The Verdict Is In–Weighing in On “Black In America”

29 07 2008

I have to admit. When I first heard about the coming of the CNN series “Black in America” I was less than moved. Why is CNN doing this? Who is this for?–were the questions I asked myself. I envisioned it as being yet another attempt to show America–in a more dramatic and entertaining way–just how jacked up we are as a people. I really wasn’t bending over backwards to see the show. But the emails kept coming…

Every black person I know kept sending me emails and reminders to watch the show because it was going to “groundbreaking” and very important. Important to who?? But I watched. Actually, I missed the first half of the first night’s segment on the Black Woman because I teach on Wednesday nights. I missed the segment on the Black Man altogether on Thursday (also because I teach on Thursday nights), but I caught up on what I missed during the weekend.

I must say that this show was very depressing. I guess it was supposed to be. The issues that it covered were depressing. I guess what made me upset is that I couldn’t figure out why CNN decided to do this series about issues that we already know about?? I don’t think I know of a black person that doesn’t have a Cousin Pookie somewhere in jail or on crack. I think every black person knows that the education system in the inner cities SUCKS, that black men lead the numbers in incarceration, that HIV/AIDS is killing black women, and that smart black people get made fun of for “selling out.” We’ve been dealing with these issues for years. Watching this show made me go back to my original question–who is this series really for? It almost seems as though it was created for white people to get a clue and have an understanding of “the black race?” Maybe it was supposed to show them why we’re so jacked up? Or maybe it was supposed to englighten them on the plight of black people. ‘Cuz I sure wasn’t all that enlightened.

To me, the show lacked balance and it lacked solutions. There were lots of empty statistics thrown out and lots of mini-stories that I wasn’t sure about their significance in the grand scheme of things. We KNOW the prisons are filled with black men. Let’s talk about the truth about why they’re there and what about solutions. The Roland Fryer guy had some interesting solutions with paying his students to do well in school. Interesting concept that I don’t necessarily disagree with. But the effectiveness of education is another topic I could go on and on about…that’s for another blog post…

I don’t know. Watching the series I started to think maybe I’m crazy. I mean, I believe that every single one of those issues are true and are valid. Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that these problems exist. I mean,
really, I was a Black Studies major in college before I became a
filmmaker so I’m all about Black Power and all that. I just get tired of black folk playing the victim for everything. I admit that I am a skeptic. Partially because I am a scholar and that’s what academics do–we whine and complain about how things should be done better because we said so because we’re smarter. And partially because I’m a mediamaker who knows and understands how media outlets work. We like to use crafty marketing and clever editing tricks to over-dramatize points in order to attract viewers (i.e. After the interview slowly fade to  b-roll in slow motion, fade to black and the creepy, dramatic music comes in as you throw up a statistic about how many black people died last year). So I figured I’d just keep my mouth shut on this one since all my black friends and family have been ranting and raving about the show all week. That is until I started reading commentaries from other black bloggers like this one, and this one. And then this morning I got the following email from Dr. Boyce Watkins, a Syracuse media scholar and that let me know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I will say, though, that I did enjoy the town hall meeting that preceded the “Black in America” series, which aired the weekend before the show. That featured people such as T.D. Jakes, Cornell West, Michael Eric Dyson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Tom Joyner, Hil Harper, and Julienne Mulveaux discussing various issues within the black community. I felt as though they were more apt to offer up solutions. And they did a lot of the time. The rest of the time was spent throwing up a lot of expensive words and phrases in lofty tones while the audience applauded wildly, “Um-hum! Amen! Preach it!” You know how we do.

At any rate, I could go on and on but here’s an excerpt from Dr. Watkin’s email on Black America that I received this morning. I think he sums up my sentiments best, especially towards the end:

CNN’s Black in America: Exactly What it was Meant to Be
by Dr. Boyce Watkins

I received the email about CNN’s recent series “Black in America”, I
wasn’t happy, I wasn’t sad:  I was indifferent.  I saw it for what it
was: an attempt to use viral marketing to achieve a ratings hit against
Fox News
But after seeing the same damn email forwarded to me over and over and
over again, I knew one thing:  many black people were excited….really
excited, as if CNN were the Union Army and this were a modern-day
Juneteenth.  The email was forwarded as a “must see”, save-the-date,
tell ya mama, grandmamma, baby’s mama event that was going to change
the world.  Finally, the predominantly white media was going to give us
a fair shake and truly tell our story.  They were going to help White
America understand what we go through and why we are not the animals
some think we are.  They were going to present
hurdles and solutions that will help us come together as a nation. 
Call me a skeptic, but if the media has never told our story accurately
in the past, what in the hell made us think they were going to do it
right this time?

that some label me a “haterologist” for daring to question the
religious figure known as Barack Obama (I am cautiously, yet strongly
supportive and protective of Barack, but I insist that anyone who gets
my vote communicates an effective urban agenda) I chose to let the
liquor keep flowing at the “We Shall Overcome via CNN” Happy Hour in
Black America.  In other words, I remained silent, since it’s not fun
to bring bad news (academics are trained to be skeptical, even if we
think something is good).  All of us were ready to pull out the popcorn
and kool-aid, to stare down the TV set like we were watching Beyonce
give birth in outer space.   The CNN event was truly the Black middle
class version of the BET Video Music Awards, without all the gold teeth
and stuff.

watched the show the same way I normally watch CNN: between flights in
random airports.  I don’t even watch CNN when I appear on the network,
since I stay pretty busy.   I won’t say how I felt after the special;
I’ll just let you read my facial expression through these words. 
Imagine a modest-looking, youngish-oldish, blackish/brownish bald man
with a twisted frown-like scowl, a twitching, squinted left eye, a
curled up bottom lip and gritted teeth, viewing a TV screen between his
two middle fingers.  Sort of like the face you make when watching an
Olympic gymnast fall crotch-first onto the balance beam right before
breaking his leg.  

in America” was the socio-political lovefest between CNN and Black
people that just wasn’t going to materialize.  It was the day when we
in middle class Black America truly thought we were going to be
vindicated, and the world would finally learn to love us.   Black
America became Jeremiah Wright at The National Press Club, thinking
that the same media that destroyed his image was going to be the source
of image repair.  But like Jeremiah Wright (whom I respect
tremendously), we marched away angrily, kicking the cracks in the
sidewalk, shocked that we’d all been bamboozled.  We were finally
invited into the game, but only so they could use our ball and make us
the mascot.

I don’t hate CNN, I’ve done a lot of work with them.  I do, however, hate Fox News….well, just Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity (great job this week Nas – even though you should stop marketing yourself as a replacement for Jesse Jackson). 
I don’t question the motives of the producers, including Soledad
O’Brien, a woman I truly believe to care about black people.  I also
felt that Paula Zahn
(a former host) really wanted to dig to the root of racial inequality
in an honest way.  I did not, however, feel that CNN could pull off an
honest conversation on race, and I don’t believe they wanted to.  They
were, to me, like American Generals thinking they could muscle their
way to peace in Iraq.  They felt that if they spent enough money,
engaged in enough viral marketing and got enough black people excited,
they could create a ratings

achieved its goal.  What made me feel bad for black people is that many
of us actually thought that their goals were the same as our own.  Here
are some quick thoughts:

1)      Black
people were not the target audience of this series.  CNN was not
talking TO black people, they were talking ABOUT black people. 
Understand, there is a difference between telling white America how
horrible black people can be vs. telling White people things they may
not want to hear.   Sure, CNN was glad to have Black viewers, but they
are designed to cater to the other 87% of the population, not the 13%
who serve as stars of the show.  Black people have always made good
entertainment for the corporate news monster, which feeds itself from
the number of eyeballs it gets on the screen. 

2)      Most
of the content for a TV news show, guest selection, and everything
else, comes from the mind of the producer(s).  Most producers of cable
news shows, and all of the hosts, are non-black.  Their viewpoints,
structured in a racist society, are going to manifest themselves in the
content of the show.  Our media school here at Syracuse is one of the
top 3 in the world and we have a lot of students who go on to become
producers at CNN, FOX, NBC, etc.  During a highly racist show created
on our campus news network a couple of years ago (it led to the studio
being shut down and students being harshly and unfairly disciplined), I
noted that it was not the fault of the students that they see the world
the way they do.  It’s
the fault of their parents and educators who refuse to teach them what
they need to understand about race.  America must face the truth about
racism in order to properly educate news producers to provide a more
enlightened perspective.  As I began working with international news
organizations this year, the contrast became quite clear: I enjoy
appearing on international networks like Al Jazeera much more than CNN,
Fox and MSNBC
 The difference is like comparing a gourmet meal of knowledge to
crackers from a sound bite vending machine.  That’s why I only watch
cable news in airports.

3)      The
Black in America series was done for one reason: to take away Fox News’
Black viewers (Black people hate Fox, and I am glad they do) and to
defeat O’Reilly at the ratings game.  While Black in America did very
well in the ratings, it was still second to The O’Reilly Factor.  The
idea that there are 2.5 million people in America who watch O’Reilly
every night says something about where we stand in America as it
pertains to race.  If CNN is trying to steal these viewers, then an
honest reflection on racism is not going to achieve that goal.

4)      The
way this show was done underscores the need to finance and secure more
black-owned media (I shared this with Rev. Jackson this week, since I
was disappointed that his mishap with the microphone occurred on Fox –
whether you like Jesse or not, our most respected and cherished leaders
should not have to lean toward racist venues like Fox News to get a
message to their people).  No one else will ever tell our story the way
we would tell it.  This underscores the importance of supporting black
media outlets and even going to the Internet to get your news if
necessary.  This does not imply that CNN can’t be a valid source of
news, but I encourage their network to get more black hosts and
producers so they can tell the story
right next time.

5)      Personally,
I was a bit offended by the “Black in America” series, primarily
because it gave me exactly what I expected: a series of shallow
statistics and vignettes, featuring the most dramatically negative
aspects of our existence, all provided without context to an audience
that sits back and says “What’s wrong with those people?”  I can’t help
but wonder if a show called “White in America” would be produced,
showing many negative realities of the White community.  What is most
ironic is that such a series would never be acceptable. 

Black people feel the pressure to answer for every little thing that
happens in all corners of our community.  We will even say that we are
“embarrassed” by something we saw on TV.  I’ve never seen a White man
get embarrassed by the behavior of someone in a trailer park, so I
don’t get embarrassed by Flavor Flav.  It is the lack of image
diversity in mainstream media that makes us angry at Flavor Flav for
simply being who he is.  The truth is that we should wonder why it is
ONLY Flavor Flav on the network, and not another Black image to balance
him out.

is necessary.  But I don’t believe in self-hatred.  To LIFT yourself,
you must learn to LOVE yourself.   CNN’s “Black in America” didn’t give
us much to love.  But looking for love externally doesn’t usually work
anyway, so why were we trying so hard?  The next time CNN offers us a
media Juneteenth, this slave will already have left the plantation,
I’ll be educating my God kids instead.

Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author
of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” For more information, please




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