A Crisis In Black Media

Back in 2015, Ebony Magazine recognized its 70th anniversary. It should have been an occasion where the publication, which was the crown jewel and flagship production of the Johnson Publication Company (JPC), celebrated its past and a prosperous future.

Instead, JPC sought a buyer for its iconic photo archive.

It’s been less than a week since it was announced that the archive is slated to go on the auction block, pending approval from a Chicago bankruptcy court.

As one can imagine, the archive has photos from the Civil Rights Movement, as well as other iconic pieces of Black activism and achievement. The fact that such a historic and honored hall is being peddled like flea market jewelry hurts in its own right.

There is a more pressing concern — if this is the fate of arguably the most successful Black media enterprise, what chance does the rest of Black media have?

Whether one agrees with its content or character, Ebony Magazine represented a marriage of two central ideas in coverage: news and entertainment. Ebony was so locked in to the idea that, in 1957, it welcomed a new advice columnist — the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. While some of the commentary might draw a few side-eyes today, it was a year-long attempt at news and nuance.

One of the tragedies of Black media is, with so much focus on entertainment, it has lost fervor (and funding) for more hard-hitting news.

When one looks at their smartphone, or TV, or listens to the radio, there are a number of recognizable faces and presentations, and yes, some of them do attempt to cover the news. How much of that coverage is whimsical, though, because their bread and butter is entertainment?

Black media’s departure from news can be seen from another former Black media standard — Black Entertainment Television (BET). Launched in 1980, BET’s star shined so brightly that in 1988, it presented a news program, “BET News.” The network’s news coverage reached out to audiences and asked for their perspective about incidents such as the L.A. Riots. BET’s attention to news waned the closer it became to losing its Blackness; well, at least its status as a Black-owned business. It was bought by media conglomerate Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion. By 2005, BET had done away with both its “BET Tonight” and its “BET Nightly News” shows, and had gone so far away from news that it didn’t even offer live coverage of the death of Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King.

Black people need Black media, not only for characterization, but for character. There are two dangers with mainstream media as it relates to Black folks — for starters, the wholly negative picture that it paints of Black folks. The other danger is that mainstream media would rather view Black folks as a monolith instead of a nuanced group of people with differing sets of views. We need dedicated outlets to focus on issues such as wealth disparities and police brutality — not with respectability politics, but realness.

I don’t want all of Black media to end up like the Ebony photo archive, which, as a professional photographer, I can’t help but think about through a lens. Remember that scene in “Get Out” where Chris is tied down in preparation for the transmutation and Jim Hudson said, “I want your eye, man?” So much of Black media has already been co-opted or left in The Sunken Place.

The crisis of media is also a crisis of vision. I hope people see what’s going on before it’s too late.

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