Film / TVRace
if black folks aren’t telling our own stories, who is?
By Bridget Todd
March 11, 2019
The grainy surveillance video was everyone’s nightmare, including mine. Especially mine.
Carlesha Freeland-Gaither is seen walking down the sidewalk, and then a shadowy figure wrestles her onto the ground, drags her into a car, before speeding away.
I was working for a major news outlet when this terrifying video was released. Her family desperate for answers into her disappearance. Black death was hot content; in my office, I sat beneath a giant TV blasting videos of us being killed on a near-constant loop. It was my job to package it online, to better sell ads against.
Carlesha Freeland-Gaither was missing, and I thought, as news media, it should also be our job to assist in the search. I prominently spelled out her name in our social media posts thinking maybe it would help. But my white editor called me over and deleted her name. ‘You don’t need to say her name,” she reprimanded. “It’s not like she’s Natalee Holloway, no one cares who she is.”
I was a Black news editor tasked to write about Black pain, while reporting to white senior editors and white managers and white producers. It turns out my story wasn’t unusual.
The National Association of Black Journalists just put CNN on a “special monitoring list” because of the lack of Black decision-makers at the network. The executive producers are all white. The Vice Presidents on the news side are all white. The Senior Vice-Presidents on the news side are all white. Several former employees have tried to sue CNN for racial bias, but none of these allegations have stuck. Former employees, like Tenisha Bell, a public relations specialist who left CNN in 2015 as an executive producer, have pointed out that there is plenty of Black junior staff at CNN, but none of them are in the key roles where decisions are being made. None of them are in positions where their voices can truly be heard.
This was my experience, too. I worked with other Black editors, but we were all junior. If we pushed back, we were “the problem” or “the standout” (not in a good way). After a while, it’s easier to say nothing. You learn that your managers don’t actually want your input. They want you to execute and shut up.
Take for instance SB Nation’s sympathetic article on Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer convicted of raping 13 Black women he’d come into contact with in his role as law enforcement. It’s almost impossible to not read the piece as something other than apologia for a white-presenting man who raped Black women — and, unsurprisingly, the piece spurred massive outrage online. SB Nation pulled it five hours after its publication, vowing to investigate how a piece they called “a complete failure” made it to publication in the first place. Turns out, it was pretty simple: The white editorial higher-ups didn’t listen to a Black woman editor who raised several objections about how an article dealing with Black female victims of a serial sex criminal was framed.
Elena Bergeron told Deadspin that the piece was so offensive, she thought it unpublishable, but she wasn’t sure if it was her place to raise objections. Even then, she wrote out all of her issues with the piece, the way it lets Holtzclaw off the hook, and relies on one-sided interviews with the rapist’s close friends, and sent them to the site’s white editors. Their response? Nothing. The piece ran.
News outlets love mining our lives for clicks and content. They love it when we sing and dance, and they like it even more when we’re shot dead. But this same media doesn’t rely on Black voices to tell our own stories.
The old adage says, “Black folks should be demanding a seat at the table.” But what difference does it make if we’re at the table, yet aren’t in a position to use our voices or have them heard? If we aren’t able to be the experts in our own experiences, than who is?
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