"Letter from a Region" provides historical context for current events

25 Feb 2021 4:45 PM | Erika Pribanic-Smith (Administrator)

by Kathy Roberts Forde (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

The past four years have utterly transformed my understanding of the relationship between journalism and democracy, past and present. Our democracy is fragile; that much I understood from deep historical reading. And I knew our press could either make it stronger or weaker. What I did not adequately understand, until I dug into my new line of research while simultaneously living through the Trump era, was how quickly the news media could help rip democracy apart.

My Substack newsletter Letter from a Region (subscribe here, if you’re interested) gives me a forum to think through sticky problems of journalism and democracy and, I hope, have conversations with journalism students, instructors, and professionals, and anyone else interested in these problems.

We have all lived through the dangerous mendacity of the Trump administration and its partisan news organ Fox News. During these years, I was researching and writing Journalism & Jim Crow: The Making of White Supremacy in the New South (University of Illinois Press), the book I’ve co-edited with Sid Bedingfield that will appear later this year. In the research, I kept seeing clear parallels to our country’s present vexing problems. I see clearly now a disturbing reality: U.S. news media have often not served democratic ends or as guardrails for democracy.  They have often been essential actors in violent, racist, anti-democratic political movements.

Letter from a Region allows me to share what I’ve learned in working on this book and to suggest how understanding the past can help us make better decisions in the present. It allows me to place current events and problems in historical context. And some of the historical context I provide is a significant revision of what we thought we knew about the history of journalism.

So what specifically did I learn from writing and editing Journalism & Jim Crow? From the end of the Civil War in 1865 through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many white news leaders and newspapers in the South actively involved themselves in building and defending white supremacist political economies and social orders across the South. They held political office; used their newspapers to spread lies in racist political campaigns to disfranchise Black voters and thus institute white supremacist, one-party rule; ran industrial enterprises that profited off the stolen labor of Black men, women, and children in the convict leasing system; and struck corrupt deals with political and business leaders while misleading the public in their newspapers. They fomented racial terror, like lynching.

What’s more, these white news leaders used their papers to spread racist disinformation that whipped white racial anxieties into white mob fury, leading to episode after episode of electoral violence meant to disfranchise Black voters and consolidate authoritarian, anti-democratic rule. The parallels with the insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6—with the incitement of President Trump and the mass delusion about electoral fraud caused by the relentless disinformation spread by Fox News and its right-wing peers—are vivid.

Sid and I hope Journalism & Jim Crow will inspire other journalism historians and journalism studies scholars to take seriously the role of press leaders and organizations as political actors. This idea of the press wielding hard power through political activity—not only  wielding soft power through news coverage—is one I’m exploring in my newsletter.

Democracy requires constant renewal, and so does journalism.  What can be done to discipline anti-democratic news media actors like Fox News, One America News, Brietbart, InfoWars, and other right-wing media that traffic in dangerous and anti-democratic political disinformation? This is a massive, urgent problem that requires our best thinking. In Letter from a Region, I’m thinking through this problem, and related ones, using history as a tool with which to think. And I’m eager to think with others in the tradition of the Pragmatists, like John Dewey, who believed the more minds working a problem, the better. I’m not so arrogant as to believe I’ll find a solution, but I at least want to be part of the conversation with other people who care.

James Carey famously said that journalism and democracy are really “names for the same thing.” And he centered public conversation in this understanding. A journalism that is indifferent to honest and inclusive public conversation, he wrote, will become a “menace to public life and an effective politics.”

We have seen that happen in one large segment of our news and media ecosystem, and the result has been near destruction of US democracy. As journalism historians, we can and should continue to undertake cultural histories of journalism. We need to pay attention to the messages journalism has spread and their influence on public life and democratic struggle. But we must also account for the hard power news leaders and institutions exercise in political and economic life. Letter from a Region is my way of thinking through all of these concerns in a more informal, more conversational, more community-minded way than my formal scholarship allows.

I’d love to have readers of the Intelligencer (and their students!) join me in this conversation.

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