"the suffering was somehow unimpressive."
The same media outlets that can go into paroxysms of grief over one
celebrity’s demise have shown themselves fully capable of ignoring—or even
celebrating—the deaths of many people.
In 1991, when U.S. bombs killed "enemy" soldiers and
civilians, the American news media rejoiced. At the end of the slaughter known as the Gulf
War, the Pentagon quietly estimated that 200,000 Iraqi people had died as a result of
America’s firepower. Not a faint breeze of concern blew through U.S. mass media.
Dan Rather—who was to join with other TV news anchors in
protracted tribute to Princess Diana a half-dozen years later—went on CBS at the
close of February 1991 to warmly shake the hand of a U.S. general and declare:
"Congratulations on a job wonderfully done!" On highbrow NPR, which seemed to
stand for "National Pentagon Radio" during the war, the enthusiasm for the
killing was similarly palpable.
Midway through months of grief, a backlash was underway from a
number of big-name pundits who bemoaned the media response to Diana’s death. The
glossy newsweeklies had the best of both worlds, pumping up the media furor over her death
and then decrying it.
In Newsweek’s September 15 issue, George Will denounced
the media coverage as "a spectacle both empty and degrading." He lamented that
"we have mass media with wondrous capacities for subtracting from understanding by
adding to the public’s inclination for self-deception and autointoxication."
Will continued: "By turning everyone everywhere into bystanders
at events, and by eliciting and amplifying their ‘feelings,’ the media turn the
world into an echo chamber and establish for the promptable masses the appropriate
‘reaction’ to events."
With like-minded indignation, Charles Krauthammer filled the last
page of the September 22 Time with an attack on "the psychic pleasures of mass
frenzy and wallow." He complained: "The public’s surrender of its
sensibilities and concerns to mass media was never more evident than during the Diana
But none of these pundits—Will or Krauthammer, or for that
matter Daniel Schorr—could be heard sounding the alarm when media hysteria ignited
"patriotic" passion in early 1991. On the contrary, by the time the first
missile barrage hit Baghdad, they were among the many journalists pounding the war drums
and screaming for blood.
Joseph Stalin would have understood. "The death of one man is a
tragedy," he reportedly said at Potsdam in 1945. "The death of millions is a
Dylan Thomas, the poetic prince of Wales, advised us to "Rage,
rage against the dying of the light." In contrast, all too often, journalism does
little more than turn the page.
Black Women In A Media Cage
In medialand, some people have every right to be angry. So we see
affluent white guys on television all the time, expounding views forcefully, letting us
all know what they like—and what makes them mad.
Black women are another matter entirely. Sure, they’re visible
on quite a few commercials. And MTV’s music videos don’t lack for stereotyped
black "babes" dancing to hot tunes. But African-American females have little
chance to speak out about their daily lives and deepest concerns.
It’s still conspicuous when a black woman gets the microphone
to talk about what matters to her. It’s rarer still for major media to provide a
substantial amount of time and space for black women to talk about the combination of
racism, sexism, and economic disadvantage that they face in this society.
In sharp contrast, vehemence from white men isn’t just
acceptable—it’s valued if it lets us in on authoritative outlooks. Bombastic TV
programs like "The Capital Gang" and "The McLaughlin Group" showcase
men who vent their biases, often denigrating black people and women in the process. While
the rage of white males is part of the media landscape, the rage of black women—who
have plenty to be angry about—gets cut off at the media pass.
That’s why it’s especially meaningful that journalist Jill
Nelson is now doing an end run around the usual blockade. When I interviewed Nelson
halfway through a month-long national tour for her new book Straight, No Chaser,
she was burning up the radio waves across the country—helping to force key issues
into the open. Subtitled How I Became a Grown-up Black Woman, the book insists that
silence—far from being golden—is corrosive.
Urging that the unhealthy quiet be shattered, Nelson follows her own
advice by mincing no words: "The culture that we consume through television,
magazines, and advertisements confirms our lack of importance." Black women "are
totally absent from all serious political discussion. Even during February, Black History
Month, black men are the preferred race representatives. March, Women’s History
Month, is for white women only."
"Entertainment? Forget it. Even though black Americans watch
more free network television than anyone else, there is not a single dramatic show on
television about black women, much less a black woman producing one."
"When it comes to beauty, the preoccupation of women’s
magazines and women’s programming, we are definitely not up to snuff. We’re too
dark, big-boned, our features too Negroid, too ethnic-looking, in short, too much black
women, to even qualify to enter America’s beauty sweepstakes."
"The result of black women’s silence in the face of the
verbiage of others is we find ourselves further misrepresented, erased, excluded. Those
who demonize us and call for (social program) cuts are usually white men who do not know a
single black woman. If they do, she’s probably a domestic employee."
"It’s hard to hold on to your humanity, your ability to
love, when the national psyche is so profoundly invested in defining black people as
always part of the problem, rarely part of the solution."
"The affirmation, strength, and voice that black women
desperately need must initially come from ourselves and other black women, those who share
our experiences…. Those who don’t define themselves are doomed to be defined by
others, erased, or, as is the case with black women, both." Don’t look for Jill
Nelson on the national TV programs where irate white guys keep pounding away at favorite
themes like "welfare dependency" among low-income single mothers. Those
blowhards don’t have to contend with articulate black women who could shine a fierce
light on their assorted bigotries.
The dominant media pundits want to go up against
"opposition" that’s meek and mild. And, as usual in medialand, they get