Sunday, August 14, 2005

A Tale of Two Deaths

From Democracy Now! this week:

Ex-British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, 59, Dies
Britain's former foreign secretary Robin Cook has died at the age of 59. He collapsed while walking in the Scottish highlands with his wife. Cook resigned from Tony Blair's government in March 2003 just before the Iraq invasion. In a speech that generated a rare standing ovation at Parliament, he charged that intelligence on Iraq was being fixed. "I fear the fundamental problem is that instead of using intelligence as evidence on which to base the conclusion of a policy, we used intelligence as the basis on which we could justify a policy on which we had already settled," Cook said. Last week in one of his last interviews Robin Cook said the situation in Iraq was worse than his greatest fears. He said "The violence continues to escalate and part of the reason is that the conduct of US forces has been trigger-happy."

Cuban Singer Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club Dies
In news from Cuba, singer Ibrahim Ferrer has died at the age of 78. He gained international fame in 1997 when he was recruited to be part of the Buena Vista Social Club. Ibrahim Ferrer died in a Havana hospital on Saturday.

African-American Publishing Giant John Johnson Dies
And magazine publisher John H. Johnson has died at the age of 87. In 1942, he borrowed $500 to launch what would become the most successful African-American publishing empires. He would go on to start Ebony and Jet magazines. In 1982 he became the first African-American to make Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Johnson was educated in a segregated school in Arkansas. The town had no high school for African-American students so Johnson repeated eighth grade instead of dropping out of school.

ABC News Anchor Peter Jennings Dies
ABC news anchor Peter Jennings has died at the age of 67. He led the network's nightly newscast from 1983 until April. On April 5, he confirmed on his show that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer. It would turn out to be his final broadcast. "To be perfectly honest, I am a little surprised at the kindness today from so many people. That is not intended as false modesty, but even I was taken about by how far and how fast news travels," Jennings said. "Finally, I wonder if other men and women ask their doctors right away, 'Okay doc, when does the hair go?' At any rate, that is it for now on world news tonight. Have a good evening. I'm Peter Jennings. Thanks and goodnight."

There were a number of deaths last week.

But one death stood out over all others, Peter Jennings. Jennings was in journalism, so it's not surprising that the news would note "one of our own." But what was it that prevented John H. Johnson from qualifying as "one of our own?"

World News Tonight came to a halt on Monday so that ABC could repeatedly lead with the "world news" that Peter Jennings had passed, that he, at least once, did a report in his boxers (previously unseen by viewers!), that he was a really good guy, that he cared about world news . . . It was very "humanizing." It wasn't, however, news.

Navel gazing at its worst breaks into (and leads) an evening news broadcast on one of the big three networks. And where are the media critics?

We're not talking about the two hour tribute in prime time, we're talking about the evening news. We're talking about a thirty minute broadcast that is supposed to bring you news of the "world." The Disney-fication is complete.

People Magazine (part of the ABC Time Warner CNN AOL Disney et al family) puts Peter Jenning on their cover. Was it just the usual celebrity culture at play?

Whatever Jennings' merits as news source (we're not weighing in on that), John H. Johnson also died. His death didn't lead to a media feeding frenzy. The New York Times actually did three pieces on Johnson (an obit, a feature article and an op-ed). When noted in other mainstream (read white) publications, he was often reduced to an obit only (if that).

Why was that?

Does it go beyond the fact that one of the deceased was on TV? If it doesn't what does that say about a celebrity obsessed culture?

You're not anybody in America unless you're on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching? And if people are watching, it makes you a better person.

That's what Nicole Kidman's Suzanne Stone Maretto says in To Die For (writing credits Joyce Maynard and Buck Henry).

Is it that or is it that John H. Johnson was African-American and Peter Jennings was white?

The media's unhealthy fascination with missing white women (which has bit them in the butt, ask Matt "It's not often that we have good news to report" Lauer) is something people have really begun to comment on and criticize as they've noted countless women and children of color who never make the headline or the cable feeding frenzy. Does the silence regarding John H. Johnson reflect a similar single-mindness/bias?

What we do know is that people have noticed the difference in treatment. People have noticed how one is a "tragedy for the nation" and the other, if mentioned, is mentioned in passing.

Were the frenzy coming out of ABC and CNN (and all subsidiaries) only, we could dismiss it, at best, as naval gazing (at worst as attempting to profit from someone's death). But the frenzy didn't end there.

We give The New York Times credit for doing three stories. (Though we noted that Peter Jennings received more coverage.) We give credit to The Chicago Defender for dedicating their entire issue to John H. Johnson, to Clarence Page, Dawn Turner Trice, Eugene Kane and anyone who else who bothered to note the passing of Johnson. We're sure someone's overlooked but we're equally sure that the list isn't that long. (We're ignoring all coverage in The Washington Post due to the fact that a "shout out" in a seventeen paragraph column, where Johnson isn't brought up until the final paragraph and mentioned only in the final sentence of the column, not only doesn't cut it, it disgusts us.) We also wonder why the ones noting Johnson's death in the mainstream media have mainly been African-American?

We think it underscores a lack of interest and a lack of ability to leave your own comfort zone (or move beyond your rolodex) in a predominately white, predominately male mainstream media. We don't doubt that many in the mainstream have never picked up Ebony or Jet because, as actions this week appear to demonstrate, it's an attitude of "that's for them." You can see it when some people speak of Ms. or Vibe or any other periodical geared to a certain segment of the population.

The mainstream prides itself on speaking to and for all. But it doesn't do that, does it? We saw that this week. If it spoke for all the passing of John H. Johnson would have registered. It didn't. Which is why many read "mainstream media" as equating "white male media."

Why is it that Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant or any other celebrity African-American charged with a crime is headlines but the passing of a noted African-American isn't big news?

If Johnson had gone out in a scandal we don't doubt it would have been noted. There are narratives the mainstream media likes and, sadly, we really haven't moved beyond the "dangerous black male." Ink will be spilled on that, broadcast airwaves saturated with that.
John H. Johnson didn't fit the narrative and his passing was pushed out of the discussion.

Is it racism? It may not be personal racism on the part of anyone but it is institutional racism.
This week gave the perfect opportunity for the mainstream media to show that we had truly come a long way but instead that's not what happened. Maybe discussions revolved around who was covering John H. Johnson's death? If so, the fact that few were addressing it may have been a nice excuse not to dwell on it.

His death did touch people, it just didn't get traction with the mainstream media. We'll close by quoting from Dina Johnson's letter to The Washington Post:

When I was the press secretary for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Johnson Publishing was critical to my job. I preferred -- and the Rev. Jesse Jackson required -- that Johnson Publishing be aware of what the organization was doing. I recall contacting Jet and Ebony before I communicated with other mainstream media.
Johnson Publishing is still part of my dream, because when I get married, I want the ceremony to be performed by the Rev. Jackson and featured in Ebony magazine.
Johnson Publishing is the voice of black America. Mr. Johnson will be missed by all, but his legacy continues.

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