Whose News? On Race and the American Media

Whose News? On Race and the American Media

Whose News? On Race and the American Media

News for All the People is a journalistic morality tale.

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In the beginning of the summer of 1839, the Cherokee missionary and newspaper editor Elias Boudinot was building a house for himself, his wife, Delight, and their six children in the newly designated Cherokee lands west of the Mississippi. Though Boudinot had left the Cherokee territory in Georgia before federal troops had begun the mass removal of the tribe from its land, he couldn’t have been surprised at the tales of horror told by survivors as they arrived in the territory that is now Oklahoma. Even though their westward move had been ordered several years earlier by a government intent on turning over tribal land to white settlers and gold seekers, the Cherokees were not prepared for—could not have prepared for—the winter journey across the plains. Thousands died from exposure, starvation and disease. Knowing this, Boudinot likely acquiesced willingly when he was approached the following June by a group of fellow Cherokees looking for medicine. Being a Cherokee, a devout Christian and a very public figure, he might even have expected or at least accepted what came next, when two of the men drew tomahawk and knife, and left him for dead outside the Park Hill Christian Mission.

Three years earlier, Boudinot had been part of a small group of Cherokee leaders who defied the chief, John Ross, and the will of most of their fellow Cherokees, and signed the Treaty of New Echota, promising the Cherokees would leave behind 100 million acres of tribal land to move west. But to the Cherokees who took his life, Boudinot was almost certainly not just a leader who gave in to the pressure of the white government. As the former editor of the first Indian newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix, and an outspoken early opponent of removal, he must also have been a visible, public traitor—the kind whose retracted words echo from beyond the grave. In an editorial published in April 1831, Boudinot attempted to rally his tribe as the agitation for Cherokee removal spread through Congress: “The rights of the Cherokees are as plain, as sacred, as they have been, and the duty of the Government to secure those rights as binding as ever…. The land is theirs—their right to it is ‘unquestionable,’ and it cannot be taken away from them without great injustice to them and everlasting infamy to the United States.”

Only a year later, with white cotton farmers and a culture of violence encroaching on the settled lives that Christian Cherokees valued so highly, Boudinot changed his mind. He had come to believe that removal was the only way to preserve the rights and sovereignty—indeed, the lives—of the Cherokee Nation. Yet forbidden by Chief Ross to express his views in the Phoenix, he resigned as editor in August 1832. In his final editorial Boudinot confessed that he had little hope that the Cherokees would reach a peaceful settlement with Jackson’s administration, and said he hated to conceal that belief from his readers. “I could not consent to be conductor of this paper without having the privilege and the right of discussing those important matters…. I should think it my duty to tell them the whole truth. I cannot tell them that we shall be reinstated in our rights when I have no such hope.”

In News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, Juan González and Joseph Torres portray Boudinot not as a martyr to a misplaced national idea but rather as a martyr to the ideal of a free and uncensored press. It’s a retroactive standard anachronistically applied: Boudinot was a partisan editor who was no longer willing to toe the party line. (Indeed, when he lost his editorial pulpit, he took a cue from another patriot and published a pamphlet lambasting Chief Ross and his supporters, and warning of impending doom for the Cherokees.) But even in the single chapter he earns here, Boudinot makes a fascinating hero. And the story of the Phoenix, as it’s constructed by González, a columnist for the New York Daily News, and Torres, the government relations director for the media reform organization Free Press, does function as a microcosm for the larger story of race and the American press—a story full of tension, accommodation, dramatic reversals and bad jokes that haunt us across the centuries. If there is such a thing as “the American media,” it’s as complicated, surprising and divided against itself as the short-lived Phoenix.

* * *

Like its editor, the Phoenix occupied a fraught middle ground. It aspired to an ideal of white America (a little bit New England, a little bit Southern plantation) while digging in to defend its Native American soul. Boudinot was called Gallegina (“Buck” in Cherokee) Watie when he left home to learn the “arts of civilization” at a missionary school in Georgia. As a young man, he changed his name when he went north to a Connecticut boarding school and met Elias Boudinot, a member of the Continental Congress, who was then president of the American Bible Society. Boudinot returned to Georgia an eloquent Christian gentleman with a white wife—Harriet Ruggles Gold—and a plan to help “civilize” the rest of his tribe. His main tools were to be the printing press purchased by the Tribal Council for $1,500 and a newspaper that would print the laws of the Cherokee Nation, the news of the day and articles “calculated to promote Literature, Civilization and Religion among the Cherokees.”

The paper was a bilingual representation of all the tensions pulling at the newly literate, newly agricultural and increasingly vulnerable Cherokees. Despite some editorial ambivalence regarding slavery, the Phoenix, González and Torres point out, was not above the occasional “Negro” yarn, featuring “brudder Sam” and “brudder Mingo,” and a slew of malapropisms attributed to fictional black characters. This seems to embarrass González and Torres, who introduce the idea of Indian racism with a downcast “unfortunately.” But it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has heard of the Confederate General Stand Watie (Buck’s brother), who led the Indian Brigade in the Army of the Trans-Mississippi. Nor is it inconsistent with the racial tensions inside the Cherokee Nation, where the embedded hostility of the slave system worked a lot like it did in greater Georgia, producing a series of laws that sought to contain any mixing of the races. Indeed, according to Cherokee law, blacks were not allowed to vote or hold office in the Nation; nor were any of the 1,300 slaves who lived in the Nation’s borders allowed to marry Cherokees or own horses, cattle or hogs. As González and Torres note, by the time the Civil War began, many of the Indians in the Western Territories had solidified their allegiance to the plantation system and all that it implied. When the Cherokees voted to support the Confederacy, they joined hands with Choctaws, Chickasaws and Big Osages.

The clear disappointment that González and Torres show as they describe the political and racial biases of their Indian subjects is not reserved only for the nineteenth-century Cherokees. It’s a frustrating judgment that they apply throughout the book, signaling dismay with everyone from nineteenth-century news editors to the twentieth-century leaders of NGOs. In a discussion of anti-Indian violence on the Arizona border, the authors point out that several western papers seemed to enter the fray in order to incite violence on the part of white settlers, belittling Indian victims of the attacks along the way. While the facts of the vicious massacre of a band of sleeping Apaches in 1871 did eventually make it into the New York Times, it was already months after Arizona papers celebrated the “Righteous Retribution,” against the “nests of rattlesnakes.” González and Torres don’t accept the argument that history and context are a fitting explanation for bias and bigotry on the part of nineteenth-century journalists when William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass are available exemplars. “One kind of journalism deserves emulation,” González and Torres write, “the other condemnation.” This is true enough, but it’s a vast oversimplification, at best, and turns an otherwise trenchant and detailed historical narrative into a journalistic morality tale that’s very likely wasted on a readership that already agrees, and craves more than political platitudes.

News for All the People is strongest in its early chapters, which flow with a series of well-constructed narratives that introduce a broad spectrum of news editors and newsmakers, like Boudinot and the Cherokee newsmen who followed in his footsteps. But as the book continues to pursue its overly ambitious mandate—telling the “epic story of race and the American media”—it becomes clear that González and Torres can’t control the breadth of their material. Their focus shifts from analyzing the language and imagery of race in the media in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to examining the economics of ownership and regulatory statutes in the twentieth. The result is an awkward pause when they try to join the two, and an overreliance on the idea of a persistent but ill-defined “white racial narrative.” Too many potentially pungent arguments wind down with a giant sigh: “Such is the power of the white racial narrative in American news.” Compounding the problem, the authors too frequently rely on other historians to “read” the papers for them—an especially frustrating shortcut in discussions of the twentieth century, as so many newspapers have been preserved. The result is that their journalistic dichotomies (good/bad, black/white) have more conviction than detailed context and support, dampening the power of the entire project.

* * *

The issue comes to a head in a chapter about race riots during World War I. González and Torres point out that white papers often inflated reports of black violence, exaggerating white victimhood, while underreporting black injuries and death. This habitual misrepresentation, they explain, “created a tinderbox” that led directly to violence—for example, to the East St. Louis Riot of 1917. In Chicago, in 1919, the white papers were again “part of the problem.” They incited racial hostility on the part of whites, while black papers were “far more accurate” but also “more vivid” in their depictions of the violence. It’s not hard to believe that exaggerated reports of black crime would fan the flames in an extremely tense environment; by 1917 the Great Migration was already transforming the labor market and the cultural landscape in both East St. Louis and Chicago. But to neglect the possibility, as González and Torres do, that reports of violent white crime did the same is unhelpful. (Indeed, they imply that such reports might have inspired black soldiers to mutiny in Houston in 1917.) Their account leaves too many important questions unanswered: Who was reading these white papers and according them so much suasion? And if black papers were providing “accurate” and “vivid” accounts of white violence against blacks, perhaps the black citizens of Chicago and East St. Louis were likewise primed to react when tensions grew?

Early in News for All the People, González and Torres introduce the idea of a “deeply flawed national narrative”—the “white racial narrative”—perpetuated by a series of racist media owners and practitioners. This “creation myth of heroic European settlers battling an array of backward and violent non-white peoples to forge the world’s greatest democratic republic,” they write, has “persisted from the days of…the first colonial newspaper to the age of the Internet.” But their book is studded with details that complicate their sweeping conclusion. The white Chicago papers might have been fanning the flames of racist hatred in the summer of 1919. And yet González and Torres also point out that the Chicago Tribune took an early and emphatic stand against lynching. Broadcast consolidation might indeed be responsible for the dwindling of newsroom diversity and for an overarching threat to net neutrality. But there’s no way to deny that there are increasing opportunities for citizen journalists of all colors as broadband access spreads—even if it doesn’t spread as far or as quickly as González and Torres would like.

Perhaps the issue here is that the authors did not listen carefully enough to their own diverse material, and to their own diverse and divergent arguments. If you believe you’re telling only One Story, you have to work quite hard to maintain the illusion of One Voice.

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