Freedom Journalism and the Black Public Sphere in an Age of “Networked Authoritarianism”

Over the summer I had been invited to contribute to the new online journalism review from Morgan State University.  Editorial decisions being what they are I have posted my original below with its original title and some important content left uncut.  You can find the new online journalism review from MSU here.


Freedom Journalism and the Black Public Sphere in an Age of “Networked Authoritarianism”
By Dr. Jared A. Ball

It is always fitting, and unfortunately still so necessary, that we reflect upon the founding of Freedom’s Journal and the ideals of its founders Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm.  Their oft-quoted lines about the need to “plead our own cause” to combat a “publick” so long “deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly” are all well remembered during times such as these that match fluctuations in our media and journalism worlds with continued and worsening inequality suffered by Black America.  As Malcolm Gladwell once pointed out, the “evangelists of social media” are convinced that previous revolutionary struggles only lacked a Twitter account or that had they perhaps had Instagram we’d now all be free.  However, it takes little more than some studied observation to note the worsening conditions of labor, immigrant populations and Black America that run concurrent with the rise of the internet.  Put differently, the largest movements for revolutionary change all pre-date the modern technological age.  So as we launch our own online journalism review, as journalists and communication scholars seeking also to redefine our relevance amidst a shifting media terrain, let this also be a moment where we revisit the questions of how we intend to find ways of developing a more radical Black public sphere; a space where real exchange of information and ideas that will promote the kinds of political organization necessary for radical change; and whether or how the development of such a space can take place online.

Among the current crises of corporate consolidation, journalist layoffs and wild disagreements over the value of journalism education is still the concern best described recently by Todd Steven Burroughs. “From the outset, all looks great,” says Burroughs. “Black people have the ability to create news sites and be their own agenda-setters. Looking below the surface, though, what you see is a sophisticated version of Mordecai Noah denying Samuel Russwurm and Cornish space in The New York Enquirer. White corporations have created Black news and infotainment websites, while Black activists and scholars are relegated to email blasts, blogs and small Black political websites, with the Black masses relegated to a kind of non-stop digital conversation on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. So the agenda-setting power that Russwurm and Cornish seized and used to connect and educate the Black community in the 19th century has been seized by corporations in the 21st, leaving counter-hegemonic Black journalism in the Web’s margins.’

Margins indeed. The Internet, and access to it, remains a highly stratified and segregated space under the aegis of the wealthiest corporations.  Where are we to find the kind of journalism required for massive social change amid what Matthew Hindman describes as a “Googlearchy” where 25 percent of all Internet traffic is porn, email, and search engines; only 3-4 percent goes to news; only 1.2 percent go to political blogs; and where major newspapers online at 30 percent have more market share than the 20 percent held by their print versions? How do we get to Cornish and Russwurm amid what Rebecca Mackinnon describes, in Consent of the Networked : The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (2012), as a global crisis in which “[w]estern companies and financiers” work with governments around the world to turn the Internet into “networked authoritarianism” and a “digital bonapartism” assisting to “marginalize the opposition and manipulate public opinion much more subtly than in the old days?”

And how do we get there when, if nothing else, the sagas of Bradley Manning, WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden reveal is the privatization of U.S. national security, the dissolution of privacy online and the   precariousness of “watchdog” journalism?

For some, however, all is not lost.  At this year’s gathering of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) veteran journalist Roland Martin said, “This is the best time to be a free agent in our history. We get to build our brands.” Out-going NABJ president Gregory H. Lee, Jr. sad hopefully that, “The game has changed, and so we have to find new ways and think bold,” even while lamenting the trend of television news outlets mimicking their sports counterparts by hiring what Richard Prince referred to as “usurpers {who} are politicians and advocates.”  A twist of this particular challenge exists similarly for academics who now more often find themselves competing for faculty positions with non-academic former and still-practicing professional journalists.  Indeed we do need bold thought to circumnavigate these and other barriers to the development of a radical Black public sphere..

So let us also be encouraged to think boldly, to think radically about how new media technology can positively impact a Black public sphere. The Internet has not changed the devolving Black public sphere. Serious struggles over access to the Internet and its content, battles over “net neutrality,” where people go once online and who will get paid for that traffic still remain and pose challenges to the creation of a more vibrant Black public sphere.  According to Morgan Maxwell, despite the potential reach and possibilities for exchange provided by the internet, “… the struggle to hear a collective pro-Black voice, amidst the noise of Worldstarhiphop and Mediatakeout, remains incredibly difficult to overcome. The digital age has, in many respects, failed to deliver the defensive, galvanizing, and formidable pro-Black voice that Cornish and Russwurm conceptualized and provided nearly two hundred years ago. However, with the development of a few maverick sources of pro-Black journalism, I am optimistic that such a digitized voice may still emerge in the future.”

Existing optimism can only be realized with an equal and sober reflection upon the potential for a radical Black public sphere to exist and thrive online.  One step is to simply look at the rankings of websites most popular among Black and young audiences.  As the following list demonstrates bold, radical, transformative thought and politics are hard to find online and are certainly by no means guaranteed by new media technology.

Inverse Ranking of Top Sites Targeting/Visited by Black America/Youth*
9.  NNPA.org                         89,385
8.  FinalCall.com                   34,170
7.  BlackAmericaWeb.com    5772
6.  TheRoot.com                    3059
5.  TheGrio.com                     2478
4.  AllHipHop                         2321
3.  MediaTakeOut.com           464
2.  WorldStarHipHop              248
1.  HuffingtonPost.com           20

* Numbers taken from alexa.com August 15, 2013.

1 Comment on Freedom Journalism and the Black Public Sphere in an Age of “Networked Authoritarianism”

  1. There is a need to disconnect the urgent need for our systematic communications solutions from the profession and employment prospects of Black Journalists. The need for visionary guidance through dedicated media platforms will never be accomplished by people in daily fear of losing their jobs or tenure opportunities. The emergence of new technologies should coincide with a re-thinking of the very nature and function of communications directed at our communities in the 21st century. Can we get beyond protest, polemics, political commentary, and get on with the business of lifting the most creative, industrious, connected, and committed people on earth to the heights that we desire and deserve?

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