It’s nearly impossible for people of color to achieve racial justice if we are unable to tell our own stories or control the construction and distribution of our narratives. This is a major reason why it is important to remember the Kerner Commission Report, which was released 50 years ago on February 29.
Black uprisings in cities across the country such as Newark and Detroit left more than 80 people dead in the summer of 1967. President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders—better known as the Kerner Commission—to study the root causes of the uprisings and to prevent them from happening again. A year later the commission released its historic report, which included a chapter about the media’s role in the unrest.
The report criticized the news media for hiring few Black journalists and editors and failing to “report adequately on the causes and consequences of civil disorders and the underlying problems of race relations.” It noted that, “far too often, the press acts and talks about Negroes as if Negroes do not read the newspapers or watch television, give birth, marry, die, and go the PTA meetings.”
“By failing to portray the Negro as a matter of routine and in the context of the total society,” the report concluded, “the news media have, we believe, contributed to the black-white schism in this country.”
A half-century later the problems persist. Journalists of color working locally and nationally are producing amazing work. But despite their presence, racial disparities still exist throughout the industry. The White-dominant narrative about our communities—that we are a threat to society—holds firm because it was hardwired into our nation’s consciousness. People of color have been targeted by fake news and media manipulation since colonial times.
In 1690, the first colonial newspaper, Publick Occurrences, portrayed Native Americans as barbarous and savages. The Boston News-Letter in the early 1700s said that the local Black population was “addicted to Stealing, Lying and Purloining.”
Newspapers have played a central role in fomenting riots that targeted communities of color. In 1898, for example, Josephus Daniels, the White publisher and editor of the News and Observer, played a critical role in helping to orchestrate the overthrow of the local government in Wilmington, North Carolina, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Black residents and the burning down of the local Black newspaper—the Daily Record. During the civil rights movement, media outlets in the South, including WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi, opposed integration. The WLBT station manager, a member of the Jackson White Citizens’ Council, used his station’s public airwaves to promote and protect segregation.
Today, there is an illusion of choice when it comes to the news and information we receive due to the Internet and multiple cable channels. But over the past century policies have concentrated control of our media—from broadcast stations to cable franchises—with powerful White-owned or -controlled companies. And the ideological, political and business agenda of these owners and companies has continued to support a White racial hierarchy.
Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group, for example, perpetuate overtly racist narratives to support a hateful political agenda. During the 2016 presidential campaign media companies of all stripes gave Donald Trump a powerful platform despite his racism and misogyny.
CBS Chairman and CEO Les Moonves said as much at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in 2016:
“Who would have thought that this circus would come to town? But, you know, it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS … So, what can I say? It’s — you know, the money’s rolling in, and this is … I’ve never seen anything like this. And, you know, this is going to be a very good year for us. But — sorry, it’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Go ahead. Keep going.”
Moonves wasn’t alone in his excitement over Trump. In March 2016, The New York Times reported that Trump had received close to $2 billion worth of free coverage, which far outpaced the amount any Democrat and Republican candidate had received.
Racism is good for business.
Online platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter also play a powerful role in shaping the public narrative on race and have profited from racism. These companies have allowed discriminatory targeted ad buys and rampant hate speech to thrive on their platforms.
In December, Trump’s FCC eliminated net neutrality rules allowing big broadband companies such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to interfere with, slow down and censor online traffic. This is why the latest fight over the future of the Internet is a critical issue for racial justice and civil rights groups including the Center for Media Justice, Color Of Change, the National Hispanic Media Coalition and 18 Million Rising, alongside my group, Free Press. If our efforts are unsuccessful, the big broadband companies will be free to block any political speech they disagree with—which will result in silencing those voices in our communities that so desperately need to be heard. We all have to work toward dismantling institutional and structural racism in the media or the Kerner Commission’s criticism will remain tragically relevant 50 years from now.
Joseph Torres advocates in Washington to ensure that our nation’s media policies serve the public interest and works with coalitions to broaden the movement’s base. Torres writes frequently on media and internet issues and is the co-author with Juan Gonzalez of the New York Times bestseller "News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.