I am and proud to say I’m “old-school”. With that said, I grew up in an era where black pride was meaningful and its images where, despite the negativity portrayed in media, important. We have seen, of late, the onslaught of major corporations seeking to take over the black-owned media. I just need to mention the buffoonery of what is now BET.
I am sure you know by now that BET, Essence Magazine, and black media sources sought and were conquered by the financial white knights. One of the last holdouts in black owned media was the Johnson Publishing Company, which runs Ebony and Jet Magazines, and dare I say an institution in the black community. You could not go to Big Momma’s house and not see a copy of one or the other near the picture of Jesus and Martin. Now that legacy is over.
I’m sure they fought hard to maintain its independence but they recently announced that JP Morgan Chase has bought a substantial stake in the company. As sad as it was to hear the news, this end’s a sixty-nine year tradition of giving our community information that mainstream media would not while instilling pride where there was little and much needed. For example, it was Jet who told the truth about what happened to little Emmitt Till and published the picture of his brutally beaten body in his casket. If it had not been for that issue of Jet I doubt very seriously if the Civil Rights Movement would have been ignited in earnest.
I have precious memories of the of this media empire of ours; they shaped minds and made stars of the known and unknowns who have graced its pages over time. In fact, I still have copies dated back to the sixties. Founded in 1945 with an initial press run of 25,000 copies, John H. Johnson built Ebony Magazine into a media beast, with a circulation of 1.9 million in 1997. Jet was founded in 1951 and had an equally impressive amount of success. The once family owned company did not disclosed the terms of the deal causing one to wonder if pride was the reason. Hell – I’ll just say it SHAME!
It is my understanding that the CEO of the company went out of her way to say the bank would only hold a minority stake and will have a presence on the board. Saying, it was “very important that the company remain minority-owned,” she said, claiming that it “gives us the capital to move forward with the plans we’ve been working on — the continuing ‘rebranding’ of Ebony, which includes remaking the magazine’s digital platform; rebranding the pocket-sized Jet magazine, as it did with Ebony; and marketing the Fashion Fair cosmetics line more effectively.”
This partnership between JP Morgan Chase and the Johnson family is troubling. Dr. Boyce Watkins put it this way; “I can also tell by the careful words used by Desiree that it bothers her too. Most of us are incredibly uncomfortable with the fact that the ability of African Americans to find our own voice has been slowly imperialized by big, wealthy (mostly white) corporations. It all seems harmless at first, like the pimp who offers food to the hungry girl in the bus station. Before long, the girl is wondering how she ended up on the corner turning tricks for another hit of blow.” And I agree!
Rarely do I use the writing of others but Dr. Boyce Watkins’ powerful article “JP Morgan Now Owns a Chunk of Ebony/Jet – The Death of Black-Owned Media” was more thought provoking than I could share. But I wanted to share it and hope the good Dr. doesn't mind. The most powerful part of the article reads as follows:
Not to be exceedingly dramatic about all of this, the truth is that media is an awesome force in our society. It shapes minds and affects the dreams and visions (or lack thereof) of our children. NASA had an overabundance of applicants for its astronaut program because of televised space missions. HBCUs saw a boost in their enrollment numbers because “A Different World” was on the air every week. Now, little black boys who would have made outstanding doctors, lawyers and fathers, are hoping to grow into Lil Wayne after watching the BET Awards.What can I say when it has been said so eloquently; Thank you Sir. And that is my Thought Provoking Perspective.
On the female side, young black girls are seeing women like Nene Leakes and Shaunie O’neal (Executive Producer for “Basketball Wives”) being introduced as empowerment speakers” at the Essence Music Festival. When Shaunie O’neal is chosen by CNN as the expert commentator on black female images in media, there’s not a damn thing that the black folks at Essence can do about it without the Time Inc. pimp hand being presented in full-effect. If only our girls could aspire to be more than basketball wives.”
One of the greatest challenges for African Americans seeking to build institutions and navigate their way through a capitalist society is to fully understand the power of money and capitalism. Money is like a drug: it can make you healthy and strong, or it can turn you into an addict. By trying to keep up with the insatiable best of profit maximization and believing that the bottom line is all that matters, black media companies are finding that selling their power is the only way to survive in this economy.
What is true, however, is that BET could have been a profitable entity while maintaining black ownership and focusing on a duel bottom line of revenue generation and community empowerment. But money becomes the trump card for even the most dastardly of corporate decisions, which is almost like a man marrying an evil woman just because she’s pretty.
The point is that black ownership in media must be considered to be an issue of cultural security. The same way the United States doesn’t allow too much foreign ownership of its airlines or nuclear power plants without regard to how much extra money they can make by selling out), African Americans must understand the value of keeping specific assets within the control of black people.
No matter how well-intended a partnership might be on the surface, the truth is that when the hard decisions are being made and that white editor comes into your office to tell you that your article is too radical, you have no choice but to stand down. Power comes with ownership, nothing less. Black folks need to learn this valuable lesson.