“Twitter is blowing up about this.”
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people utter this phrase, calmly walking back to the greenroom at CNN, MSNBC or Fox, heads craned forward to look at their phones. Twitter responses, especially negative ones, are like a rite of passage when you do television commentary. It shows that your words have power; that they have meaning in the lives of people watching.
Of course, hate mail, angry phone calls and vulgar tweets are much more common if you are a person of color or a woman on television. That level of harassment—including threats of death, rape and other forms of bodily harm—just for having the nerve to speak out only increased during Donald Trump’s run for the presidency. We are in an era where the president-elect has spent the last 18 months demonizing minorities and the media, so what if you are a member of both? What will a Trump presidency mean to the future of black journalism?
To be honest, things aren’t looking good.
African-American history has mostly been told through the eyes of black journalists and kept in the pages of black newspapers. The Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News, and great journalists like Ida B. Wells, Chuck Stone and Ethel Payne, all had to tell our stories when white newspapers, radio and television denied our existence as anything other than a threat. If you want to know the story of protests against police brutality in 1920s Baltimore, you check out the archives of the Baltimore Afro-American. If you want to know how the Rosewood massacre in Florida actually started, it was in the black press.
In modern times, you can see African-American journalists and commentators operating in predominantly white newspapers, online magazines and 24-hour cable networks. Yet the dance and negotiation of expressing African-American views in majority white spaces continues. There are only a handful of African Americans leading major television news programs heading into the Trump presidency: Charles Payne at Fox Business; Don Lemon at CNN; Joy-Ann Reid, Al Sharpton and Tamron Hall at MSNBC; Lester Holt at NBC; and Roland Martin at TV One. While there are a smattering of paid and unpaid political commentators across various networks, the truth is that the voice of African Americans was precariously small in 2016, and all signs point to its being even smaller heading into the coming year.
Why? There is political turnover after every election, but off-the-record conversations with African-American journalists reveal a simple supposition: Once Obama is no longer in office, networks will no longer feel the need to employ as many African Americans on-screen, and the election of Trump may hasten that process. Whether or not this is actually true, this is the sentiment of many journalists and pundits of color I’ve spoken to.
White Americans have elected a president who has made it clear that he will intimidate and even attempt to prosecute journalists who are critical of his actions. He has actively encouraged his supporters to physically attack the press and has taken away or simply refused to give access and credentials to media outlets that are not under his sway.
Within 24 hours of his election, Trump was on Twitter attacking “the media” for stoking protests around the country. His likely chief of staff, Steve Bannon, ran the racist “news site” Breitbart, which was known to target African-American reporters and commentators. With the power of the White House behind him, there is no reason to expect that behavior to change. What happens the first time Trump decides to tweet Joy-Ann Reid because he doesn’t like a story she reports? What happens when Breitbart encourages readers to attack Charles Blow or Cornell Belcher?
African-American journalists are now, by their very existence, the resistance to the Trump presidency. There are no gray areas, no “gotta hear both sides” equivalency games when faced with an administration that presents both a physical and existential threat to the lives of African Americans. I have no doubt that mainstream majority-white news outlets will act to protect their employees, but by the nature of reporting, they can’t be everywhere. Remember when Melissa Harris-Perry was attacked by a white nationalist at the Iowa caucus?
Television news is a for-profit industry driven by access to power. If Roger Ailes becomes White House communications director and says that the Trump administration will refuse all interviews with “network X” until “black commentator Y” is told to rein it in, how long do you think that station will hold out? A month? Six months before the need to have access to the White House is stronger than the need to fight against a corrosive discrimination and racism that has been normalized?
If you have any doubts, check out a recent headline: “Bannon: The Alt-Right Man for the Job?” With networks already making puns about white supremacist organizations with explicitly stated goals of killing or removing people of color from America, do you really think black people will have a media voice in this coming environment?
Now more than ever is the time that African-American journalists and media outlets need support, feedback and guidance from the black community. We are, as a people and a profession, under assault. A colleague of mine sadly joked that every black media outlet was on red alert, like in the old Star Trek shows, with lights flashing and people running around taking battle stations.
That is not far from the truth. We’ve always been on the frontier, battling to tell the stories that no one else would hear or pay attention to. Now war has been declared on us from the most powerful and unfettered administration in American history. If we don’t rally around our own press and institutions, it’s not clear how many of us will make it.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.
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