Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King

Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King

Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King

Race, Media, and the Crisis of Civil Society: From Watts to Rodney King

Synopsis

Since the early nineteenth century, African-Americans have turned to Black newspapers to monitor the mainstream media and to develop alternative interpretations of public events. Ronald Jacobs tells the stories of these newspapers--in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles--for the first time, comparing African-American and "mainstream" media coverage of racial crises such as the Watts riot, the beating of Rodney King, the Los Angeles uprisings and the O. J. Simpson trial. In an engaging yet scholarly style, Jacobs shows us why a strong African-American press is still needed today.

Excerpt

On May 28, 1997, John Sengstakke died at the age of eighty-four. For six decades Sengstakke had been owner and editor of the Chicago Defender, the most important and most famous of all African-American newspapers. Sengstakke's death was a noticeable event in the world of American journalism; Brent Staples wrote a 1400-word obituary in the New York Times, calling Sengstakke the “Charles Foster Kane of the black press. ” But Sengstakke's death was only the beginning of the story. Northern Trust Co., acting as executor of Sengstakke's estate, put the Defender up for sale in December 1997, in order to pay for a four-million-dollar estate tax bill. Contacting both African-American and white investors, the bank would only commit to seeking “fair value for the shareholders. ” A crisis ensued within the black journalism community, with most insisting that the paper remain in African-American hands. In a front-page editorial, the Chicago Defender wrote that there were no plans to sell the paper, that the Sengstakke family was committed to maintaining the Defender, and that the reports about its sale were an “outright fabrication. ” Several months later the family removed Northern Trust from its financial control of the estate, ending worries that the paper could fall into white hands.

Why did it matter that the Chicago Defender remain in African-American control? This question, I think, goes to the heart of current debates about civil society and the public sphere, particularly those which have emphasized that civil society consists of multiple, frequently non-rational, and often contestatory public spheres, which are oriented just as often to cultural issues as to political ones. This understanding of the public sphere differs substantially from how it was introduced nearly forty years ago by Habermas. For Habermas the public sphere represented the space of private people come together as a public, who claimed the space of public discourse from State regulation, and demanded that the State engage them in debate . . .

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