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Race, Politics and American Media (MIT Communications Forum)

10/08/2009 5:00 PM
Juan Williams, News analyst, NPR; J. Phillip Thompson, Associate Professor of Urban Politics, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, MIT; David Thorburn, MIT Professor of Literature
MacVicar Faculty Fellow

Description: The collapse of print and other traditional news and the rise of celebrity culture have contributed to the sharp decline of in"depth stories involving race and society, say these two speakers, in a discussion that's replete with personal anecdote.

Juan Williams sets out detailing his childhood dreams to break into the newspaper business. He read all the New York papers for baseball coverage, "and noticed no people of color telling their stories The absence struck me." From prep school through college, Williams found internships at progressively larger papers, which had at most a handful of black reporters, and often denied those the right to bylines. But the turmoil of the '60s, recalls Williams, led to a wave of more militant black journalists who demanded respect and greater attention to their own communities.

In spite of some gains, Williams does not see signs of great progress over the years. President Obama's election may have led to more African"American commentators, but Williams is the only regular person of color on Washington's Sunday morning talk shows, which he describes as "conversations among elite white males." Nor are there African"American anchors: "It always comes down to, 'Is the audience going to relate to a black male as lead dog?'"

Williams deplores the "pandering" that big media institutions engage in with people of color. An executive at a black cable network, rejecting the idea of a news show, told Williams that the black men "who would identify with you like to watch sports and pornography" Magazines like Ebony,Jet, and Essence focus on the "fabulously rich singer or superstar," and avoid discussing the nation's social and economic crises. There's "no investment of money, or placing journalists in a position to tell you critical stories to find the political power players who have their fingers on the levers causing distress in lower income communities. It doesn't exist."

J. Phillip Thompson believes that the waning of local newspapers like New York's Amsterdam News marks the end of one of the last resources communities of color have to learn about issues affecting them. As a former public housing manager in New York, he knows the importance of reporters scrutinizing the words and actions of politicians. Now "I'll read about a shooting in a mainstream newspaper. But the voice of community and debates I heard all the time I don't read about."

He traces a class divide in black America today that's different from previous incarnations. For instance, black officials representing majority black districts "don't want issues, don't want people excited." Elected leadership, he says, is not focused on addressing "fundamental problems like jobs, the fact that people can't pay mortgages, raise families. Instead of dealing with that, officials move onto other issues like Skip Gates being arrested off of his porch. That's unfortunate, but it's just not a vital issue in black America."

About the Speaker(s): Juan Williams appears regularly on the newsmagazines Morning Edition and Day to Day. He is also a contributing political analyst for the Fox News Channel and a regular panelist on Fox News Sunday. He has also appeared on numerous television programs, including Nightline, Washington Week in Review, Oprah, CNN's Crossfire, and Capitol Gang Sunday. From 2000"2001, Williams hosted NPR's national call"in show Talk of the Nation.

Williams is the author of the biography Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, and the nonfiction bestseller Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954"1965, the companion volume to the television series. This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience appeared in February 2003. This book was the basis for a six"part public broadcasting TV documentary that aired in June 2003. Phillip Thompson is an urban planner and political scientist. Before entering academic life, Phil worked as Deputy General Manager of the New York Housing Authority and as Director of the Mayor's Office of Housing Coordination. Thompson's latest book is Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Struggle for a Deep Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2005), and he has a recent article in The New Labor Forum entitled "What Are Labor's True Colors?" David Thorburn has published widely on literary and cultural subjects and is currently completing a cultural history of American television, called Story Machine. He received his A.B. degree from Princeton, his M.A. and Ph.D. from Stanford and taught at Yale for 10 years before joining MIT in 1976. He has edited collections of essays on romanticism, and on John Updike, as well as a widely used anthology of fiction, Initiation. He is a former Director of the Film and Media Studies Program and of the Cultural Studies Project.

Host(s): School of Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences, Communications Forum

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