As mainstream news organizations cover the final days of the first term of Donald J. Trump’s presidency, they continue to struggle to report on an Administration defined by an unprecedented overreach of power and documented dishonesty. Nonetheless, some journalists recognized early on that reporting on Trump required a new and “oppositional” approach that was “uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist.” However, almost four years after the 2016 election, the Whitehouse daily press briefings on the coronavirus pandemic are described as more “ego-stoking and sparring with reporters than it is about conveying useful information to Americans.”
Yet, in all of the hand wringing and consternation over the Executive Branch’s relationship to the news media, very few people have considered the significance of African American journalism and how it might offer reporters a model for how to report on governments that are dishonest and unjust. In this sense, reporters need not create new approaches to journalism but turn to a media outlet they have generally underestimated and often ignored: The Black Press.
The Black Press was founded in response to the distortions and ugly untruths that white newspapers often published about African Americans. Black journalists have been described as “Soldiers Without Swords.” For nearly two centuries, they have fought for the rights of not only Black Americans but for people of African descent throughout the world, ultimately showing how Black print news media are advocates for justice.
When Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm launched the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal in 1827, they made clear their mission: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentation, in things which concern us dearly.”
Cornish and Russwurm understood that the only way to respond to the power of the early nineteenth-century white press and its regular false and negative depictions of African Americans was to develop Black news outlets that would counteract and offer an alternative to these images.
As journalistic norms evolved from an embrace of partisanship in the nineteenth century to a celebration of objectivity in the twentieth century, the role of the Black Press remained the same. Black Press editors and journalists never pretended to maintain news balance nor did they believe that it was a necessary element of good journalism. Neutral coverage could unwittingly reinforce white supremacy, so Black journalists eschewed objectivity and focused on portraying the truth of racial injustice.
Objectivity emerged in the early twentieth century as a method, a scientific one that led to factual reporting, which departed from the partisan press of the 18th and 19th centuries. Prominent figures like famed journalist, Walter Lippmann and former New York Times, editor Charles Merz worried that reporters’ worldviews and personal perspectives influenced news coverage. Writing in 1920 about the New York Times coverage of the Russian Revolution in “A Test of the News,” Lippmann and Merz wrote, “In the large, the news about Russia is a case of seeing not what was, but what men wished to see.” Objectivity as a method, according to Lippmann, would tamp down biased news reporting methods.
However, the pursuit of objectivity reinforced dominant power structures and cultural attitudes, all of which contributed to the racial oppression of African Americans. Fred Carroll, the author of Race News, writes, “The white press’s commitment to a narrow definition of objectivity blinded its journalists and readers to the full extent that racism configured American society.” For example, mainstream newspapers sometimes featured “neutral” coverage of “race riots” in the North during World War I that enflamed anti-black racism and violence against Black Americans.
The Black Press countered this coverage by exposing truths that “objective” reporting overlooked. It prided itself on its ability to thread the needle between objectivity as a form of covering news and shedding light on fundamental challenges to American democracy, especially when they originated from racism.
The danger of blindly relying on objectivity and the reticence to call out dishonesty has inured the mainstream media to the deadly effect of a presidential administration that traffics in lies. Peter Kafka writes, “The Trump administration has conditioned Americans to a reality where the president routinely announces something in the morning, backtracks it shortly afterward, and later pretends he never said it.”
As the American public continues to bear witness to, as Former President Barack Obama put it, the “chaotic disaster” in the Whitehouse, more mainstream news outlets should look to the “Credo For The Negro Press (1944) as an example of how to cover the federal government’s response to the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election and beyond.
The Credo stated:
“I SHALL CRUSADE for all things that are right and just and I will, with equal fervor, expose and condemn all that are unjust. I shall be a CRUSADER but I will not permit my fervor nor the rightness of my cause to provoke abandonment of the cardinals of journalism, accuracy, fairness, and objectivity.”
Objectivity, balance, and neutrality on their own do not work in challenging a political establishment that runs on dishonesty and corruption. The history of the Black Press reveals that speaking truth to power requires a more complex approach that depends on a commitment to not only routing out lies but also combatting injustice.
Drawing on the history of the Black Press will mean that today’s mainstream news media will run the risk of drawing the ire of the Oval office even more than it currently does. To be certain, the Black Press of the early twentieth century did not have to contend with the executive branch’s weaponization of social media in labeling the Press “The Enemy of the People.” Black newspapers, however, also experienced their own antagonistic relationship with the Federal Government. Black Press editors ran afoul of the FDR administration which threatened them with being labeled as traitors for criticizing segregation in the armed forces during World War II. Despite these threats, the Black Press maintained its tradition of not just speaking truth to power but denouncing racism and dishonesty.
The Black Press’s legacy offers mainstream news media a path forward in covering Trump and future presidential administrations. It presents them with opportunities to be unapologetic advocates for democracy and truth… things the United States needs most at this moment.