MAXWELL:  Naive views of media hurt blacks

8/30/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



The audience was ready for bear, poised to attack those whom many perceived as their enemies. And attack they did.

The audience consisted of black residents of northwest Fort Lauderdale, and their objects of attack were Florida black journalists, of whom I was one. Some of us represented mainstream companies, others black-owned firms. The scene was the Von D. Mizell Auditorium, and the occasion, sponsored by the Broward County Library system, was a panel discussion titled “Media and Minorities: The Role of Black Journalists in Community Education.”

During the first hour, the program proceeded amicably, with the audience asking questions and commenting on one side and the journalists responding on the other. During the second hour, however, we panelists realized that we were dealing with one of the biggest problems in most black communities nationwide: Blacks tend to hold a naive view of the press, an especially injurious trait because the press is one of society’s most powerful institutions for change.

This naivete is old and multifaceted, much of it based on the fact that the mainstream media cast African-Americans in a bad light for years. As a result, most blacks mistrust, resent and, in too many cases, avoid the nation’s mainstream news outlets. In the long run, though, such avoidance works to our detriment as a people.

Many of our expectations of the press are naive. For example, the overwhelming majority of blacks believe that mainstream newspapers, like their black-owned counterparts, should be unapologetic advocates of black causes. Fort Lauderdale’s two black newspapers, the Broward Times and the Westside Gazette, carry news and features that deal exclusively with black interests. Nearly all of their articles intentionally portray blacks positively.

The mainstream Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, however, prints news of interest to all segments of the population and rarely cheerleads ethnic causes. It is in the business of making big bucks, while being a good corporate citizen. My point? Black people should know the difference between the two types of newspapers and adopt realistic expectations.

Most blacks I know believe that, more often than not, the press paints us negatively. I mostly agree. But sometimes we deserve to be portrayed in unflattering poses.

Many blacks in St. Petersburg believe that the St. Petersburg Times treated the Rev. Henry Lyons unfairly. I disagree. Lyons _ a public figure who could summon the president of the United States, and a preacher who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from innocent people _ got exactly what he deserved in the Times. Our reporters did what good professionals should: They followed the evidence and chronicled their findings.

Our contempt and resentment of the media make us not use our local newspapers, magazines and radio and TV stations to our advantage. As a member of the Times editorial board and a columnist, I know that few blacks write letters to the editor, the main section where readers voice their opinions.

Even worse, black people rarely write guest columns, which is a shame because columns are an effective vehicle for sharing and shaping opinion. The Times regularly seeks guest columns from all social and economic backgrounds and points of view.

The paper wants to hear from citizens who speak with authority on their subject, either because of their personal or professional backgrounds or because they have done extensive research. The columns should present a strong point of view and challenge readers to accept that point of view. And, of course, the columns should be relatively well written.

Who better than a black person to explain, for example, black people’s changing attitude toward charter schools and vouchers? Or defend black people’s romance with President Clinton and their widespread dislike of Republicans?

From where I sit, I see blacks squandering yet another grand opportunity to use the press to our advantage: We do not even attempt to bring our cases before the editorial boards of our newspapers. An audience with a board can result in an editorial supporting the cause in question. I can think of few more effective ways of getting a position into public discourse.

Several groups telephone the Times each week to schedule meetings with the board. Some get in. Some do not. During the six years I have been at the Times, I can count on one hand the number of black groups that have scheduled meetings.

Our naivete is a serious debilitation. It prevents us from using the press _ a powerful public forum _ to our advantage.