‘One Nation with News for All’: Newseum looks at Ethnic media in America


A display of America's first ethnic newspapers at the Newseum. (Jonathan Thompson/Newseum)

John F. Kennedy gets credit for one of the first presidential campaign commercials in a foreign language — featuring Jackie speaking Spanish to reach Latino voters in 1960. A century earlier, Abraham Lincoln, too, was preoccupied with a key part of the immigrant electorate of his day. He could have placed ads in a German-language newspaper, but he didn’t.

Instead, in 1859, Lincoln bought the weekly Illinois Staats-Anzeiger, and hired editor Theodore Canisius to campaign for him in German communities.

The handwritten $400 contract stipulated that “said paper, in political sentiment, [is] not to depart from the Philadelphia and Illinois Republican platforms” nor to publish “anything opposed to, or designed to injure, the Republican party.”

Canisius kept his side of the bargain, and a month after Lincoln’s election in 1860, the president-elect gave the paper to the editor.

Lincoln’s little-known foray into ethnic media is one of the revelations of the Newseum’s exhibit, “One Nation with News for All,” on the role and power of news outlets created by and for immigrants and minorities. The exhibit was produced in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution’s “Our American Journey” program on immigration and migration.

These days, we have nationally televised debates simultaneously translated on Spanish-language television and major interviews granted to correspondents for Spanish-language newspapers, radio stations and television networks. Although Spanish is this era’s most politically important immigrant language, candidates also court voters through Korean, Chinese, Native American and other ethnic media relevant in their districts.

That Lincoln had the same instinct 155 years ago makes this contemporary political multiculturalism seem a little less innovative and enlightened. It also might give pause to “English-first” critics who say that appealing to people in their native tongues is somehow un-American.

But ethnic media — including African American outlets dating from Freedom’s Journal, the first black paper, founded in 1827 — are more than just an opportunity for politicians. Ever since the very first paper for non-English-speakers in the colonies — the Philadelphische Zeitung, founded in 1732 — the job of the ethnic media has been to decode a new world, encourage new arrivals, and represent a new shade on the American palette.

“To represent their communities and provide a link between the old country and the new, and really to help them become American — that was very important,” says Sharon Shahid, online managing editor at the Newseum and lead writer for the exhibit.

Today, one person in four gets news from ethnic media, according to the exhibit. The more than 3,000 outlets include about 1,200 newspapers. The top three categories are Latino (979), Asian (592) and African American (479). Languages run from Amharic to Hmong to Yiddish.

The outlets range from Phil Yu’s Angry Asian Man blog and Apache-owned KYAY radio, serving the San Carlos Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona, to Univision, the top Spanish-language television network, and Radio One, a leading African American-owned broadcasting company, based in Silver Spring.

Through history, familiar patterns emerged: That first German-language newspaper? It was started by Ben Franklin — and failed after two issues. He wasn’t part of the community and may not have known that one of his mistakes was choosing an unfamiliar style of German typeface. Seven years later, German immigrant Christopher Sauer started a paper that lasted 40 years.

Ethnic media made more sense and were more successful when communities spoke for themselves. As the editors of Freedom’s Journal put it in March 1827: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”

But mainstream media barons still want to participate in ethnic media, for the same reasons politicians do. The latest trend is partnerships. On display is the laptop that Henry Louis Gates Jr. used to plan the Root, a digital venture focused on African Americans. The Root was formerly affiliated with The Washington Post and is now part of Graham Holdings Co. (The Post’s connection to the weekly El Tiempo Latino continues under new owner Jeffrey P. Bezos.) An example of the collaborative trend in television is the Fusion network, created by Univision and ABC last year to reach young Latinos who prefer news in English.

From the beginning, immigrant outlets provided stiff competition to the mainstream. On July 5, 1776, the Pennsylvanischer Staatsbote had the scoop on the adoption of the Declaration of Independence — because the fifth was a Friday, and none of the other Philadelphia papers published on Fridays.

News in Spanish has been available at least since El Misisipi started publishing in New Orleans in 1808, followed by El Mensagero Luisianés in 1809, also in New Orleans. Over time, coverage in immigrant outlets tracked the shift in a community’s concerns from old country to new. El Misisipi devoted an entire front page to an eyewitness account of the uprising in Madrid against French invaders in May 1808, and El Mensagero Luisianés followed U.S. machinations to take over Spanish Florida.

By the mid-1850s, Spain seemed all but forgotten as El Clamor Público in Los Angeles advocated the civil rights of Mexicans and decried the “lynchocracy” imposed by vigilantes in Gold Rush California.

“The North Americans pretend to give us lessons in humanity,” publisher Francisco Ramírez wrote. “Are they the ones who treat us worse than slaves?”

A keen ear for injustice has been one of ethnic media’s great gifts to the whole country. The black press’s decades of documenting the violence of the Jim Crow South reached a pinnacle when Jet magazine scalded the nation with photos of Emmett Till’s brutalized body in 1955.

Sometimes all the ethnic media had to do was hold a mirror up to white America. In January 1829, the year after it became the first Native American paper, the Cherokee Phoenix reprinted on its front page the text of a new law in Georgia:

“It shall not be lawful for any Indian or descendant of an Indian belonging to the Creek nation of Indians to cross the river Chattahoochee and enter upon the territories of said state.”

The editors commented, “We are inclined to think that . . . many honest and clever Creeks will suffer unjustly. The law savours more of oppression than anything else.”

The editors devoted the rest of the front page to an essay on whites encroaching on Indian lands, reprinted from the mainstream National Intelligencer in Washington. The Cherokee editors must have thought no comment was necessary, because they just let the words stand.

“The decree of extermination has gone forth against the entire Aboriginal race that yet haunt our forests and wilds, as surely, as irreversibly as ever against the Canaanites of old. . . . On, on the tide of our country’s population rolls and sweeps . . . and will not stop short of the Pacific. . . . Let us drop a tear over the fate of the unfortunate beings whose complete excision from the face of the earth such a triumph almost necessarily implies.”

The Cherokee Phoenix publishes online now. And that homogenizing tide didn’t drown everything that was different — thanks, in part, to the ethnic media.

One Nation with News for All The Newseum through Jan. 4, 2015. Adult admission $22.95 plus tax.

David Montgomery joined The Washington Post in 1993. He currently writes general features and profiles for the Sunday Magazine, Sunday Style and Sunday Arts, with a focus on the Latino community and Latino arts.
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