Florida Ethnic Media Conference brings in civil rights leader

Civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr.



ST. PETERSBURG – Noted civil rights leader Dr. Benjamin Chavis, Jr. kicked off the Florida Ethnic Media Conference last Thursday at the Poynter Institute. Media outlets from as far north as Tallahassee and as far south as Miami were present.

Chavis is president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), a trade organization of over 200 African American-owned community newspapers. He noted that in regards to African Americans, the mainstream press sometimes amplifies the negative, whereas the black press searches for and amplifies the positive.

“Not to pretend that the negative doesn’t exist,” he pointed out, “but to put the negative in proper balance.”

Also president and CEO of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN), Chavis founded HSAN with Russell Simmons, legendary co-founder of Def Jam Recordings. The network is the world’s largest coalition of hip-hop artists and recording industry executives.

A longtime advocate of hip-hop artists, Chavis recalled having to defend the rights of artists and their artistic freedom before the U.S. Congress. He is proud of these artists, he noted, because they chose the theme of “taking back responsibility” at the first Hip-Hop Summit.

“Because with freedom comes responsibility,” he said. “With freedom of the press comes responsibility. With freedom of speech comes also responsibility. And if you look at the history—the 190-year history of the black press in America—you also see a history of being responsible. Of sometimes having our press the targets of dynamite…because we dared be responsible enough to take a position that’s oftentimes not only controversial but also very dangerous.”

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In 1971, Chavis was one of a group of activists who were falsely convicted following a riot in Wilmington, N.C., over school desegregation, and they became known as the Wilmington Ten.

“Thank God generations of young people now are seeing journalism not only as a career,” he said, “but seeing journalism as a place for that same kind of self-expression, for that same kind of documenting the evolution of our culture,” adding that “every inch of progress that black people have made in the United States” is of benefit to all people.

He noted when Thurgood Marshall and many others struggled to get the Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education decision in 1954; it wasn’t just to benefit black students but all students. Yet segregation has once again become a reality.

Referencing a 2017 study, Chavis said the state of segregation in public schools is similar to where it was not just 50 years ago but 100 years ago.

Chavis recalled a conversation with author James Baldwin in the 1980s during which the famed author told him that black writers have to “write with our pens in ways that yes, sometimes make our people uncomfortable, but also very proud to be uncomfortable when they’re challenging injustice,” he paraphrased.

Lauding the number of African American-owned newspapers in Florida alone, he predicted that what has been considered marginal press will eventually become the new mainstream press based not only upon the ever-shifting demographics of the country but growing interest. African American cultural influence, he added, is now global.

“And therefore the influence of our papers—what we write with the pen, what we publish, what we distribute, the photography, the images that we put out—have global significance,” he said.

What has given rise to the black press over the years, Chavis averred, is that it is trusted—going all the way back to Freedom’s Journal, the country’s first African American-owned and operated newspaper that was established in 1827. The time will come when mainstream newspapers will be quoting African-American papers.

“Why? Because we will be positioned not only to report that firsthand news coverage but once it’s distributed, it has a sense of being authentic,” he said.

Concerning the prevalence of digital media these days, Chavis said, “the black print press is not going out of business, we’re going to expand our business,” and added it will strive to remain accurate—something that is not always the case with some digital media outlets.

“People trust you, you know,” he remarked. “That’s valuable. Our readers rely on what we have to say and why we publish what we say.”

Giving the recent example of the Bill Cosby trial, NNPA was the only media outlet that he would give an exclusive interview to.

“What gives rise to the value of the black press…is that we are trusted.”

In regards to the business side of the press, Chavis said it takes resources and advertising and too many big companies don’t know that the African-American newspapers are even around. These papers need to do more to engage large ad agencies and get them more involved.

He called upon the Poynter Institute to help the black press “engage more on the point of mutual respect with the mainstream press” and underscored its influence not only around the country but the world.

“The black press,” he said, “is outreaching beyond the values of the United States to the Caribbean, Africa, to Europe and to Asia in ways that we probably not anticipated 190 years ago.”

The second day of the conference covered such topics as the Role of Ethnic Media in a Digital World, the Basics of Sustainability and Drawing on the Community for Content.

The two-day Florida Ethnic Media Conference was presented by the Poynter Institute and the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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