The Future of Black Media
August 9, 2005

The question of where the media is headed has always been weighty. When looking towards the future, for me it comes down to one question: how will truth be disseminated? That pretty much encompases everything--truth in reporting, truth in the images presented, truth about the reality of what this world truly needs.

Yesterday, John Johnson, a giant in the black media world passed away at the age of 87. So again the reality of time marches on. The people that once were pillars are no more and we are forced to deal with fact that someone must become responsible for moving us from where we are to where we need to be. Where "we" need to be seems to be up for debate right now, but more on that later.

If you don't know who John Johnson is, let me school you because in the aftershocks of Peter Jennings' passing, I am certain Johnson's legacy will be buried on the news desks. The Johnson Publishing empire is mighty. In 1942, Johnson began Ebony Magazine as his take on the traditional "Life Magazine" with the goal of focusing on black society. The goal of the magazine bounced around from reporting the bad to celebrating the good. In a time when blacks were nearly nonexistent in printed media, Johnson filled a void. Even to this day, you'd be hard-pressed to find a black American household that doesn't have Ebony or Jet Magazine on the coffee table. For most black families, Ebony magazine has become a household staple. Johnson later followed up by launching the smaller Jet magazine as well as the Fashion Fair make-up empire, book-publishing, television production, and more.

As a multimillionaire, in 1982 Johnson was the first black American ever to make the Forbes' list of richest Americans. That's right, even before Oprah. Let us all stop and clap for that please. My thoughts on the current state of Ebony Magazine aside, what I can most respect most about John Johnson was that he ran a family business, and unlike another famous "Johnson," he never sold out (financially, that is). Even today, the company is headed by members of the Johnson family. For his legacy and his contribution to the black community, Johnson should be honored and respected.

Over the last couple of years, however, I've had a difficult time figuring out just what type of message Ebony Magazine has been trying to convey. From cover stories on the "Down Low Culture," and Louis Farrakhan to top bachelor and bachelorette listings, I can't help but be unsatisfied by mediums that mostly seem to do more to entertain, comfort and pseudo-educate than they do to provoke and change. While this isn't necessarily a problem specific to race (I could list off perpetrators of all colors), I do find this reality at work among the few predominately black media institutions presently in operation.

The other day while getting lost and having dinner with Cobb, the founder of The Conservative Brotherhood, we got into an interesting conversation about the future of supposed "black empowerment" media. I shared with him my frustrations about some of the images being portrayed. He too shares my disdain for BET. I don't use the word often but by golly I hate BET. That is, I hate what it represents. In fact, if you want to get in good with me, just start ranting about BET. It's automatic points.

With Robert Johnson, BET founder and president, passing the torch to Debra Lee this year, perhaps there could be a bright future of change on the horizon. Goodness knows, BET has nowhere to go but up. The older I get, the more I am convinced that I don't need to visualize what hell is like. Just watching BET is enough to make me live right. Then again, maybe the problem is inherent. BET isn't black-owned media anymore and there seem to be few higher ups that are disappointed in the current offerings.

If we move over to radio, just this week, Hot 97 FM, one of the top Hip Hop and R&B stations got hit with a $240,000 fine for airing a fine display of decorum they call, "The Slapfest '05," or as a Washington Times op-ed called it:

"A disgusting contest in which two young women slapped each other -- even bloodied one another -- until one was declared a "winner." The prize: $500.
Classy.

Then there's my ultimate favorite, BlackPlanet.com, which at nearly 16 million users is probably the biggest online portal within the black community. And forgive me forgive me for what I'm about to say, but I've reserved use of this word for when it's entirely appropriate: BlackPlanet is the epitome of hood with a capital 'H.' It's an Internet mess. If there was such a thing as virtual cockroaches, drop-tops and chrome rims, you'd find them on Blackplanet, which isn't an all-black venture, but becomes our responsibility by association of the term "black."

The list goes on, and the status isn't all bad. Though it seems we are at a turning point. Continuing the standard of media that lacks any redeeming values will be at a cost. The pricetag on degrading images is high and could affect generations to come. I pointed out some shortcomings simply to illustrate a point. Johnson's passing is yet another time indicator (for black people especially) of unique opportunity to set the reset the standards of integrity in media. Let's not look back on this time and regret that we had an opportunity to change something we always complained about. Yet I find it funny that somehow I will regret I ever wrote this. Accountability to your words will haunt you until you do your part.

Yikes.

Other bloggers weigh-in:

- George at Negrophile has a phenomenal rundown of links and related resources on the future of black media. I am not worthy.

- La Shawn Barber recalls her mother's stacks of old Ebony magazines. My family has a collection too.

- Booker Rising notes that every black family in America was touched in tome way by Johnson's work.

Posted by Ambra at August 9, 2005 11:02 PM in Media
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My cousin is a neophyte blogher, uh, blogger over at http://knottheordinaryvous.blogspot.com/, and she took on the passing of Mr. Johnson yesterday, too. I'm posting the comment here--almost verbatim--that I left on her site:

"I know you were simply hyperbolizing in order to make a point, but Ebony/Jet are fixtures in far fewer than "every" black HH in America. There are around 13 million black HHs in the U.S., according to the national census. Ebony's circulation is fewer than 3 million, according to their rate card.

"I clarify this point not to mitigate the impact Mr. Johnson has had on the African-American landscape, but in hopes that it will not be overstated, either.

"In my circle of influence, Ebony and Jet have always kind of been those two minor reminders--despite their longevity--that, oh, yeah, somebody is keeping a black record. At least in my baby-boomer generation, neither was taken very seriously, until, of course, it was time to create a collage of black "stuff" for school during Black History Month. Then we went out and bought Ebony, or bee-lined it over to one of our aunt's/uncle's house to peruse and eviscerate their copies.

"Not to sound too harsh, but I have never actually felt overly proud of Ebony. You'd never hear me quote it around my white associates as any kind of authority on my culture (or around my black associates, more to the point). I think the main reason for that has to do with the reading level to which it was written, for one thing. On the few occasions someone on the cover made me open it and read something other than the comic strips, I always felt like I was reading a fifth-grader's writing. I mean, Sports Illustrated is a sports magazine, for cryin' out loud, but, my Lord, what fine writing! And here was the contemporary journal of my peoples, and I was a little ashamed of it.

"Granted, I could never accomplish what Mr. Johnson did business-wise, and I hope and pray that he knew Jesus and is with Him as we speak. And he's definitely not the Bob Johnson of print, as far as his concern for the hearts, minds and spirits of the Diaspora go, and, he evidently gave advertisers what they wanted. But still...

Love your show, babe!"

Thank you for writing that.

As a humorous aside, I initially read you as saying that Louis Farrakhan was named top bachelor.

Being from Chicago, my 5th grade class once made a trip to JPC. At the time, they were experimenting with picture phones (this was 1970 or so) and it is wierd that we never really saw those materialize until webcams and teleconferencing a good 20 years later.

I don't subscribe to Ebony anymore and used to get "the Jet" when I got the free subscription from my attendance at the Ebony Fashion Fair. But, I know that in some black circles, nothing is true until you've seen it in "the Jet."

Great analysis as always.

Ebony and Jet cannot be everything to everyone. The Johnsons found a formula that worked, and stayed with it. Over the years, they tried other magazine formats, but were astute enough as business people not to mess with the cash cows.

Stories covered in those magazines simply are not covered elsewhere. I look forward to the issues with the Black college campus queens, the annual bachelor and bachelorette issues, the 100 most influential blacks--you can't find that anywhere else.

The word of media would be diminshed without Ebony and Jet. So would the black community. Honor them for what they are, don't disparage them for what they are not.

- Louis Farrakhan, top bachelor? Okay I'm getting mental pictures, please make it stop. Plus I believe he's married. High fidelity? Not so sure about that one.

- "Nothing is true until you've seen it in Jet." Oh there is so much more to be said about this statement :-)

- Johnnie: I'm thinking the "Love your show, babe...was intended for your cousin?"

Brotherbrown: I'm guessing I probably wouldn't have spent a good two paragaphs praising the Johnson legacy if I didn't think they deserved honor. Now if we're not allowed to self-critique then we're in a whole heap of trouble.

I agree, Ebony offers so much that can't be found elsewhere in media. This doesn't mean that they cant grow in some areas.

It is 2005 and one of the areas the black community continues to drop the ball in is succession planning. What will the next 45 years look like?

A quick story about Ebony's "Bachelors" issue, brotherbrown:

Circa 1984, I was working at Arthur Andersen in DC as an audio-visual guy. Well, the issue comes out and lo and behold there's one of the part-time custodial types at AA&Co. featured as one of said bachelors. He was really a good-looking dude (yep, I'm real comfortable in my own manhood), and the women around the office loved him. I'm pretty sure he was, well, filling more than the copier toner for several of them. Anyway, his bio said he had, like, a master's degree in accounting and was working at AA as a tax accountant, etc., etc., etc. Needless to say, all lies. It's interesting how he conveniently disappeared from AA's hallowed halls right around publication time.

But that entire episode left a terrible taste in my mouth with regard to Ebony Magazine. I was a journalism major in school (Hampton Pirates!), and fact-checking and reporting only what you can verify--or attribute--were cornerstones of what we learned down there. So here was Ebony, a real magazine, one totally for and about my people, screwin' up ROYALLY. I never forgot that about Ebony. Every time I see a copy now I think back to him (wish I could remember his name) standing there grinning out at the rest of the black world, just reveling in his deceit. Boy, I bet he got TONS of play behind that spread.

Uh, Johnnie, do I detect a note of jealousy?

Oh, Ambra, I did include "Love your show, babe" on my cousin’s site. That tribute is not quite sophisticated enough for your show.

MBC and TVOne are the alternatives.

I read about this too. I was very sad.

As an aspiring journalist I too wonder about the state of black media. John Johnson was the first African American to carve out niche media (ethnic media) in a huge way. While we've had local African American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender, and Baltimore and Washington's Afro-American newspaper to name a few, his was the first national endeavor in regards to magazines.
For a while there we had another great magazine called Emerge which was the Time or Newsweek of the African American community. And of course there is Essence which is geared toward black women. Without John Johnson neither one of these enterprises would have existed.

In regards to broadcast John Johnson was forefather to Bob Johnson of BET, Cathy Hughes of Radio One and TV One, and Willie Gary of the MBC Network. I agree BET is now an embarrassment it has moved away from being a network which engages, informs, and enlightens, to being a network whose sole purpose is entertainment. While it's name is Black Entertainment Televison being the American Broadcast Corporation, or National Broadcast Company hasn't stopped the major networks from being devoted to news and entertainment. Contrary to what Viacom and BET thinks balance is necessary and appropriate.

I do have to commend Cathy Hughes and Willie Gary for striving to achieve balance. Hughes has a number of talk radio stations, and while TV One could have a news show, we'll take whatever we can get which keeps her networks primarily(TV One is a joint venture with Comcast) black owned. Willie Gary's network is supposedly about to relaunch a daily news show, after BET ended their nightly newscast. Gary also plans to make a "Black CNN" shall be interesting to see.

It'll most certainly be interesting to see how the news game evolves and changes in the coming months, and years.

Aw man, you missed your chance!
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