The foundational question all journalists – all Americans, for that matter – should be asking is: How news and information should flow through American democracy, and who can access that media? Believe it or not, the founders of the United States, through huge fits, spasms and debates, created the US Postal Office (1774) to move newspapers throughout the land, for hardly anything or nothing at all.
How times have changed since then with media monopolies lobotomizing news, the centralizing of newspaper and broadcast reporting which has created a corporate-protectorate, the looming death of independent publishers and book sellers, thanks partly to Amazon, and the evisceration of US mail delivery service, thanks to spineless Democrats, treasonous Libertarians and reckless Republicans.
In fact, much of the ugliness in the media associated with Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, Coulter, Beck and Murdoch and mainstream corporate press shills is just back to the future in this country’s media history.
Let’s flip back 400 years when the first rags, newspapers, called for the murder of the land’s aborigines, inciting the white aliens to take land, burn villages and crucify the “sculking” and “barbarous” Indigenous peoples and “rebellious Negroes.”
A new book, sort of a first-of-its-kind, takes the reader on that journey to end up here in today’s day and age of a democratic crisis largely created by who controls the media, how people access news and information, and what narratives our citizens are actually “consuming” and why those narratives are slanted, misrepresented or scrubbed altogether by the SCLM – so-called liberal media.
“It is our contention that newspapers, radio, and television played a pivotal role in perpetuating racist views among the general population,” write Juan Gonzales and Jose Torres in their new well researched and necessary book, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media (Verso, 2011).
What do Torres and Gonzales find out? The history of alternative presses – run by Indigenous peoples, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians – has all but vanished, even from the halls of journalism schools. The dig up this amazing history how the vile racism of Manifest Destiny and Empire building, and the supremacist beliefs of lawmakers, thinkers, clergy, and, of course, the editors of the white press did not always go unchallenged in a White-dominated society.
The stories are haunting, and our American history is replete with editors calling for the lynching of abolitionists, the burning and wrecking of alternative presses, and much of the motivation was embedded hatred toward Indigenous peoples, Latinos, and Blacks.
However, it’s clear early on in this book that the two Latino authors know history has repeated itself, constantly, when it comes to media and the Press: “Descriptions of ‘Sculking’ or ‘barbarous’ Indians were commonplace then, much as today’s news media use terms such as ‘wolf packs,’ ‘drug gangs,’ and ‘super-predators’ as monikers for non-white criminals…. Those early accounts thus establish a voluminous and entirely one-sided newspaper narrative: Native Americans were depicted as cunning, barbaric, and evil – and certainly undeserving of the vast lands coveted by the European settlers.”
There are so many magnificent stories in Torres and Gonzalez’ book, about brave editors trying to stop slavery through the pen and bully pulpit facing mobs, thugs, corrupt police and judges, and broken presidents.
This book is an essential read not only for journalists, students of media or those at the forefront of the Occupy Movement. This is our country’s history, scrubbed in many cases, of how people of color did fight the white color line with varying degrees of success.
It’s telling that many of the book’s jacket blurbs attest to News for All the People‘s groundbreaking resonance: “The historic inability of marginalized communities to control their own images has been devastating. News for All the People illustrates that this lack of control hasn’t been by accident. It’s a part of a greater story of media control and ownership that traces back to the creation of the United States. An essential read,” writes James Rucker, founder of ColorOfChange.org.
If it’s not already obvious to Real Change News readers, the point today is how those stories of the marginalized get into print or film or on TV or over the radio or Internet? Who controls the media? Books like People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, or anything written by Studs Terkel, or the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, in Nickle and Dimed, or the huge trilogy, Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano, that covers the entire history of the Americas, give voice to people of color, poor people, labor activists, civil society, slaves and those that revolted against tyranny of many types.
Unfortunately, we live in an age where media may have monopolistic might through the few corporations controlling what most Americans watch or hear to get their news:
- Disney (market value: $72.8 billion)
- AOL-Time Warner (market value: $90.7 billion)
- Viacom (market value: $53.9 billion)
- General Electric (owner of NBC, market value: $390.6 billion)
- News Corporation (market value: $56.7 billion)
- Yahoo! (market value: $40.1 billion)
- Microsoft (market value: $306.8 billion)
- Google (market value: $154.6 billion)
Gonzales and Torres go four centuries back to the present, making a clear case on how these marginalized people of color literally fought to get the funds and show the mettle to publish their papers. There were amongst them contradictions, to be sure. Many Indigenous editors held slaves. Some of the white Hispanic editors were proponents of “Indian Removal.” Some elegant cases, though, are part of that story Torres and Gonzalez give us. People like escaped slave Frederick Douglass not only employed black male writers at his newspapers, he was a feminist who employed dozens of female writers.
The authors give us the case of the Cherokee, John Rollin Ridge, a writer and novelist, who wrote a novel about Joaquín Murieta, the California so-called bandit, but who moved to California and founded the Sacramento Bee. Here is that paper’s first editor and publisher, an Indigenous person, who has virtually disappeared from history. He sold the paper to James McClatchy, one of his employees. McClatchy developed the Sacramento Bee into the flagship newspaper of the McClatchy newspaper chain.
Now this is what’s so superb about Torres and Gonzalez’ work – they find on the McClatchy website, their official history, no mention that a Cherokee was the founder of their flagship paper. “They make it seem like James McClatchy actually started the Bee. But it’s this kind of expunging of the actual history of African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans in the development of the American press that is what really—another major theme of our book is to resurrect that history and have a more inclusive history of how our press developed, that there were all kinds of folks who have played pivotal roles, and actually heroic roles, in the development of a free press in America that have been expunged from the official histories,” Gonzales said recently in an interview on Democracy Now.
Gonzalez co-founded Democracy Now in 1996; currently, this daily news show – The War and Peace Report – is on more than 950 TV and radio stations. Here’s Democracy Now‘s vision statement: “For true democracy to work, people need easy access to independent, diverse sources of news and information.” This ties into the under girder of the Torres/Gonzalez book.
As one of Democracy Now‘s founders, Gonzalez has codified his own 30 years working in corporate media and 15 years with Democracy Now into this seven-year book project with Torres, a journalist, a former National Association of Hispanic Journalists deputy director, and adviser for the media reform organization, Free Press.
To reiterate: News for All the People is a tribute to the powerful independence of Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian people in attempting to bring to their communities news and perspectives counter to the white supremacist, expansionist, and war-mongering system that stole hundreds of millions of acres of land from Indigenous peoples, Mexicans, and Tejanos. It is a criticism of supremacist editors who aided and abetted the lynchings and murders of not only Blacks, but Mexicans and Asians, and not just in some backwater on the Delta, but in the center of Los Angeles.
Gonzalez synthesizes why this project was galvanized in the first place during an interview on his own show, Democracy Now, speaking with Amy Goodman: “I never was able to clearly understand why our media system is the way it is. The American people love to hate the media, in terms of their constant frustration with how newspapers and television and radio don’t provide accurate coverage. But it’s especially true among people of color. African Americans and Latinos and Native Americans and Asians have always felt denigrated and somehow misrepresented, deeply, by the American media system.”
What is it to be an American? That question has been wrested away from all the “other” races and ethnicities and from those of the female gender, as well as all the people deemed “The Other,” who are not part of the white race, or part of the one percent, or part of the monied elite with the ears of judges, politicians and CEOs glued to their every word.
In many ways, this book, also traces with aplomb the history of newspapers in this country, vaunting the lives, struggles and voices of publishers and editors who stuck their necks out. Key to this book’s foundation and keen story telling is a deep look at the evolution of newspapers and the press in this country’s history before, during and after the country’s founding.
The very first newspaper on this continent was Publick Occurrences, founded in 1690 in Boston. This was a three-page sheet, the first newspaper, which was was suppressed by the Massachusetts Council after one issue, “because it had some provocative articles in it,” Gonzales said.
“And all of the articles were about the threats of Native Americans, except there was one positive article. And that was about how some Christianized Indians in Plymouth were giving thanks to God on Thanksgiving. But generally—and so, Publick Occurrences set the prototype for how race would be covered in America, because every newspaper subsequent to that, throughout the colonial period, a huge portion of the content of newspapers was for the settlers to know what the Indians were up to.”
This book is replete with the stories that have not just been printed on the back pages of history books, but in some cases disregarded – scrubbed – completely. Those people of color running and writing for the Press were in many cases also anti-war and anti-imperialist. Frederick Douglass was the editor of several African-American newspapers throughout his lifetime and the most vocal opponent of the U.S. war against Mexico (1846-48).
In his papers, Douglass was railing against this war on Mexico. Here’s a quote from one of his articles that appeared 18 months into the Mexican-American War: “We have seen for eighteen months, the work of mutilation, crime and death go on, each advancing step sunk deeper in human gore. By every mail has come some new deed of violence. Cities have been attacked, and the cry of helpless women and children has risen, amid the shrieks and agony of death and dishonor. The living have gone forth, and dead corpses encased in lead have returned. Thousands of widows and orphans have sent up to the heavens their pitiful wail… And yet all is quiet as under the most perfect despotism. There is no united appeal, which would make the rulers tremble; no thronging voices of petition, no indignant rebuke, no prayer, ‘Lord, how long?'”
Finally, News for All the People takes us into the modern era of Latinos, Asian, Indigenous peoples, and Blacks fighting for their own voices in media. They get into the debates about how free and open the Internet will stay, if it ever was free/open in the first place. Both authors are clear about the need for an alternative press and more debate and discussion of the news for and by the corporate war state.
“One of the things that we’ve uncovered is that this fundamental debate that is constantly occurring is: does our nation need a centralized system of news and information, or does it need a decentralized, autonomous system? And which serves democracy best?” González said. “It turns out that in those periods of time when the government has opted for a decentralized or autonomous system, democracy has had a better opportunity to flourish, racial minorities have been able to be heard more often and to establish their own press. In those periods of the nation’s history when policies have fostered centralized news and information, that’s when dissident voices, racial minorities, marginalized groups in society are excluded from the media system.”
This book will help contextualize how bastardized, propagandized and mean media outlets like Fox News or Clear Channel have become, how the limited number of publishers controlling a majority of printed materials is bad for democracy, and what gave rise to those pugnacious independent writers and alternative periodicals fighting to expose the government-corporate role in stifling debate.
In These Times, the Texas Observer, Mother Jones, ProPublica, The Nation, Truthout, Yes Magazine, Orion Magazine and Democracy Now, Dissident Voice, Counterpunch, Truthdig, et al. give us some hope that an alternative press – hence mainstream – will gain favor over the profit-driven drivel and war-promoting yammering going on in the white media.