The All-White Media Oligopoly and the False Promise of a Press for All
A FEW YEARS AGO, right before the current U.S. president announced his candidacy, I went for a job interview with a large digital publication in New York. I never got a call back, and for all the ways I may have presented myself as an insufficiently impressive candidate to my interviewer, one stood out to me in especially high relief: a disagreement over the definition of white supremacy.
My interviewer had asked me to bring a list of potential story pitches. In one pitch, I defined an industry with structural barriers to entry, such as access to capital, as inherently white supremacist if industry leaders didn’t also institute material efforts to redistribute opportunity. It was abundantly clear that centuries of racism have kept a majority of American industries, organizations, and political bodies white, concentrating wealth and power primarily in white hands.
This serves as the most cogent and direct definition of white supremacy I can think of. It’s also extremely inclusive. It indicts everything from Congress to the New York Times. The Times later provided support for my thesis when it found that 91 percent of folks it defined as “the most powerful people in American culture, government, education and business” were white. Understanding white supremacy this way, as a passive system of power accumulation with a long legacy, leads to the blunt conclusion that America is and always has been a white supremacist country in which most of us are complicit.
My interviewer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a highly respected editor, disagreed with me. White supremacy, he said, was an ideological commitment to the belief that people of European descent are superior. Such a definition would absolve this editor, and others like him, from allegations that they passively participate in a white supremacist system. Only Sieg-Heiling extremists deserve that label, not well-meaning media professionals who just happen to preside over all-white teams of reporters.
Soon after my failed interview, Trump’s campaign would bring the topic of white supremacy further to the forefront of media debate—though the discussion is still mostly led by white reporters, columnists, and Twitter personalities. Joel Mathis’s late October piece for The Week drove the point home; its title, “Journalists of color were right about Trump. Why didn’t we listen?,” makes the implicit admission that journalism is by and for white America—the “we.” As The Atlantic’s Hannah Giorgis tweeted, it also relegates non-white journalists from the role of media professionals to that of “moral watchdogs.”
Might Makes White
Mathis’s piece trots out tired statistics about newsrooms’ enduring whiteness, which media organizations lament every so often—before serenely resuming their role in upholding the status quo. If there’s one clear moral to adduce from the horrifically prostrate coverage of the Trump movement’s white-nationalist profile in the mainstream press, it’s that the white-dominated media simply doesn’t care about changing in any meaningful way.
We need a far more profound conception of white supremacy and how the mainstream press has always been complicit in its maintenance.
This year, so few newspapers and media outlets responded to the American Society of News Editors’ newsroom whiteness survey (a.k.a “diversity survey”) that the association had to extend its deadline. The ASNE, mind you, had vowed in 1978 to make the racial composition of American newsrooms reflect the general U.S. population by the year 2000. In 1998 it kicked the can down to 2025—at which point another target year will all but certainly kick in. The urgency of integration will only rise as the overall non-white population grows and the reaction to such demographic change becomes increasingly furious. Given that these goals seem to work in increments of about twenty-five years, we’re only two more cycles away from a century of missed diversity targets. Deadlines for racial equity in the media are ones that American editors will happily refrain from ever seriously enforcing. It might be time to dispense with the idea that journalism in this country, for any good it has done, can ever evolve from its Anglo-centric gaze of the world. Indeed, this has always been one of its most consistent features. “For more than 250 years the nation’s news media, no matter how politically liberal, conservative, or radical, no matter what class they purported to represent, remained the press of its white population,” write Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres in their 2011 book News for All the People, which painstakingly documents American media’s dismal white supremacist record. Many of the histories recounted in their book are impossible to find in traditional journalism curricula, which should tell you everything you need to know about traditional journalism.
Torres and Gonzalez released their book before feverish conspiracy swamps on right-wing social media became leading drivers of our political culture and national discourse. Yet such recent developments have only strengthened their fundamental thesis that the media has remained the press of the country’s white population. From the early nineteenth century’s penny press (which teemed with crudely sensationalist racial stereotypes and race-based moral panics) to telegraph newswires, radio broadcasting, cable news, and social media, every new iteration of news dissemination has further entrenched white supremacy and its core political dictates of geopolitical conquest and cultural hierarchy.
At almost every one of these junctures, people of color have hoped a freer flow of information could break America’s racial caste system. It never has, and now the risk of amplifying deadly white nationalist narratives and framing is greater than it’s ever been. To even begin confronting the threat of ascendant white nationalism today, we need a far more profound conception of white supremacy and how the mainstream press has always been complicit in its maintenance.
Fade From Black
The push to integrate American newsrooms followed the release of Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission report, which analyzed the social causes of more than 150 urban insurrections over conditions of acute racial inequality in 1967. The Kerner report also offered ideas for how white institutions could be altered to create “a true union—a single society and a single American identity.” One of those institutions was the media, which the report recommended create pipelines to funnel black students into newsrooms, along with other readily adaptable models for workplace integration and more expansive coverage of racial issues.
None of these measures got implemented in a significant way, but the atmospheric resistance of the time moved journalists to challenge white media ownership. In the early 1970s, Torres and Gonzales write, people of color initiated at least 340 challenges to broadcast licenses either to kick racist radio and television channels off the air or seize them outright. During the same period, advocacy groups lobbied media companies to hire more nonwhite reporters, producers, and editors. Between 1972 and 1987, black journalists felt emboldened enough to file discrimination lawsuits against the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press and the Daily News. Only the Daily News was convicted of racial discrimination, resulting in a $3.1 million payout; the other papers settled their suits out of court.
These campaigns were often confrontational. Some examples: in 1972, Puerto Rican activists in New York posed as volunteers for a pledge drive at WNET, the city’s main PBS station, so they could infiltrate and shut down its signal. Protesters outside unfurled a banner that read, “20% Hispanic population, 0% programming,” eventually winning a concession from WNET to create a new, Latinx-focused documentary and arts TV show. Three years earlier in Texarkana, Texas, black residents threatened to contest the license of a local TV station for covering “only issues that affected” white audiences, pushing the station to hire two full-time black journalists and increase its outreach to the black community.
Some nonwhite journalists felt like a new day had arrived. “Our enthusiasm was extremely high, we felt that we were on to something big and good, that we were on the right side of history,” former New York Times senior editor Paul Delaney wrote for Columbia Journalism Review last year. Delaney was at the paper in the 1970s, when several black employees filed the aforementioned class-action discrimination suit against the paper. In the intervening forty years, Delaney’s enthusiasm deteriorated as he watched the progress they made slowly recede. Contractions in the industry a few decades later would compound newsrooms’ already deep-seated reluctance to integrate.
“To say that I’m disappointed today by the entire situation, not only at the New York Times, but in my chosen profession, is an understatement,” Delaney wrote. He also wasn’t surprised: “It’s still a racial and racist thing the nation cannot seem to take hold of nor shake, after all these centuries.”
Outbreaks of optimistic sentiment akin to Delaney’s overly sanguine hopes for reform have appeared throughout American media history, particularly at the development of new technologies for spreading information. At the same time Delaney was at the Times, a media civil rights activist named William Wright was heralding the advent of cable television.
“The potential of cable television is beyond imagination. . . . With the increased number of channels possible with cable television, we should make certain that some of those channels are set aside for us,” Wright told Ebony in 1970. “It is fantastic what we would be able to do with them. We could begin to communicate with each other, something we desperately need to do.”
Wright wasn’t the only activist who saw the promise of a greater proliferation of media outlets for nonwhite audiences in the rise of cable, yet such optimism proved short lived. In 1972, the FCC permitted cable companies to have monopolies in large cities, where they installed cable networks first in affluent white neighborhoods. After three major rounds of deregulation, in 1984, 1996, and 2017, conglomerates like the Walt Disney Company, AT&T, and Comcast gobbled up all types of media companies and services, including broadcast and cable. Last year, these three giants alone claimed combined revenues worth $330 billion.
Feints at racial integration and cultural reinvention wafted in and then out of the nation’s newsrooms over the past half-century.
The only television entity that has been able to resist the appetites of these whales has been 21st Century Fox, whose flagship news property, Fox News, is consistently the most watchedcable news network. Fox News’ highest-rated shows the last two years have been those most deferential to an openly white nationalist president. Almost fifty years ago, Wright thought cable television would herald a racially harmonious society. “This is really our big chance and if we blow this one, we might as well forget it,” Wright said then. If cable news were to report honestly on its own racial record, it would have to do so under some variation of the chyron “Really Big Chance Blown.”
In the Black with White Fear-Mongering
The false promise of cable was yet another reminder that communications technology isn’t some neutral force for quantum social improvement, but rather a reflection of the American scene’s dominant racial attitudes. In this sense, white supremacy in media is a force of interlocking interests invested in sustaining racial hierarchy. Trump’s racist administration hasn’t just been good for places like Fox and Breitbart, whose audiences are still relatively small, but has boosted media profits across the board.
Fox News’ main competitors, CNN and MSNBC, are bringing in record ad revenue for their respective corporate owners, AT&T and NBCUniversal. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post are also sitting pretty. And while it would be reductive to say this growth is entirely due to covering the chaos of a white nationalist government, disgraced former CBS CEO Leslie Moonves said the quiet part aloud when he bragged that while Trump’s rise through the 2016 GOP primaries might be “bad for America,” it was nonetheless “damn good for CBS.” Even when news stories are critical of Trump’s white nationalist agenda, his priorities continue to drive overall news narratives, as Media Matters revealed in a recent report on nonstop, front-page reporting of the so-called migrant caravan from Central America.
A more racially diverse pool of editorial talent, to say nothing of ownership, would likely steer editorial decisions in a dramatically different direction. But of course, such reflections are inevitably speculative for the simple reason that the American media still has yet to produce a significant cohort of outlets that aren’t driven by the tacit coverage directives of white executives and audiences who see themselves as the natural leaders of the news environment. New media technologies have always had white supremacy baked into their foundations, and they’ve always grown and thrived by maintaining, not challenging, the country’s racial status quo.
The development of radio might be the most compelling illustration of this principle. Radio as a state-backed corporate institution was spearheaded by Josephus Daniels, Navy secretary for Woodrow Wilson. Daniels created a trust in which companies like AT&T, Western Electric, and United Fruit came together to share patents and control commercial broadcasting. Daniels also happened to be the editor and publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer—where, in 1898, he fomented an armed overthrow of the integrated city government in Wilmington, North Carolina. Daniels called his newspaper, which is still around, “the militant voice of White Supremacy,” and true to its slogan, devoted a great deal of personal and political energy to disenfranchising black people.
But Daniels’s most damaging racial legacy may well be his pioneering role in usurping access to the electromagnetic spectrum from amateur radio operators. Some thought radio could be a means of challenging the dominant white racial narrative, including black civil rights groups in the early twentieth century. Yet in a move that directly foreshadowed the corporate enclosure of the cable spectrum, Daniels’s radio trust lobbied Congress to reserve the most wide-reaching radio frequencies for broadcast companies like NBC, CBS, and Mutual Broadcasting, which soon cannibalized local stations. It became untenable to obtain a license if you weren’t a huge corporation—and impossible if you weren’t white.
Publishing While Nonwhite
A century earlier, the first known newspapers managed and edited solely by black, Latinx, and Native American people emerged. These upstart papers set out to correct and confront the stereotypes and falsehoods that were rife in the country’s expanding network of white periodicals. The first edition of Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 in New York City, came with a promise to plead the cause of black people both free and enslaved; the founding editor of the Cherokee Phoenix in Arkansas convinced fellow chiefs by 1828 to support a tribal newspaper that would be a “powerful auxiliary in asserting and supporting our political rights.” Both newspapers and their descendants, in equally striking contrast to mainstream press organs, published robustly anti-colonial reports of white settlers’ encroachments onto indigenous land and imperial pursuits like the U.S.-Mexican War.
Both also lived short lives, as was common for a nonwhite press operating in a hostile environment. In 1851, Anglos in New Orleans sacked the office of the nation’s first Mexican-American newspaper, renamed to La Uníon from La Patria, during a rampage against the city’s Latinx residents after Spanish colonists in Cuba attacked an American naval envoy in that colony. It didn’t matter that the newspaper had opposed both Spanish and American imperialism; its printed language was alien enough to merit destruction by local white terrorists. This kind of vigilante violence throughout the century was, as Gonzales and Torres show in wrenching detail, directly abetted by the white press.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, two waves of innovation in the white publishing world made this kind of violence more widespread. First was the penny press—a cheaply produced and rapidly distributed kind of rough-stock that spoke for the white Jacksonian producer class whose political descendants comprise Trump’s base. Then there was the formation of the Associated Press—a collection of powerful white New York publishers who formed a monopoly with the Western Union telegraph company to dominate press wires. Each of these breakthrough models, operating in their distinctive markets, propagated white nationalist ideas of what America was and who it belonged to. And proceeding from these premises, they devoted themselves to uncritically cheering on colonialist wars.
Once newspapers started to receive dispatches over telegraph wires, Torres and Gonzales write, publishers began demanding shorter and simpler news reports. This led to dispatches full of “blatantly racist distortions” that raced across the nation, “fueling public anxiety against one racial minority after another.” Throughout that century, publishers regularly ginned up deadly animus against nonwhites, “from the New York Draft Riot of 1863, to Indian massacres in the Far West, to Klan terror and an epidemic of lynching during the Jim Crow era, to armed assaults on black communities in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Wilmington, North Carolina.”
The Caucasian Broadcasting Circle
Lest anyone think of the nineteenth century press’s sorry record of flagrant racism and jingosim as strictly throwback fare, consigned to the grainy newsreels of our national memory, consider the track record of the mainstream press in the first years of the Trump era. Just weeks before the midterm balloting, the AP tweeted out to its Twitter followers a headline that described a “ragged, growing army of migrants” marching toward the southern border of the United States. Such language might as well have been cribbed from The Camp of the Saints, the fantastically racist novel about hordes of brown people storming Western civilization made famous by alt-right godfather Steve Bannon.
White supremacist content has proven out as a bona fide viral marketing strategy.
AP’s social media team quickly retracted the phrasing when a wave of protest followed, but examples of media organizations using white nationalist framing abound since 2016: NBC’s kid gloves interview with the head of Identity Evropa; a report in the Washington Post after the Pittsburgh massacre that let a prominent neo-Nazi lament the attack because the dead Jews weren’t wealthy enough; a normalizing profile of a neo-Nazi in the New York Times; a head-spinningly sympathetic piece in The Oregonian featuring a man who has repeatedly invited armed neo-Nazis to stomp around Portland; and so on.
These stories don’t always come in such obvious packaging—consider editors’ tendency to euphemize instances of overt racism as “racially charged/tinged”—or by characterizing overt shows of race-baiting rhetoric as “stumbles,” as the New York Times did in reference to the many racist provocations of Trumpist GOP nominee and newly elected Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Even though such pieces and headlines at least reliably spark a measure of popular outrage when they’re published, we still lack a rigorous analysis that explains why they keep showing up, again and again. Just what is it about the U.S. press that makes this kind of thing systemic?
The answer is depressingly clear to anyone delving into the history of the question: support for a white ethnostate has been the default worldview of the American press. The feints at racial integration and cultural reinvention that wafted in and then out of the nation’s newsrooms over the past half-century were too fleeting and anemic to mount any sort of meaningful challenge to the plague of white nationalist framing that mars today’s Trumpified press corps. More than 77 percent of newsroom employees are non-Hispanic white, compared to 65 percent of U.S. workers overall; almost all the writers of the aforementioned stories were white.
Could bringing on more media professionals of color help the media rise to the challenge of white nationalism? To some extent, sure—but simple representation doesn’t address all the structural forces that make white supremacy such a profitable narrative frame in the first place. We lack studies that show how, or whether, media revenue drops off when content isn’t specifically geared for a white, middle-class audience.
For the largest media organizations, white nationalist framing is quickly becoming the path of least resistance—especially when it comes to reporting on borders and immigration. A global wave of neofascism is producing an entire class of professional “threat entrepreneurs” who can engineer and manipulate public perception of refugees for political gain, and so far the media is going along for the ride. (This is why, to cite another example, Axios political reporter Jonathan Swan erroneously touted Trump’s demented idea to issue an executive order to rescind the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship as a fait accompli—he was serving as the obsequious channel for another bid by the president to goose up white support for an anti-immigrant agenda ahead of the midterms.)
The Hate You Stream
But what’s especially distressing about this new media environment, awash in user-generated content, is how the pre-existing disposition to promote white supremacist content has proven out as a bona fide viral marketing strategy. The current social infrastructure of the internet seems all but custom-built to turn white nationalists into media stars.
Take YouTube. In her report on far-right personalities using the video sharing service to spread their message, researcher Rebecca Lewis found that sixty-five of these “influencers” would often collaborate on videos together, “referencing and including other people in video content.” Gamergate creep Carl Benjamin (aka Sargon of Akkad), for example, has collaborated with both Richard Spencer and Jordan Petersen for discussions on two separate occasions, allowing Benjamin (and other rightists) to court audiences from both corners and widen the reactionary tent under which they all prowl. YouTube then chauffeurs passive viewers through an in-group network of “recommended” videos. The platform does nothing to prevent viewers from falling down rabbitholes of conspiratorial and extreme racist and misogynist content; in fact, it incentivizes creators to expand their audiences without regard to what they’re peddling, letting them share in some of the ad revenue their videos generate.
The current social infrastructure of the Internet seems all but custom-built to turn white nationalists into media stars.
YouTube obviously isn’t the only information disseminator to profit immensely from today’s current of white supremacy. More than two years after the 2016 election, Facebook is still melting the minds of millions of adults in feedback loops of rage and despair. The platform rewards the advertisements most likely to generate clicks with prime digital real estate, and Trump’s social media team used provocative white nationalist ads together with Facebook’s audience-customization tools to game the system far better than their counterparts in the Clinton campaign did. CEO Jack Dorsey of Twitter, which serves a much smaller user base but a committed neo-Nazi contingent, admitted that the reason abusive racists are mostly allowed to stay on the site is because the company profits from their continued presence.
In addition to YouTube, Twitter is where alt-right personalities have gone to build mini-fiefdoms for near-exclusively white audiences who distrust (and increasingly demonize) the mainstream media. On the whole, only 41 percent of people who responded to a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation survey said they had some trust in the news media; among those who identified as Republicans, 94 percent said they had lost trust in the media over the last decade. YouTube and Twitter personalities on the white nationalist right relentlessly exploit the mistrust exacerbated by the president himself, positioning their own coverage and analysis as a more authentic and “common sense” take on current events for primarily white audiences. After the White House picked up an InfoWars-edited clip of an interaction between CNN correspondent Jim Acosta and a staff intern during a November press conference, it’s questionable whether a line between amateur Trump-loyalist content and the Oval Office even exists at all.
As a result of all this blurring, the idea of what constitutes “the news” continues to widen. For all the problems with the government’s enforcement of regulations, complaints submitted by people of color to the FCC and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the aftermath of the 1960s represented the only time in this country’s history when nonwhite people had the means of pushing back against explicitly racist media. Now that “the news” is increasingly amorphous, there’s no such well-defined entity that regulators can call to account in the interests of people most under threat from white nationalists.
In Living Pallor
In October, I covered an appearance by Steve Bannon in Roswell, New Mexico—one stop along his nationwide tour to stump for GOP candidates ahead of the midterm election. After Bannon delivered a short statement outlining his neo-fascist worldview, organizers for the Chaves County Republican Party threw on his latest pro-Trump propaganda film for the hundred or so in the audience.
When it came on, I put in my headphones and started to write my dispatch, only occasionally glancing to see dramatically edited video of anti-fascists breaking windows and soundbite clips of Hollywood and media personalities denouncing not just the president but his deplorable supporters as well. All of it was meant to conjure the image of a violent, uncontrollable left, hell-bent on evicting the White House’s current occupant.
It was one of the clips Bannon used to open the film that stood out to me later, after a colleague pointed it out: a short monologue by Don Lemon, given in January 2018, addressed to those who continue to deny that Trump is a racist. There were plenty of anti-Trump screeds from white celebrities Bannon could have chosen, but the longest one he used was from Lemon, who is black. Here’s part of what the CNN anchor said in his clip:
Lemon’s starring role in Bannon’s agitprop reel raises a discomfiting question: To what degree is the American right’s now-searing distrust of the media the result of well-intentioned efforts to diversify the ranks of TV news anchors? Because activists could target broadcasters’ licenses when they came up for review with the FEC, television newsrooms were quicker to integrate than their print counterparts. A survey from the Radio-Television Digital News Association released last summer found that almost a quarter of TV newsroom staffs weren’t white. Ownership, of course, still controls editorial direction, but my guess is the actual faces people see on TV are a key determinant of whether they trust the content of a news broadcast.
People who are more likely to be victims of racism are more likely to refer to racist acts and words plainly as such, without hiding behind euphemisms. This directness offends the sensibility of many whites, a significant number of whom already believe the mainstream media is arrayed against the president and his party. Even if the American press could fully shed the biases stemming from its own racist origins, a plurality of this country’s dangerous white population would probably seek out other sources, false or otherwise, to affirm their beliefs about who poses the greatest threat to America. And they will be aided by the most modern forms of information technology as they continue to ply a taken-for-granted narrative of white power under continual cultural and political siege.
[Aaron Miguel Cantú is currently a newspaper reporter in New Mexico. This article appeared in Issue 43/January 2019 of the Baffler. He's written for national and regional publications and contributed to the book Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Police Violence and Resistance in the United States. His journalism has won several awards.]
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