There's a conservative joke poking fun at liberal media that predicts coverage of an impending apocalypse would have the headline "World to End — Poor and Minorities Hardest Hit." Despite his tenure as a Republican congressman, it seems J.C. Watts never heard that joke. Then again, maybe he did and just didn't understand why it's funny.
Mr. Watts recently announced his intention to start the Black News Television Channel — a news network targeted at blacks. An agreement has already been made with Comcast to broadcast the channel in cities such as Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Washington (but not New York City) as early as next year.
In an interview with the New York Post, Mr. Watts explained: "Our community features millions of people with all kinds of backgrounds. There's a much broader segment of the population than what we see in mainstream news." Mr. Watts says he wants to get beyond the coverage that he implies too often links black faces to negative things such as crime. While breaking the media of its "if it bleeds it leads" mentality would be a meritorious — if not Sisyphean — effort, Mr. Watts faces obvious stumbling blocks such as cost and content.
Industry sources cited by the Post suggest it might cost at least $100 million to get such a network off the ground and then cost an additional $7 million per hour of original programming. There is also the problem of finding quality talent not already locked into a contract elsewhere.
Currently, black cable channels such as TV One and BET are largely devoid of news programming. BET had a nightly newscast that was cancelled years ago. BET President and CEO Debra Lee said at the time: "With 24-hour news networks and everyone getting news off the Internet, our audience doesn't want to wait until 11:00 pm to find out what the news is." Commenting on the Watts idea, Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggested to the Post: "The question is, could it work on a regular basis?" Likewise, Marc Krein, an associate professor of journalism and broadcasting at Oklahoma State University and a veteran of the now-defunct Major Broadcasting Cable Network, told The Oklahoman: "I also question whether a whole network needs to be dedicated to it or whether some of these other networks can dedicate some specialized programming." Why do it al all? Spinning the news on a black fulcrum is too costly — both in price and for race relations.
Besides the obvious opportunity costs of investing the hundreds of millions of dollars it will cost to start and maintain the network that could be spent elsewhere, the question begging an answer is what exactly constitutes "black news." There are things that happen to black people in black communities that don't really have an impact on the rest of America, but that doesn't mean they should be provincial to black America. News happening in America is American news, and it should be everyone's concern.
When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the overwhelmingly-black Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, it was reported as an American story and not just for blacks. Likewise, the recent tornadoes in predominantly-white Iowa are not just a concern for white America.
There is quite simply no purely black news just like there is not a purely black sun, moon and stars. There are certainly aspects of stories that may be of more interest to people of a certain race, but it does not justify setting up separate but equal news networks by race in order to discuss it.
Division among the races is a favorite topic of the major media. How are we going to overcome divisions if blacks are supposed to have their own channel for news and the current news channels are to be regarded as only expressing the views of the white majority? If J.C. Watts wants to see more positive reporting about blacks, he should use his considerable cache to get the heads of Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and the major networks on the phone. Perhaps one or more of them will give him a show.
Luring black America to a segregated source of news, however, is not the answer.
Mychal Massie is the chairman of the black leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to Project21@nationalcenter.org. This Op-Ed reflects the views of its author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.