by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Stopping in San Diego October 24 in the middle of a whirlwind tour — 14 cities in eight days, including two events in the L.A. area before he got to San Diego — Juan Gonzalez, co-host (with Amy Goodman) of the progressive radio/TV show Democracy Now!, spoke at the Church of the Brethren in City Heights to present his new book, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. Co-authored by Joseph Torres, who also appeared at the event, the book argues that there have actually been three sectors of the American media: the mainstream corporate media, the white alternative/rebel media, and media owned and controlled by people of color.
“I have been a professional journalist for over 35 years, and for 10 years before that I’d been a social activist in the anti-war, Puerto Rican liberation and labor movements,” Gonzalez said. “For 35 years I worked in the corporate or commercial media [he still does, as a columnist for the New York Daily News], which remains the primary way people are informed, but they are not the only way. Amy Goodman and I work with the rebel, alternative, community press that dates back to the founding of our country and is a totally separate strain. I have also had the opportunity to work in the third strain. In the 1980’s I edited Vocal Communidad in Philadelphia, about the Latino community. It still exists today, among six to seven Spanish-language papers in Philadelphia. I was also involved in the 1980’s with the founding of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and defended the right of African-Americans, Hispanics and Native people to own their own media.”
The story Gonzalez and Torres tell in their book is alternately exhilarating and depressing, celebrating the heroism of the pioneers of media ownership in the communities of color — and describing how their publications and radio outlets were suppressed, not only with economic power but often through physical violence. According to Gonzalez, the first newspaper in the U.S. owned by African-Americans, Freedom’s Journal, was founded in 1827 — and the words of its first editorial could stand as a mission statement for virtually all U.S. media outlets coming from the communities of color: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. … From the press and the pulpit we have suffered much by being incorrectly represented.”
“There were 30 Black papers before the Civil War,” Gonzalez said. “In 1808 the first Spanish-language newspaper in the U.S. was founded in New York. The first Chinese-language paper was founded in 1854. The Native American press is to me the most astounding because until the 1820’s no Native American tribe in the U.S. had a written language. In the 1820’s the Cherokees developed a written version of their language and launched a literacy campaign, and in 1828 the Cherokees started the first Native paper. There were others in Shawnee in the Indian Territory” (modern-day Oklahoma).
According to Gonzalez, the media of color were attacked not only by the mainstream media outlets of their time but also by the white-owned “alternative” or “rebel” press, particularly papers owned or associated with organized labor and so-called “workingmen’s” movements. It’s not surprising when you realize how many unions and white workers’ movements historically blamed immigrants for their low pay and poor working conditions. The first labor party in U.S. history, the Workingmen’s Party in San Francisco in 1867, had at the top of its list of demands the exclusion of all Chinese from the U.S. Not until 2000 did the U.S. labor movement formally reverse itself, abandoning its historic anti-immigrant position when the AFL-CIO executive council passed a resolution calling, according to labor writer David Bacon, “for the repeal of employer sanctions, for a new amnesty for the undocumented, and for a broad new program to educate immigrant workers about their rights.”
Both the mainstream and the white alternative press “not only spread racist stereotypes,” Gonzalez said, “their editors and publishers often instigated, organized and fomented racial violence. We have decades of examples.” The most notorious one, Gonzalez said, was in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, where despite the takeover of the state government by white supremacists, enough African-Americans still voted that the City Council had a Black majority. Then Josephus Daniels, editor/publisher of the News and Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, called on white supremacists from all over the state to invade Wilmington and forcibly drive the Blacks from office.
“Day and night we worked, for I rarely went home until two or three o’clock in the morning, getting the news and writing the editorials and conferring with the Democratic [Party] leaders,” Daniels later wrote in his autobiography. Their first target in Wilmington was the city’s only Black-owned paper, the Record, and its publisher, Alex Manley. On November 10, 1898, Daniels wrote, “the white supremacy people determined to expel Manley from the city, and to set fire to his building and burn it as a lasting evidence that no vestige of the Negro who had defamed white women of the State should be left. His building was gutted and burned but Manley escaped.” Then, Gonzalez said, the mob of nearly 2,000 white racists drove the elected Black City Councilmembers out of town and staged a series of gun battles in which at least 60 Wilmington Blacks were killed and white supremacists took control of the city.
After an in-depth description both of the Wilmington massacre and the prestigious career Josephus Daniels had later — he was appointed Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson and when his assistant secretary, Franklin D. Roosevelt, became President he picked Daniels as his ambassador to Mexico — Gonzalez cited other examples of “racial pogroms” against people of color begun or encouraged by white media. Among these were “the Tucson Citizen and other Arizona papers with the Camp Grant massacre” (a slaughter of over 200 Apaches, and the kidnapping of Indian children, in the Arizona Territory on April 30, 1871), “the Rocky Mountain News and other newspapers in Colorado fomenting and supporting the Sand Creek massacre” (November 29, 1864, in which a 700-man white militia attacked, killed and mutilated between 70 and 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians), “the pogroms against Chinese-American communities and others in the West … the Omaha Bee helping to organize and instigate the lynching of Will Brown in a race riot in 1919. So the press was not merely spreading bias; it was an actor, organizer and instigator of racial hatred in the United States.”
Gonzalez cited more recent examples, too, including the framing of Mexican-American radio performer and spokesperson Pedro J. Gonzalez on a rape charge to get his program off the air in the 1930’s and the campaign waged by radio and TV stations in Mississippi to get whites to come out and block James Meredith from entering the University of Mississippi as its first African-American student in 1962. “This is part of the sordid history of American journalism that the media have yet to own up to and fully apologize for,” Gonzalez said. “We are all suffering the damage from this long history that you do not generally read about in the press, because the press were involved.”
The Myth of the “Free Market” in Media
The other main part of Gonzalez’ message was an attack on the myth that the American media system is the result of fair competition in a “free market.” According to Gonzalez, the real history of media in America is a series of technological changes, followed by debate at the highest levels of government about how those changes should be implemented. These, he explained, were a series of battles between commercial and corporate interests on one side and local communities, small businesses, educational institutions, labor organizations, people of color and independent individuals on the other. In every case but one, Gonzalez said, the battle ended with the U.S. government giving the corporations virtually everything they wanted, and the corporations using their control of government and the regulatory process to silence potentially competing voices.
The one exception, he explained, occurred at the very beginning of the American republic: in 1792, when the first U.S. Congress debated whether, and under what ground rules, to set up a United States Post Office. “America was a settler nation, and the settlements were scattered across the country, so George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others, decided that the government had to establish a postal system so the settlers could communicate with each other,” Gonzalez said. “Only 10 percent of what the postal system carried was mail; the other 90 percent was newspapers. The founders felt the government had a role to contribute to the free flow of information, so they set up second-class postal rates by which newspapers could be mailed below cost so they could be delivered easily and without censorship. For the first 60 to 70 years of the U.S., the Post Office was the largest government employer, and its main purpose was to deliver newspapers to the people.”
The second communications revolution took place in the 1840’s after Samuel Morse developed the first practical telegraph system. “Congress apportioned money to build the first telegraph line,” Gonzalez explained — $30,000 for a wire between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, 40 miles away — “and because it allowed information to be transmitted instantaneously, Morse wanted to sell his patents to the government. The business community wanted a private market, and Congress eventually sided with the business community. The U.S. was the only country where the government didn’t run the telegraph, so telegraph service became more expensive [than elsewhere] and centralized. Eventually it was dominated by the Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI) and the other wire services.” The result, Gonzalez argued, was a loss of diversity in American media, as publishers bought their stories from wire services and offered their readers a blander, more homogenized, pro-business perspective on the news.
The third dashed opportunity for a freer, more diverse media system in the U.S. came in the early 20th century with the invention of radio. According to Gonzalez, early radio was the Internet of its day; equipment was readily available and reasonably priced, start-up costs were low, “thousands of amateur radio operators got on the air, and there was a huge diversity of voices between 1910 and 1920.” Then the federal government stepped in on the side of would-be radio monopolists like David Sarnoff of NBC and William Paley of CBS. In 1927 Congress created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and put then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover in charge of it. In 1934, the Commission’s jurisdiction was expanded and its name changed to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and “in the process of regulating the airwaves, they handed the best channels to business interests like NBC and CBS,” Gonzalez explained.
“Suddenly, racial minorities, educational broadcasters, labor and others went off the air,” Gonzalez said. “There were all kinds of stations pushed off the air when the government handed it over to giant networks and newspapers.” The invention of television and its emergence as a mass-market phenomenon in the late 1940’s did not threaten corporate control of the airwaves, Gonzalez explained, because “the same corporations that dominated radio incubated TV.”
The next development that did threaten the corporate media power, according to Gonzalez, was the emergence of cable TV in the 1960’s. “The same promises that were made in the early days of radio, and which are now being made about the Internet, were made for cable,” Gonzalez explained. “At the beginning there were hundreds of cable stations because in order to use the public rights of way for their cables, companies had to get the permission of local governments, and city councils had leverage to require public access, educational channels, programming for underserved communities, and affirmative action in hiring and vendors. Hundreds of commercial cable companies developed in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s.”
Then, as they had in the case of the telegraph and radio, the federal government stepped in and took the side of giant corporations over the interests of individuals and local communities, Gonzalez explained. “The government relaxed ownership rules and allowed cable companies to consolidate,” he said, “so now Time Warner and Comcast between them control 50 percent of all cable.”
According to Gonzalez — and his co-author, Joseph Torres, who’s active with the independent media lobby Free Press — government policy towards the Internet is following the same pro-corporate pattern as it did with the telegraph, radio and cable TV. One of the key demands of Free Press and other opponents of the corporate media is to retain so-called “net neutrality,” which requires Internet service providers (ISP’s) to treat all data equally. But the giant corporations which dominate the ISP market as well as the rest of the U.S. media — AT&T, Time Warner (owner of America Online), Verizon, Comcast — are fighting for a so-called “tiered Internet,” which would give them the right to push corporate Web sites over everyone else’s by charging less to access them and slowing down access to independent sites. The loss of “net neutrality” would also give ISP’s unlimited power to censor the Internet, totally or partially blocking access to sites they consider politically objectionable — which could make future attempts to organize Occupy Wall Street-style campaigns difficult or impossible.
According to Gonzalez, the consistent U.S. pattern of allowing giant corporations to control and ultimately monopolize each new media technology has given the U.S. people more media outlets than available in any other country — but also made them the least informed citizenry in the advanced world. “The American people are literally drowning in information,” he said. “We have 14,000 newspapers, 17,000 magazines, 12,000 radio stations and 1,200 TV channels, including dozens of all-news cable channels. We have tens of thousands of Internet sites. We have all this news and information — yet the American people remain misinformed and disinformed.
“When two-thirds of Americans believed, in the run-up to the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, that means the media were doing a bad job,” Gonzalez continued. “When Americans are the only people in the developed world not aware of the threat of human-caused climate change, that’s an example of the structural problems with the U.S. media. When it took the young people of Occupy Wall Street and the other occupations to turn people’s attention to the source of our economic problems, that’s the fault of our media.”