American Journalism’s Role in Promoting Racist Terror: A Call for Media Reparations

a significant portion of America’s existing news business was built on slavery and other forms of racist terror.
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Photo: The Nation

Although it’s rarely discussed, a significant portion of America’s existing news business was built on slavery and other forms of racist terror.

Newspapers once relied on selling advertising space to slaveholders seeking to recapture runaways or sell their human property at auctions. Other papers defended the legality of slavery, encouraged mob lynchings, advocated racial inequality, and celebrated segregation—while characterizing Black people and other people of color as brutes, rapists, or other types of criminals.

In The Nation’s latest cover story, celebrated historian Channing Gerard Joseph calls for media reparations:

"As both a journalist and a descendant of slaves, these historical injustices are personal. I want my forebears to receive their proper respect at last. I also want my profession to acknowledge and atone for its racist roots. Yet of the 20 companies I reached out to for this piece, representing dozens of newspapers, only a handful saw fit to even acknowledge—let alone apologize for—their complicity in America’s racial terror.

"Although there are countless instances of racism in broadcast media—from Amos ’n’ Andy and Mickey Mouse to the white supremacist TV ads for Democratic US Senate candidate J.B. Stoner in 1972—the most numerous and egregious examples come from the print press, which in many cases profited not only from offensive or condescending language and depictions but also from the traffic in and murder of human beings.

"I call on all American news organizations—including TV, radio, and social media outlets—to investigate, acknowledge, apologize, and make amends for their role in disseminating racist ideas and profiting from racist violence."

In response to The Nation’s inquiries, several news organizations discussed in the investigation acknowledged their disgraceful history but declined to apologize.

These include the Associated Press; the New York Times; Tribune Publishing, the owner of many papers including The Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and the Hartford Courant; Advance Local, parent company of The Birmingham News; and the USA Today Network, on behalf of The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Commercial Appeal, The Fayetteville Observer, and several other Gannett-owned papers.

The Washington Post and The Augusta Chronicle declined to comment. The New York Post, The Post and Courier, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the San Francisco Examiner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Read the full cover story here.

 “American Journalism’s Role in Promoting Racist Terror” appears on the cover of the May 3/10, 2021, edition of The Nation.

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