Media, Race and Obama’s First Year
African American Press
In addition to looking at how the mainstream media covered African Americans, this study also examined how issues of race were treated in the African American press. To do so, we looked at coverage of the biggest race story of the year, the Henry Louis Gates arrest and its aftermath.
Given that these papers are not daily, the coverage would naturally be less about providing the latest breaking news. What kind of coverage did they provide? And how was it similar to or different from the mainstream press? Several findings emerged.
First, much of the coverage of the Gates arrest came from the opinion and editorial pages. These newspapers were not providing breaking news: they offered few analysis or summary pieces about the Gates incident in the main pages of the paper. The remainder of the coverage came through a mix of voices in the opinion sections.
Second, the discussion and columns offered here took a starkly different angle than the commentary in the mainstream press. While the mainstream media largely assessed political implications for President Obama, the commentary in the black press considered the broader question of race relations in the U.S. It was also evident that these papers saw themselves as a voice of the black community. Even within the opinion columns, there was a clear sense of providing an African American perspective to the story. The tone, however, in many cases, came across as less “us” versus “them” and more of an assessment of steps needed from all sides.
The coverage and discussion in the black press moved beyond the incident itself and delved deeply into the complex and thorny area of race relations in America.
In a front-page Philadelphia Tribune article on July 24, 2009 staff writers Melanie Holmes and Arlene Edmonds described the issue as “bigger than Gates.” The article then offered reaction from African Americans in the community and noted scholars about broader implications. One quote came from Harvey Crudup, the present of an area NAACP and the first African American deputy police commissioner of operations for the Philadelphia Police Department, who offered, “Sometimes these things happen so that we, as a race, realize that racism is still alive. We can never get so relaxed that we think everything is OK.”
And the Amsterdam News ran an editorial by editor-in-chief Elinor Tatum for the week of July 23, 2009, in which she wrote, “but the fact still remains that it does not matter that you are a PH.D., it does not matter that you are a lawyer, it does not matter that you are a police officer or a teacher or journalist or a pastor. What first matters is that you are Black. And because you are Black, you are a suspect first and foremost.”
Within the analysis, the papers also clearly see themselves as a voice for and of the black community. Columnists and editorial writers also used inclusive language to show they are the articulating the community’s point of view. For example, in an op-ed in the August 7, 2009 Philadelphia Tribune by Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Page wrote, “we attune our cultural antenna and react sharply to any signs of preference shown to any group besides the one to which we happen to belong. That’s nothing new for women or nonwhites. Men and whites are still getting used to it.”
In the articles examined, 20 of 28 people quoted (71.4%) were African American.
An August 8, 2010 article in the Afro-American, for example, quoted Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson, Schott Foundation president John Jackson and BET’s Jeff Johnson. (Dyson was also a frequent guest on many cable news shows in the weeks after the Gates arrest.) Another example was in Philadelphia Tribune staff writers Melanie Holmes’ and Arlene Edmonds’ July 24, 2009 article which quoted vice chairman of Concerned Black Men, Jim Newton saying, “As Black people we have to always realize that no matter how far you go you are still Black to racists.”
Even with this community identity, though, there was not blind or universal blame put on Crowley or whites in general. Several columns discussed changes that needed to occur on both sides of the racial divide.
One example of an article attempting to reflect the voice of the black community was in an August 6, 2009 opinion piece in the New York Amsterdam News, columnist Richard Carter wrote, “Did Sgt. Crowley racially profile professor Gates? Probably. Did Gates behave badly? Absolutely. Did President Obama put his foot in his mouth? Definitely. Ugh!”
And a July 24, 2009 Philadelphia Tribune report worked to ensure that officer Crowley was not falsely maligned staff writer Robert Hightower wrote, “Friends and fellow officers Black and white – say Sgt. James Crowley is a principled cop and family man who is being unfairly described as racist.”
Finally, some of the newspapers talked about the importance of growing from the experience and making positive changes toward racial harmony.
An August 8, 2009 Afro-American opinion piece by George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, called for making the Gates arrest a “teachable moment” and provided examples of ways to make this happen. This editorial did not seem to speak only to an African American audience, but pleaded with the entire populace to focus on breaking racial barriers.
Curry wrote that it was up to everyone to improve race relations in the U.S., “But improving race relations is too important to be left to President Obama or a beer summit at the White House. A major impediment to racial progress is the lack of meaningful interaction between the races away from the workplace. One of the things that helped race relations in the 1960s were structured programs that allowed people of all races to talk directly with one another…Perhaps they should be revived. Today, we still talk about race, but usually among our own racial group. Of course, we need to do more than talk.”