By Christopher Rabb
“Why can’t ‘conscious’ Blackfolk build our own network or cable channel that will feature truly substantive, news-oriented and uplifting programming?” Ever heard or perhaps posed this question? The last time I heard this question was a few months ago in a long conversation I had with one of my cousins who is an independent artist and music producer.
His sentiment and desire were on point. But I challenged two major assumptions he made – one implied, the other explicit.
Thanks to the clear benefits of affirmative action over the past few decades, we have more Black talent in the corporate pipeline than ever before. But in this 21st century digital age in the wealthiest country on earth, despite the critical mass of Black professionals in media and other fields, there is still only a limited range and depth of content produced for, about and by us.
I told my cousin that we shouldn’t confuse “success” for “consciousness”, and that like most of their white counterparts, greed, complacency and myopia afflict the affluent and influential in our community as well. So, it may very well be that more progressive “conscious” thinkers may not be all that well represented among those in traditional media. However, the second assumption my cousin made was that we must somehow replicate traditional forms of media such as television in order to address the scarcity of high-quality news, information and other content. But the opportunity before us to create and share compelling content is not based on how much money we can raise to mirror conventional networks. Rather, it is how well we network and collaborate to educate ourselves and have faith in our imagination to build institutions that transcend what presently limits us.
The future is in new media, largely web-based means of content production and distribution that can be accessed quickly, wirelessly and not just via desktop computers, but also micro-electronic products such as cell phones and PDAs – even handheld video games. This is the future - and the future is here. And it’s already passing Black people by, as our attention is consistently and often purposely misdirected from where the real power and opportunities lie.
Our afro-digerati (African Americans working in and with technology) is too small, disconnected and under-appreciated. However, it will be from within these ranks that sustainable, scalable models will be built to create the independent, autonomous and potentially revolutionary new Black media outlets of the 21st century and beyond.
They will not be based on corporate advertising or promotion via traditional marketing avenues such as television and radio commercials, nor newspaper ads and outdoor billboards. Because in the new media world, African Americans do not have collective power that is remotely commensurate with our numbers online, despite the steadily increasing percentage of us who have broadband access which affords consumer high speed connections to the web and use of rich media applications that include audio and video capabilities.
Of the three most highly trafficked Black-oriented websites: BET.com (Viacom), AOL BlackVoices (Time Warner) and BlackPlanet.com (CCI), none of these have Black majority ownership. BlackPlanet is the only one of the three that has made it to the rarified top 500 website ranking despite the fact that BlackPlanet is the only non-conglomerate-owned web entity of this triad.
Nielsen NetRatings ranks the most highly trafficked websites. Of the top 5000, there are no known websites geared to African Americans with significant news-oriented content that is unmediated by white editors and producers.
Moreover, of the top 100 media companies, there are no privately held Black-owned firms. And there are no Black-owned newspapers among the top 25 American newspaper companies with the highest circulations. And while the Associated Press’ website ranks among the top 20 news-oriented sites, the Black press’ National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) online news service, BlackPressUSA.com, is not even among the top 100,000 most highly trafficked websites, despite the fact that it aggregates publisher-selected from numerous NNPA-member papers across the country.
The website belonging to Viacom-owned BET (which was sold by Black billionaire Bob Johnson in 2000) distills news-oriented content originating primarily from CBS News. Even with its conglomerate credentials, it still cannot muster enough consistent readership to make it into even the top 2,500 most popular websites.
Nearly 60% of the top 25 news-oriented websites are owned by the 20 largest media companies, the top ten of which are: Time Warner, Comcast Corp., Viacom, Walt Disney Co., NBC Universal (General Electric Co.), Cox Enterprises, DirecTV, News Corp., Gannett Co., and Clear Channel Communications. These companies produce, broadcast and otherwise distribute the majority of news-related content we consume as Americans.
In a consumption-driven, highly media-influenced society with sizable and growing social, economic and political inequities, how can there be a true democracy without choice and a multiracial and politically diverse stake in the ownership and control of the media? And what type of alternative entities should we invest in given the ultra-concentration of media ownership that makes a mockery of freedom of speech, and gravely limits the means and context within which journalism that is inclusive of all can be shared, most notably when addressing politically progressive issues and perspectives.
Wouldn’t you think that in this so-called cradle of democracy with the most ubiquitous media in the world, we would have seen substantive mainstream coverage of a grassroots activist’s successes? A primetime investigative TV series on institutional racism and/or white-skin privilege? A widely syndicated radio program on issues of the growing wealth gap in the U.S. and abroad? A nationally circulated Black daily newspaper? A Black cable news channel? Or even video footage of an African metropolis?
So how long must African Americans endure a white media hegemony where the range of voices are limited by the decreasing ownership stakes, control and autonomy Black media outlets are experiencing? And when will we summon the ambition, imagination and historic communal values to create autonomous entities and institutions whose news-oriented content is unmediated by white editors, producers, executives and other exogenous stakeholders.
We must first and foremost demand of ourselves a heightened level of imagination and collaboration. We must confront our collective technophobia from which our youngest generation is, fortunately, immune. Toward this end, African Americans must regain control over Black media. We should do this by turning to new media ventures that leverage the power and creative possibilities of the Internet and related technologies. These don’t require vast sums of money, nor are they reliant upon the permission or involvement of media conglomerates.
Presently, we have not embraced the type of innovative organizational models we need to make better, Black-oriented new media versions of Associated Press, CNN and History Channel. There are progressive young people- activists, artists, entrepreneurs and technologists, who are breaking through these walls of technophobia. They have the requisite skills, creativity and values to help lead us to freer and broader self-expression.
Our community leaders, institutions – both commercial and civic – and our public servants and other influential figures must recognize, listen to, teach, learn from and support them. By harnessing new media, African Americans can amplify our authentic voices.
Originally published in the June/July Edition of Savoy Magazine.
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