Obama's win brings firsts for African-American press

By: Nia-Malika Henderson
January 3, 2009 06:45 AM EST

Barack Obama’s election as president is prompting major changes in the nation’s black press, ushering in a series of firsts that editors say will reshape print, Internet, radio and television coverage aimed at African-American audiences.

Essence, the top selling magazine among black women, will have a full-time White House reporter for the first time. Ebony magazine will add a White House reporter, either full-time or as needed. Its sister publication, Jet magazine, will have a weekly two-page Washington report in every issue.

And Black Entertainment Television is scrapping its usual fare of videos and sitcoms for a four-hour live broadcast of Obama’s swearing in — just as the leading cable network in black households did for both party conventions last summer, and on Election Day. TV One will do the same, airing 21 hours of inauguration coverage throughout the day.

In some ways, the moves mark a return to a time when the black press — particularly magazines — were newsier. Jet first published photos of the battered and swollen body of Emmett Till, sparking outrage and galvanizing a still-young civil rights movement.

“Who we are is really evolving right now, in this post-civil rights era,” said Bryan Monroe, vice president and editorial director of Ebony and Jet. “Our readers really need the black press.”

April Ryan, who has been covering the White House for American Urban Radio Networks for 11 years, wonders what took so long.

“Katrina happened under Bush and Rwanda happened under Clinton,” said Ryan, who has been one of a handful of black reporters in the White House press corps during that time. “If more reporters of color were here, maybe those issues would have garnered more attention, and it could have made a difference.”

She said that the addition of black reporters could mean more focus on the urban agenda—failing schools, crime, job loss, poor health care.

“I am five generations removed from a slave. I was here the night [Obama won] and I had goose bumps,” Ryan said. “Yes, we pause for the history of a black president — but it’s not the reason to be here. There’s real work to be done.”

The press as a whole has faced charges of pro-Obama bias – including respected names like PBS’ Gwen Ifill, who is black – but the magazine editors say they know they must provide balanced coverage to their readers.

Yet, if what happened to Tavis Smiley, a popular guest on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and host of his own PBS show, is any guide, serious questioning of Barack Obama might not always sit right with black audiences.

Smiley ended up leaving his post as a commentator after he was roundly criticized for taking a harsh stance on Obama—his point, he said, was that black folks should kick the tires before getting on board.

“A whole bunch of black people turned on me in the blogosphere and they called me everything but a child of God,” Smiley said. “They thought I was hating on Barack Obama.”

The latest issue of Essence, which reaches 8.5 million readers a month, has two different covers—Barack or Michelle—and features famous African-Americans, ruminating on the moment. Ebony named a person of the year for the first time in its 63 year history, dedicating its entire January issue to Obama.

But all the coverage won’t be like that, one editor said.

“We’ll be asking what he is going to do on specific issues that African-Americans are interested in, unemployment, AIDS, housing, health, we are going to be following all of those things,” said Tatsha Robertson of Essence. “It is historic but we are going to take him to task.”

Robertson said Essence will use its website to break news, and it already started an Obama watch section on its website, one of the most popular features.

The moves are also an indication of the deep ties Obama formed with the black press — and by extension the black community — over the course of the campaign. Black support for the president-elect was 95 percent, a record.

“We did do a very good job of fostering strong relationships during campaign…and the community had unprecedented access,” said Corey Ealons, the campaign’s director of African-American media. On weekly conference calls during the general election, Ealons said he would put the campaign’s core issues — heath care, joblessness, education — in the context of the black community.

“It was just a matter of spelling it out and making it plain — that the unemployment rate in our community is double the national average, that 95 percent of black children go to public schools — so they could report it back to the community,” Ealons said. “And they did so. The desire now is to maintain and sustain that.”

For Ebony, the nation’s oldest black magazine with a monthly readership of 12 million, the coverage paid off — the Chicago-based magazine landed Obama’s first post-election interview.

The newsier turn, is due, at least in part, to the black brain drain from mainstream publications, due to massive industry buyouts and layoffs. And black publications like Ebony and Essence have reaped the rewards, landing reporters and editors from top newspapers like The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Boston Globe and organizations like Knight Ridder.

“There is a sense of going to back to the roots of where we used to get our news,” said Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). “When we first learned of something that was going to happen in our community it hit the black press long before it hit the mainstream.”

BET, which will host an inaugural ball for the first time in the network’s history, ran 10 hours of election night coverage and reached 10.7 million viewers, beating out CNBC’s coverage. Correspondents, who were spread out in cities across the country, were expected to report the news, but also reflect on the moment.

“We made the decision that we needed to cover the visceral aspects of the election as well,” said Keith Brown, senior vice president of news. “Reporters had a responsibility to give the information but also say what it felt like and what it meant to our community. They were our story tellers and not just reporters.”

BET, long criticized for running too many booty shaking music videos, is in the process of expanding their news coverage beyond the current 25 hours a month. But don’t expect “Meet The Press” or a nightly news-style broadcast.

“People are demanding change and accountability and they want to know what’s happening and they want people who they trust to break it down and help them understand it,” Brown said. “And we have a very key role in doing that. Sometimes the most traditional way isn’t the most effective, but it’s going to be grounded in solid reporting.”

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