Blog Post

Journalism Today

Yesterday, September 4, four days following Aretha Franklin's funeral in Detroit, The Washington Post published an article on Franklin's family's response to the eulogy given by Rev. Jasper Williams for the singer. The headline reads: 'Offensive and Distastful': Aretha Franklin's Family Blasts 'Black-on-Black Crime' Eulogy." I was bothered by the article for a few reasons.

Let me begin by sharing that I majored in communications as an undergrad with a concentration in print journalism. A few experiences during my preparation for a career in the field left a sour taste in my mouth. So, as I neared graduation, I decided to go a different route, choosing an academic life over that of journalistic writing. My very brief background in journalism is relevant here as it introduced me to standards which at the present time appear to be in decline. And yet, this isn't simply a blog about bad writing as much as it is about institutional racism as reflected in the quality of some of today's journalism.

What is the story?

One standard to which I was introduced and which has stayed with me is the question: what is the story? Obviously, the two WSJ writers of the piece I reference above--Allyson Chiu and Antonia Noori Farzan--thought the story was the negative response of some family members to the eulogy. While I would not disagree that that was one story, an equally interesting one would have covered views of audience members who appreciated the eulogy.

I viewed the funeral almost in its entirety. I heard the eulogy. I recognized 30-seconds in that some people would have an allergic reaction to rhetoric of a  that sounded of a different era. Williams's statements about the inability of black women to raise boys into men and his lament over the disappearance of black business districts (a development that he thinks resulted from integration) seem almost lifted from twentieth century discourses, ones influenced by The Moynihan Report. Yet, as regressive as the rhetoric of Williams's eulogy was, a case can certainly be made for not rejecting it whole.

I wonder if there were none in the Franklin family for whom the eulogy struck a chord. On Facebook, there was evident a mixed response, some naysayers defending their own single black mothers' parenting, which resulted in their own successes. I think, however, that they may miss a larger point: 75 percent of black children continue to be born of single parents. Regardless of whether one thinks this a problem, it absolutely is a fact worth noting and discussing, and it clearly has a relationship to micro-economy--black labor, black spending, black wealth, etc.

Why did the writers of the Tuesday morning piece not tease these issues out? Why did they not aim for balance? Is doing so a thing of the past? These questions return me to my soapbox--the current state of American journalism. Not only is the Chiu and Farzan story slanted but the writers quite intentionally cast Williams in a questionable light as they focused in on his attire.

Clad in a sharp black suit, accented by a bright red tie and pocket square, the Atlanta-based pastor began his eulogy with an impassioned rendition of the popular hymn “Father, I Stretch My Hands to Thee.” A large silver cross swung from his neck.

Readers who think that the description is not a veiled ad hominem attack need only ask why the minister's clothing was a necessary detail. Certainly, it adds a visual, but it also casts the good reverend as a materialist. His large swinging chain, carefully placed in the graph, may be interpreted to stand in contradiction to unsullied faith or to be suggestive of a prosperity gospel. Either way, the characterization of Williams as one who has profited from his ministry impugns his character and so nullifies the eulogy.

This journalistic treatment raises the question of who gets to speak today. "The Reverend Jasper Williams rose from his seat and picked up the microphone," wrote Chiu and Farzan in a manner which, momentarily, held the promise of verbal power. But as we learn in reading the article, that moment would be the beginning of Williams's end, as the writers announce that his message has been soundly rejected on social media, a statement which according to my own observations is not true. Yet, it affirms the story's angle.

It occurs to me that not just Chiu and Farzan but their editor knew how the story would play; they knew that it would in fact upset few people. It has after all enough truth in it to join a panoply of other voices. In such a super-mediated era who has time for close reading? I hate to think that journalists take advantage of a time-starved populace; I hate to think that well educated journalists are contributing to the noise.

More than thirty years ago, when I aspired to a public voice, I was told by an editor of my large hometown newspaper--my hometown is Detroit--that I had not a chance in...of getting an internship at the paper as it only hired students from Michigan's flagship schools, from Howard University, and from the Ivys. I wasn't in that privileged group. The statement planted a seed of inferiority in my heart that took years to uproot. I am not bitter today but conscious and critical of the possibility that the profession either never really adhered to the standards which it thought an elite education would protect, or it is for pragmatic reasons in the process of throwing those standards out the window. The first is an example of egregious institutional racism; the second--if journalists who land at major organs are still being recruited in the same way they have been for years--also an example of egregious institutional racism.





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