Black newspapers need black owners

April 24, 1998|By Ron Howell

PEOPLE don't often acknowledge it, but the Nation of Islam, headed now by mercurial Minister Louis Farrakhan, once published a newspaper -- Muhammad Speaks -- that ran some of the most incisive and timely reports to be found about black people.

No less a figure than the brilliant historian C.L.R. James (a Marxist who could not tolerate the Nation's bizarre black supremacist ideas) said in the early 1970s: "I don't understand their ideology, but whoever edits their newspaper is a genius."

For tens of thousands of blacks from sea to sea, Muhammad Speaks offered domestic and international news with a militant black perspective that was unique in the country.

Earlier in the century, there was a paper that far surpassed Muhammad Speaks in the breadth and quality of its content, as well as in its impact on black America. And it did so without racial ideology. With a circulation of more than 300,000, the Pittsburgh Courier reigned from the '20s through the '50s as purveyor of news to blacks. It did investigative pieces on housing discrimination, featured weekly columns by controversial writers such as J.A. Rogers and George Schuyler and dispatched correspondents overseas. It did all this, of course, at a time when white papers by and large hired blacks only to operate elevators, and covered them only if they killed white people.

Prestigious award

This month, the paper, known since 1966 as the New Pittsburgh Courier, received Long Island University's prestigious George Polk Career Award, the first time the honor has been bestowed on an institution rather than an individual. But the prize comes amid a fight that will determine whether the Courier -- and that other jewel of black history, the Chicago Defender -- remain black owned. The Sengstacke family of Chicago added the Courier to its journalistic empire in 1966; and with the death of John Sengstacke last year, members of the family have been battling a trustee bank that wants to put the newspapers up for sale to the highest bidder.

Nowadays, white-owned chains have been publishing nonwhite newspapers around the country and turning a profit. But the Sengstackes should try with all their might to keep their treasures -- or at least assure that they are -- black owned.

The effort will test the spirit and will of any black publisher. Banks redline black businesses just as they do black neighborhoods, and the chances of ultimate financial failure are especially real for any black owner.

But independent black media are as necessary today as a generation ago. Although notably shy of the standards set by the old Courier, black papers continue to present the "other side" of stories delivered superficially and tepidly by the mainstream media.

For all its shortcomings, the Amsterdam News is of value to black New Yorkers because it prints expressions of outrage (and gossip) that cannot be found in the general-interest, mass-circulation newspapers. The same is true of independent Caribbean newspapers, such as the New York-based Carib News, which covers its community with more raw faithfulness to the language and emotions of its community than do Caribbean-oriented weeklies owned by white chains.

In recent years, my ideal of an independent-minded black newspaper has been the City Sun. In 1996, after more than a decade of brave, militant and, yes, sometimes outrageous reporting of local black news, the City Sun went down under a weight of debts. The black community of New York City has not been quite the same since, as its activists have not had as sympathetic a channel for their views.

An unfulfilled dream

Here's an admission. For virtually all of my professional life, I have toiled in the white media; but I have harbored romantic notions of someday working for, or perhaps even owning, an aggressive black newspaper with high ideals.

A paper like the Pittsburgh Courier.

The Courier had more than a dozen news bureaus across the nation. During the pre-civil rights decades of the '20s through the '50s, it bravely sent correspondents through the South to write ,, about segregation and contracted with white writers to report on lynchings; and during World War II it had reporters on four continents covering black troops. The Courier illuminated the day-to-day lives of heroes such as Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson and, along the way, railed in its editorials against the racism that was pervasive in the United States.

Ironically, the Courier and other black papers went into decline as the rights movement grew, and as white newspapers began covering events of interest to blacks and hiring black journalists.

I believe that the passion and commitment of the old Courier lives on somewhere within the spirit of most black journalists today. The challenge is to take that energy and openly confront the problems that plague contemporary black America -- poverty, drugs, disease and violence.

Some compulsions, like the need to speak truth to power, never really die.

Ron Howell, who teaches journalism at Long Island University, wrote this for Newsday.

Pub Date: 4/24/98

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