Reading newspapers in black and white FTC

December 14, 1997|By Harold Jackson

WHEN IS A despicable act rationalized, an atrocity sanitized? In war. Many African Americans -- their ancestors brought here in captivity, their grandparents and parents victims of segregation, themselves touched by racism -- feel like they're fighting a war.

And in war, suspicion becomes a virtue that colors truth.

Thus, even black people who believe state Sen. Larry Young was ethically, if not legally, wrong, may also believe the revelation of his transgressions by a white-owned, white-managed newspaper was just another volley in a 400-year war.

Unanswered questions

So what, they say, that Mr. Young got some health-care consultant contracts because he chairs a subcommittee on health care. Aren't there white legislators who have used their elected positions to leverage business? Aren't there white legislators who conduct personal business out of their legislative offices?

Those questions weren't answered in the Dec. 3 stories in The Sun about the link between Mr. Young's consulting business and his legislative job. That allowed him to suggest the answers by immediately accusing The Sun of singling him out because he is black, an allegation deemed credible by people who see this newspaper as an enemy in a war.

The pervasiveness of this view of The Sun was dramatically emphasized to me in March when I participated in a panel discussion on the media's coverage of the city's African-American community at the University of Baltimore Law School.

I had expected the audience would be mostly law students. Instead, the largest contingent was a group of Calverton Middle School eighth-graders and several of their teachers. They complained about a recent City Paper article that had described their school as having a prison-like environment, but most of their derision was directed at The Sun.

It was demoralizing to hear a teacher tell those young, impressionable minds that she never reads The Sun because she believes the newspaper's white editors orchestrate a conspiracy to make black people look bad. The students, who admitted they rarely read any newspaper, said their perception of The Sun was based on the negative opinions of adults close to them.

While there may be certain specific reasons for the animosity toward The Sun that many in Baltimore's black community feel, anger, if not hatred, for the so-called ''mainstream'' media isn't limited to this city.

The enmity is exacerbated by American newspapers' current insistence on expanding readership in largely white suburbs at the expense of urban coverage. The yardstick used to measure newsworthiness may be different in the city. Soft news isn't always reported, while a preponderence of hard news -- stories about crime, poverty and illness -- presents a skewed picture.

This inaccurate depiction of black life is exploited by politicians who want their constituents to believe them, not the newspaper. They are further helped in their assertions of media bias by the over-representation of black public officials among those investigated for possible wrongdoing.

That the three most prominent black members of the first Clinton cabinet -- Ron Brown, Mike Espy and Hazel O'Leary -- were under investigation while in office only added to suspicions that the white establishment, aided by the white media, is out to get black folks.

Black people haven't forgotten the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover that tried to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. or the COINTELPRO project that collected dossiers on dozens of black leaders.

The Reagan Justice Department's fight against political corruption focused on Democrats, many of them black, who were less likely to be wealthy and more likely to have outside businesses that might be construed as conflicts of interest. Nearly half the 26 Congressional Black Caucus members were subjects of some type of federal probe between 1981 and 1993.

These investigations and allegations are seen as shots fired at the black men and women whose election to office represented victories in the on-going war for equality. Those who report such ''scurrilous'' charges, or who make allegations themselves, are considered the enemy if they're white, or collaborators if they're black.

Under these conditions of war even the most outrageous behavior -- the mayor of Washington caught smoking crack while trying to seduce a woman other than his wife -- is excused by some African Americans. What lengths are taken, they ask, to write stories about white politicians who sneak off to use drugs and commit adultery?

In their question I see hope, a solution. Newspapers promise objectivity, but black people want balance. Reveal and remove corrupt black politicians, but make it clear that you haven't looked only at them.

Tell what's wrong and right with the black community -- and give those stories equal prominence. Newspapers with the sensitivity to make such judgments won't remain ''the enemy.'' And they may find new readers where once there was only criticism.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.