it partly motivates to me to be even more successful.
What’s the one issue in sports you think should get more attention and why?
Women’s sports and female athletes. I had the honor of hosting a panel and breakfast with this year’s incoming WNBA rookies, and these women are some of the brightest, most talented, confident women you’ll ever meet. I didn’t interact with athletes, but future CEOs. It just bothers me that female athletes, in general, don’t have consistent access to the bigger stage. I’m so proud because ESPN is at the forefront of investing in female athletes—as seen through our live event coverage and ESPNW—but I wish there was a more passionate effort to showcase these women in our industry.
The New York Times
You work at one of the most prestigious news organizations in the world. How much pressure does that add when telling stories about black people in particular, knowing that your words and opinions legitimately have the ability to shape perceptions worldwide?
I don’t register that pressure. Columnists build their own communities of readers, and I am thoroughly satisfied that my readers accept and appreciate me for who I am—a Southern-born man who grew up poor and advocates for the less fortunate and most vulnerable. I’m comfortable in that role because that’s most me. And the language of my column draws on my background and draws the African-American storytelling tradition out of me. In a way, I sometimes feel like a folk artist among fine artists, and I love it.
“Black Twitter” has a life of its own now and has a valuable voice as it pertains to swaying mainstream opinions, or at least coverage. What are your thoughts about its roots, validity and future?
Research has found that black people are more likely to access Twitter than other racial or ethnic groups. I find this fascinating and fantastic. It has become a place to congregate, to share and be reinforced. It has become the online equivalent of the beauty parlor and the barbershop.
What’s the one story or issue that you’ve covered recently that was especially important to you, and were you satisfied with the way that coverage was received?
I was very much engaged in the coverage of Trayvon Martin’s killing and the George Zimmerman trial. I approached that story with the ache of a parent, always asking myself to try to imagine the overwhelming pain of losing a child, and trying to dissect the motivation of the man who shot that child through his chest.
Your upcoming memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, delves into past abuse and some things that seem to be really personal and painful. Why’d you decide to write it?
There were two motivations. The first was purely a literary one. I’m a writer. I want to write and write well, and I knew that my story was an interesting one that only I could tell. I had to write it because it demanded to be written, to be exhaled, to be brought into creation. As Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The second was the suicides by hanging of 2009—Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts and Jaheem Herrera of Georgia. They were both just 11 years old. They both had been the subjects of homophobic bullying. Their deaths moved me in a way that I didn’t know that I could be moved. I wrote in a blog post about them that year: “Children can’t see their budding lives through the long lens of wisdom—the wisdom that benefits from years passed, hurdles overcome, strength summoned, resilience realized, selves discovered and accepted, hearts broken but mended and love experienced in the fullest, truest majesty that the word deserves. For them, the weight of ridicule and ostracism can feel crushing and without the possibility of reprieve. And, in that dark and lonely place, desperate and confused, they can make horrible decisions that can’t be undone.” It moved me because I knew what it felt like to be bullied in that way and to think that suicide was the only way out, only I had thought better of it… I had to write this book so that all of us could be seen.
MSNBC’s The Cycle
You’re currently working on a book about Nas. What inspired you to write about his life? Any Interesting tidbits you can share?
Can’t share any bits but I knew Nas was the greatest MC who hadn’t shared his story. I asked him to do an autobiography with me for 15 years. He finally said yes. It’s time. He’s a mysterious dude and this book will shed some light on who he is.
What story have you covered recently that really struck a chord with you and why?
Trayvon had a personal impact on me. It was painful to see this boy’s life become a political football where people were rooting on both sides. It wasn’t a policy position, what was in the balance was the life of a boy and a man who admitted to shooting him.
Black Twitter has proven that it actually has a viable voice in terms of swaying at least coverage in mainstream media. What are your thoughts about its validity and influence?
Black Twitter is really valuable when it’s working toward a goal like getting people aware of the Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride stories. Where I get disappointed is the moments when people act like black Twitter somehow does not include all black people. If Melissa Harris-Perry and Marc Lamont Hill and all black folks aren’t part of black Twitter then how is it black Twitter? I find sometimes folks are like nah, I didn’t mean that black person. That isn’t right.
Has there ever been a story that you personally were really concerned with or connected to that you feel received a surprisingly apathetic response from the public?
I think the more policy-weeds you get the less it matters emotionally to a greater number of people. Substantive immigration reform and campaign finance reform and criminal justice reform (i.e., ending mass incarceration) would have a massive positive impact, but I think most people don’t see that. An intense minority believes in that (and other issues), but there’s more than media can do to educate people about what’s important and what could really make a difference. But I find it hard to blame the public for their response. It’s their right to feel however they want.
You’ve really established a broader presence and earned more recognition. What prompted you to start being more vocal about your opinions?
I prefer to look at it as having a point of view rather than an opinion. It started around the time I wrote my book and discussed being gay on national TV. Being open about who I am gave me an unexplainable realization of freedom and I can’t go back now.
You call yourself the Twitter King. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’re going to tweet before sending it out there?
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. In fact, I prefer it be spontaneous. While I have to tweet for work a lot, I prefer tweeting more personal things about what I’m doing socially. After all, it is called social media, not press release media. My approach is to use social media as a personal extension of myself. If I’m interested in something, I’m going to tweet, Facebook or Instagram it for sure. I think people like it that way because I’m a real person just like them.
Black Twitter has a life of its own now and has a valuable voice toward swaying mainstream opinions, or at least coverage. What are your thoughts about its roots, validity and future?
I’ve written and reported a lot on black Twitter. I think black Twitter is great. But I don’t think it has the influence it thinks it has. In order to have a real impact, it has to move beyond snaps, digs and one-upmanship. Black Twitter has to evolve, broaden and grow up. It hasn’t yet realized its potential influence and power.
Is there any one topic or story that you feel you were especially helpful in sharing and are proud of based on public response?
I’m very proud of my coverage concerning race, especially my coverage on personal responsibility. I’m very proud of the fact that I got people, especially black people, thinking about how they could improve their own minds, lives and circumstances. In the two decades I’ve covered race issues, the biggest response I’ve gotten was when I spoke on personal responsibility. I knew people would react but not to the amount that they did. The point was to make people think in terms beyond racism and blame. They had to think about life in a different way by challenging their own beliefs and thinking beyond prescribed ideology. That is a huge accomplishment for me.
Photos: Roland Martin: TV One; Charles Blow: The New York Times; Don Lemon: Mark Hill/CNN; Toure: MSNBC