This video was so disturbing because it appeared that to the officers who arrested him, Jimenez’s blackness spoke louder than the press pass he clearly displayed.
But this view of black people as criminal and inferior is one that the white-dominated national media helped to create — underscoring the critically important need for diversity in newsrooms.
For much of American history, the mainstream media — controlled by white men and designed for white audiences — didn’t cover racial injustice. In fact, both local and national press rarely covered ordinary African Americans at all. Newspaper editor and publisher Ira Harkey Jr. recalled in his autobiography that during his tenure at the New Orleans Times-Picayune before and after World War II, newspaper staff went out of their way to excise African Americans from their pages. Photo editors, in line with editorial policy, either airbrushed or cut black faces out of street scenes with scissors before publication.
African Americans like Charles S. Johnson were so invisible in both the news and entertainment media that in 1947, the sociologist and editor could argue that a visitor to the United States from Mars “reading our papers, attending our theaters and movies, or listening to our radios would never guess that one-tenth of the American people … are Negroes, engaged like whites in the ordinary daily occupations in church and home, in school and sports, in work and welfare, in civic and political activities.”
The black Americans whose stories did cross the color line onto the pages of the white press were only those found guilty of criminal behavior. This created a clear perception for whites: Blackness equaled criminality. White Americans, who relied on the media to inform their worldview beyond their own experiences, could not understand African Americans as ordinary citizens let alone successful professionals.
The black press was founded in the 19th century in reaction to these damaging distortions and frequent false and negative depictions of African Americans in white media. Since the launch of the first newspaper owned and operated by African Americans, Freedom’s Journal, in 1827, its mission has been to fight for justice and document the black experience. As the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association’s “Credo for the Negro Press” announced in 1944: “I Shall Be a Crusader … I Shall Be an Advocate … I Shall Be a Mirror and a Record.” However, black newspapers were designed for a black readership, and the mainstream media ignored their reporting, leaving news largely segregated. White readers almost never encountered this coverage.
This changed in the mid-20th century. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision and the prospect of desegregating schools forced race relations into mainstream news. Many segregationist-owned newspapers and emerging local television stations continued to bolster white supremacy.
But white reporters from national newspapers and the nascent network television news industry began to join their black counterparts in covering the struggle for black freedom. African American journalist Simeon Booker later described how at the trial of Emmett Till’s murderers, one of the first major media events of the civil rights movement, there was “unique cooperation” between white and black reporters who shared tips and leads.
Over the years that followed, civil rights activists employed a strategy pioneered by anti-lynching campaigner Ida B. Wells in the early 20th century: harnessing the power of publicity to further their cause. Aware of the role that the establishment media could play in shining a light on racism, they worked to attract its attention.
However, while white, male journalists were trained to be objective, their social context and life experiences shaped how they understood racial injustice.
For example, in 1963 when a CBS News documentary team reported on the conditions in Harlem in “CBS Reports: The Harlem Temper,” it focused on what one black columnist criticized as “the age old white concept of Harlem, as a narcotics dump and a rat-infested slum, filled with dissatisfied people going nowhere.” It failed, he argued, to show the reality of good citizens raising families and contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in consumer spending to the New York economy.
This type of programming highlighted the need for African Americans in leading newsrooms. Despite having fair employment policies, the network news was only desegregated in 1962, when Mal Goode, a veteran of the black press, became the first African American network correspondent, joining ABC News.
Yet, even then, Goode was notably stationed at ABC’s United Nations bureau, from which only one or two stories a year made the evening news. Fortunately for him, the Cuban missile crisis struck six months later, catapulting the United Nations to the center of the world’s attention and Goode, as the correspondent in charge of covering it, onto American television screens. This exposure later helped him make the jump to the main newsroom. From there, his background in civil rights activism made him a valuable reporter for key stories including James Meredith’s Mississippi march against discrimination and the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Not wanting to be outdone by ABC as the civil rights movement gained national attention, the other two national networks quickly pulled even. Within months, CBS hired Ben Holman, the man who had desegregated the Chicago Daily News and then CBS’s Chicago affiliate. And in 1963, NBC brought on one of the only black journalists at the New York Times, Bob Teague.
Seeing a black person reporting the news was difficult to process for some white viewers. One later wrote to Teague informing him, “When you first began broadcasting the news on television, I watched you every night, but I realize now, years later, that I was so conscious of the fact that you were black that I didn’t hear a word you said about the news.”
However, black reporters like Goode, Holman and Teague remained the exception rather than the rule in the mainstream news — and it had a cost.
In 1968, the Report of the National Advisory Council on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission, highlighted the role that a still largely lily white media played in deepening the divide between black and white America. The report criticized the mainstream press for “exaggeration of both mood and event” in its coverage of the unrest, the product of an institution that reflected “the biases, the paternalism, the indifference of white America.” The result: a failure to communicate to its majority white audience “the Negro’s burning sense of grievance,” “the ills of the ghetto” and “the difficulties of life there.”
The Kerner Commission indicted the news profession as “shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, and promoting Negroes.”
Over half a century later, America’s newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white. Census data in 2002 revealed that less than 10 percent of journalists were people of color despite making up over 30 percent of America’s population. Since then, not much has improved. Racial minorities — especially women — remain underrepresented.
A report by the Frameworks Institute into the harmful patterns in newspaper reporting on race, found that default narratives of race are so powerful that they affect what people see, hear, understand and remember. Experiments in one study even demonstrated that when people see a television news report about an ATM robbery, they misremember the suspect as African American even when the suspect was white.
This context helps to explain why racial profiling remains a deep problem in America. Many Americans are criminalized or killed simply for existing while black, whether they be the eminent African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. trying to get into his own home, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the nation’s capital, or Ahmaud Arbery, a young man on a jog.
The arrest of Omar Jimenez in particular highlights the vicious circle undergirding America’s continuing racial crisis. If the country has any hope for creating a future where its black and brown citizens are viewed as equal and treated as such, the media landscape needs to change. This will come about only if African Americans are able to report while black. It is essential that America’s Omar Jimenezes are allowed to do their jobs with the same freedoms that the Josh Campbells enjoy.