With its power-to-the-individual approach, the new media world promises anyone with a laptop the possibility of a publishing empire. But, as some black bloggers are finding out, the new media world is a lot like the old one: racially segregated, with many prominent black voices still fighting to be heard.
Some bloggers felt insulted this month when the Democratic National Committee selected 55 state-oriented blogs to cover its convention in Denver; critics said few featured African American voices. The DNC said race wasn't considered in its selection from 400 applicants. Officials were more interested in the sites' audience size and how much chatter about local issues appeared on them. The DNC answered critics Thursday by adding several sites led by African Americans to its general blogger pool.
But some critics say the DNC situation is indicative of a larger media divide. It's a division in which stories like the racially motivated beating in Jena, La., last year lingered for months on black blogs and talk radio before the mainstream press picked up the issue.
That coverage gap is partly what inspired Gina McCauley to help organize the first Blogging While Brown conference this summer in Atlanta. The most popular online community conferences - like the Netroots Nation confab that grew out of the Daily Kos blog - tend to be predominantly white gatherings.
"The progressive blogosphere is segregated," said McCauley, whose What About Our Daughters blog was accepted to the DNC's blogger pool. Essence magazine named McCauley one of its 25 most influential people last year alongside Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and filmmaker Tyler Perry. "Black bloggers link to other black bloggers, and progressive white bloggers link to other white progressive bloggers," she said.
"I don't know why that is," said Gina Cooper, executive director of the Netroots Nation conference. After last year's second annual convention, she expressed her frustration about the lack of diversity. Netroots Nation is offering scholarships this year, and Cooper is seeking other ways to make the gathering inclusive.
Black TV News Channel
Obama's presidential campaign might have raised the visibility of black voices and stories in the mainstream media, but it has not, according to some, quenched the thirst for them.
That's why former Oklahoma GOP Rep. J.C. Watts - a onetime CNN commentator - is planning to start a 24-hour cable news network devoted to African American issues and perspectives. Comcast plans to add the Black Television News Channel to its cable packages in cities with large African American populations, including Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Atlanta, sometime in mid-2009.
"The mainstream press by and large likes to see African Americans through a certain prism, and it is a small and cordoned-off prism," Watts said. "Most institutions are like that. They see the African American community as an afterthought. But we are much more than drugs and crime."
While there are many Spanish-language entertainment offerings and outlets for Spanish-language news on TV, Watts feels that African Americans are an underserved market, particularly for news. Black Entertainment Television (BET), the largest cable network aimed at an African American audience, canceled its nightly news program three years ago.
Watts envisions 14 hours each day of original news and talk programming on his network. So what type of stories would BTNC pursue? Watts said he went to a gathering of 125 prominent African American equity fund managers a few years ago, people who invested billions of dollars internationally. He envisioned them not only as potential investors in his network, but as individuals whose stories rarely get told in the mainstream press.
"We are an economic story, a political story and, yes, when we need to be, a story about drugs and crime," Watts said. He declined to say how much he would need to raise to fund the network.
Should Watts succeed, he'd be one of only a few black media heads in the country.
Low media representation
While black people comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, they own no daily newspapers and only 0.6 percent of full-power television stations and 3 percent of the radio stations. Only 5 percent of reporters at U.S. daily newspapers were African American in 2007, and the number of black-owned newspapers is dropping, as is their combined circulation.
Some of the African American reporters who remain in the ever-shrinking print newsrooms were miffed last week when former Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro responded to a question about sexism in the presidential campaign by pointing to black journalists and their perceived bias in favor of Obama.
"You know all the surrogates that they had out there from the black journalists," Ferraro told Fox News. "Have you read (African American New York Times columnist) Bob Herbert recently in the past six months? There wasn't one column that had anything decent to say about Hillary." The same Herbert wrote a column about the "the dark persistence of misogyny in America" in January.
Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said: "African American journalists find themselves fighting for a seat at the table with every major presidential election, but now comes the taint of bigotry with the recent remarks of Geraldine Ferraro, who suggested black journalists were no more than a mouthpiece for the Obama campaign because we share the same skin tone. Has she forgotten that Obama is half white?"
Some African Americans see an easier chance to have their voices heard in the online world, and black voices there are growing not only in number but in influence. Last September, Wayne Hicks' Electronic Village blog ranked 75 black blogs on his monthly list; now he charts more than 1,250.
Hicks, who heads a nonprofit foundation, also is a member of AfroSpear, a collective of 140 blogs that focus on the black experience and gather momentum behind social justice issues like the racially charged incident involving a beating in Jena, La. Then there's San Francisco's ColorofChange.org, which envisions itself as the "black MoveOn." It has grown from 100,000 members to 417,000 over the past year, many of whom joined the organization after it publicized the Jena incident and pressured the Congressional Black Caucus to oppose Fox News' plans to host a presidential debate.
Growth in perspectives
"I'd say that the new black voices are much more organic than those of the past. They don't need to emanate from the pulpit in order to be heard, or to inform, or to galvanize people from across the nation," said Avis Jones-DeWeever, director of the National Council of Negro Women's Research, Public Policy and Information Center. "These voices epitomize the next evolution of black political activism."
There's a difference in the types of stories that black and mainstream media cover, McCauley said. While some in the mainstream might analyze the influence of large media corporations on the Internet, black bloggers might focus on shows produced by Viacom-owned TV networks like VH1's "Flavor of Love" and question the cartoonish depiction of African Americans.
And when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned Robert F. Kennedy's June 1968 assassination while defending her decision to continue her presidential campaign, "a lot of the mainstream media covered it as a statement unto itself," said Hicks. "But in the black community it was part of a pattern." He, like others, noted that Clinton made her statement four days after the Roswell (Ga.) Beacon put a photo of Obama on its front page with the crosshairs of a rifle scope over him, and former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee made a joke about somebody aiming a gun at Obama during a speech to the National Rifle Association.
"The mainstream media had a reason to look at black voices in the media because of the Obama campaign," Hicks said. "But these voices have always been out there."
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