What’s the mission of the black press? To hear Walter Smith, CEO of the NY Beacon and NNPA Budget Chairman, it’s to rep their advertisers, and increase their “corporate visibility.” What happened to informing the pubic, to defending the interests of black communities, to telling the truth without fear or favor? Last week we denounced NNPA’s craven endorsement of AT&T’s buyout of T-Mobile, which will concentrate three-quarters of the US cell phone market in the hands of two massive and massively predatory corporations. They answered.
Last week  I excoriated the NNPA, the National Newspaper Publishers Association for its instantaneous and craven endorsement of AT&T’s proposal to buy out T-Mobile. The proposed merger would give two companies, AT&T and Verizon, three quarters of the U.S. cell phone market. I listed nine reasons why the Justice Department and FCC and Congress should reject the merger, and especially why black and brown civic and leadership organizations ought to oppose it.
Since then, the National Urban League , the NAACP , both heavily dependent on AT&T and Verizon for charitable donations, rushed to endorse the merger. And Walter Smith, CEO of the New York Beacon and NNPA Budget Chairman took the time to write and take issue with us. We thank him for his letter, which you can find here , and take this opportunity to answer it.
Dear Mr. Smith,
Thank you for taking the time to write us here at Black Agenda Report. In my article last week I listed nine reasons why the AT&T merger was bad economics, bad public policy and especially disastrous for black and poor communities. Regrettably your response addressed none of those points.
You began by preaching that “…Mergers, acquisitions, re-organizations, etc is the corporate building blocks of the US economy….” That’s nonsense.
Any reputable economist, and by that I mean any economist who predicted the crash and bailout of 2008 will tell you that there is a real economy in which things are built and services rendered, and there is a parasitic “economy” in which rents and interest payments are extracted , corporate welfare is handed out, and public assets are privatized. Corporate mergers are obviously parasitic. As I pointed out last week, corporate mergers produce no new assets, they eliminate jobs and raise prices. They are anti-competitive, bad for customer service and a disincentive to innovation.
This is not a small thing. It’s such a fundamental misstatement of economic fact that it calls into question your willingness and/or your ability to tell the truth to your readers. And make no mistake, Mr. Smith, the will and the ability of the black press to tell the truth without fear or favor is what this is all about.
Your letter continued to say,
“NNPA has a long standing relationship with AT&T and it has become more significant with the relationship our present Chairman has with the hierarchy of the corporation…
“The Black Press of America, represented by NNPA is not a WATCHDOG, it is a communicator. We report the news and record black history. Publishers editorialize about issues that affect the communities they serve.
“NNPA has a partnership with AT&T that has yielded benefits for the black community in ways you cannot see nor imagine. Black newspaper publishers hire local community photographers, writers, distributors, office personnel,and local printers. Our revenue for these jobs comes from our advertising revenues. Where does much of these revenues come from? You guessed it, AT&T and Verizon.”
Sadly, I could not have said it better. Your vision of the black press is that of “communicator” on behalf of those corporations who give you advertising revenue, which you use to pay a handful of contractors and staff.
This is a profoundly different mission for the black press, for journalism in general, than the framers of the Constitution had in mind. Journalism was the only industry that got its own constitutional amendment precisely because democracy depended on journalists faithfully and fearlessly informing the public.
You have radically departed also from the mission of the black press of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Frederick Douglass  preached and organized tirelessly, first against slavery, then for Reconstruction, and finally against lynching and Jim Crow. Ida B. Wells  carried this legacy on into the twentieth century. The mission of the black press in those days was first to allow us to speak with and to hear our own voices, not those our masters appointed to speak for or to us, and secondly to defend black interests by fearlessly exposing injustice of all kinds. The black press of those days was truly a weapon of mass discussion. But no longer, as your letter points out:
No the Black Press ain’t what it used to be. Its a new day for the Black Press under New leadership with an experienced entrepreneur who has the business acumen to negotiate a financial partnership with corporate America and does not sell out one Black person in doing so.
If you want to fight the merger, by all means do so. However the black press does not need your input nor approval on the position we take be it political or financial. The Black Press is still operating under the same creed as it did in 1827, “We wish to plead our own cause, Too long have others spoken for us.”
Your position on the AT&T merger is indeed selling out millions of black people. Pretty much everybody who pays a cell phone bill will pay a higher one thanks to this merger. Thousands of jobs, many held by black people, will disappear. The tens of billions AT&T might have spent extending wireless and broadband service to poor, black, brown and rural communities will go instead to buy out its competition.
If your job, Brother Smith, is to report the news, then you should report news, not be the sock puppet for your advertisers. If your mission is to “record black history,” you get a choice there too. You can write that history from the viewpoint of ordinary black families, or you can write it from the viewpoint of your corporate advertisers and donors.
The New York Beacon , where you are CEO is about as good as black newspapers get these days. Most offer far less non-advertising, non-entertainment copy. Many are entirely composed of ads, PR handouts from local governments, corporations and other institutions, wire service copy from Reuters, AP, and sometimes NNPA, and entertainment fluff.
How many NNPA newspapers have bothered to educate the public on the fact that text messaging, because it rides on the otherwise empty communication packets between phones and network servers, costs cell phone providers literally nothing, though they have regularly raised prices on this service? Not a one. How many NNPA newspapers have explained to audiences that the artificial broadband scarcities of the digital divide are a basic and permanent feature of telecom company business models from Comcast to Verizon to AT&T, and even reaching back into era of analog telephone service?
One of the reasons that Americans, including black ones, are the best entertained and least informed people on earth is your abandonment of the core mission of journalism, lack of interest in an informed public, the very reason for the existence of journalism.
Your letter concludes thusly:
“As a result of Chairman Bakewell’s tenure with NNPA, we have increased our visibility in corporate America, have increased revenues to the association, have increased advertising revenues to our member publishers, have regained credibility with the readership, and have increased membership in the organization. Have you done as much for Black Agenda Report?”
Evidently Mr. Smith, you have confused your own business model with the public good of our black communities.
The telecom industry spreads a lot of charitable contributions and advertising revenue around. It rains cash upon utilizes legacy African Americans like the NAACP, the Urban League and your NNPA, and funds wholly astroturf outfits like ADE, the Alliance for Digital Equality. It uses you, and them, to hurl false and spurious accusations of white racism  against national media reform organizations like Free Press  who advocate network neutrality and the extension of broadband to black, brown and poor communities.
Black Agenda Report is doing what you should be doing, Mr. Smith. We are commited to educating the public on the facts, not increasing our corporate visibility and raking in the maximum ad revenue. We are committed to gathering 50,000 signatures of black people, and all people on a petition to stop this ill-advised merger, and presenting that petition to the FCC, to the Congressional Black Caucus, to the National Conference of Black State Legislators, to the White House and the Justice Department later this year demanding that this predatory, anti-competitive merger be halted.
We invite all who read this to help prove you wrong by signing the petition  themselves, and forwarding it to as many of your friends, neighbors, co-workers and associates as possible. You may also want to forward this article  from last week, which outlines nine reasons why the merger is a very bad idea.
As I said last week, Ida B. Wells, the champion of the black press in the early 20th century, is rolling in her grave. If she were alive today we both know what side she’d be on.
[Bruce A. Dixon], managing editor, Black Agenda Report
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