Pleading Our Own Cause

People of color are leading an effort to define media justice as a movement not for content-neutral reforms but a vision of racial justice.

By Makani Themba-Nixon Dec 21, 2003

Drawing its inspiration from the environmental justice movement and their efforts to advance a different analysis from the “mainstream” environmental movement, media justice proponents are developing race, class, and gender conscious frameworks that advance new visions for media content and structure. There are even plans for a Media Justice Summit in late spring 2004, the first gathering of its kind.

Says co-convener and technology expert Art McGee, “We’re modeling the Media Justice Summit on the historic Environmental Justice Summit that occurred over a decade ago, in which people of color and the poor came together and made explicit their environmental issues and concerns, which had not been a part of the mainstream agendas of mostly white groups like the Sierra Club or Greenpeace. We’re about to do something very similar.”

Of course, media justice is not new. It is the logical outgrowth of the larger movement for justice. It is the microphone that helps us touch others when we are advocates, the mirror that reflects our dreams and fears when we are consumers, and the vehicle through which we actualize our stories when we are producers.

For media scholar and long-time advocate Mark Lloyd, the movement that calls itself media justice today is just getting back to these civil rights roots. “I think what is considered the media justice movement is less rooted in the consumer or public interest movement than it is properly rooted in a movement that began with the traditional issues and concerns of civil rights; a movement that is concerned with equality, with political representation, the impact of culture on institutions like media and schools.”

Lloyd observes that this historical context is key to understanding the need for groups to create a media justice “space” outside of the traditional media “consumer” or democracy movement. “We have institutions like the New York Times, or The Nation, or foundations that are dominated by people who tend not to be people of color, and they do not see people of color as integral to this movement, but they see this ‘public interest stuff’ as separate or important and maybe see this ‘civil rights stuff’ as passe.”

The failure to make these connections has dogged the “media democracy movement” for years. With Thomas Jefferson among their pantheon of heroes and the flag as the backdrop, it has been hard for many people of color to comfortably join their ranks. Add to that the movement’s commitment to “content neutral” reforms and its focus on important but distant technological issues like set top (the little digital box on your cable TV), and you get an agenda that lacks what gets most of us riled about media in the first place: we care deeply about content. In fact, we care about ownership and funding and access so that we can get the mic, the Mac, the airwaves, and in the final analysis, own, create, consume, and even collectivize media that reflect our needs, our values, our image.

By ignoring content and retreating to the safer ground of consumer rights, media democracy advocates have been able to strike alliances among mostly white, mainstream groups that span the pink haired and pierced to right wing broadcasters. And like most big tent affairs, race and content issues are seen as divisive, unwieldy, and just not strategic.

It’s ironic, as the modern day battle for fair media began in Jackson, Mississippi, where the African American community decided they’d had it with racist coverage and no access. They filed complaints and took outlets to court in a campaign that forged the policy framework on which most beltway lawyers rely today. Then, racist content and unfair treatment were more than mere distractions in the “real battle” for media democracy and regulation. It was the heart and soul of the movement.

This history is certainly front and center for media justice proponents of today. It shapes where we’ve been, who has been advantaged and disadvantaged, and where we go from here. Without a vision firmly rooted in this context, they say, we’ll have better, high-speed resolution for the same old oppression.

For McGee, understanding the history also helps us understand and draw inspiration from the historic leadership role that people of color have consistently played in media work. “Black journalists, publishers, and activists have been fighting for media justice since before the birth of this country. For those who think that a people-of-color-led fight for media justice is new, just check out the history of both black people’s overall struggle to have some degree of control over their portrayal as human beings, and the tireless work that countless black journalists have done to try to democratize the media landscape in this country. As Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm said in the premier issue of Freedom’s Journal back in 1827: ‘We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.’”

For more information on Media Justice and the upcoming summit, visit