Black Media Activists Push for Prime Time

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Whatever Don Imus does next he can add unintentional media advocacy to his resume. The slurring incident sparked the formation of a media commentator coalition, a study of minority women in TV news and a congressional hearing later this month.

Asata Wisseh, left, and Tara Fisler at protest

(WOMENSENEWS)–Rumors that Don Imus could return to the radio airwaves don’t surprise Robin Hickman.

"I suspected his career was not dead," says Hickman, executive producer of SoulTouch Productions, referring to the former CBS radio talk-show host who is now released from his contracts with CBS Radio and MSNBC and free to host his program elsewhere, after a $20 million settlement with his former employers.

Soultouch, a St. Paul, Minn., multi-service media company, offers a media-awareness program for black girls called Loving the Skin I’m In that is inspired by Sharon Flake’s 1998 novel of the same name.

Last spring Hickman warned the nearly 50 girls who attended the weekly after-school program held in schools, churches and community-based organizations such as the St. Paul YWCA not to focus on the Imus controversy because they’d be too devastated by his re-emergence.

Instead, girls were encouraged to stick to the program, where each new session starts with the group conducting video interviews with each other and asking the questions "Do you love the skin you’re in? Why or why not?" Each meeting begins with the group singing Nina Simone’s "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and participants, at some point in the program, make silk hearts that they stuff with love letters to themselves.

The point, says Hickman, is to develop an "armor of confidence and clarity so wicked words bounce off them."

Heeding a Call to Action

Media activists in other arenas, meanwhile, took the Imus incident as a call to action.

"We have to take advantage of the narrow window of opportunity to galvanize and mobilize a network to prosecute an ongoing strategy to turn the value system of the media on its back," Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich said in an interview in April.

Scruggs-Leftwich, an occasional commentator for Women’s eNews, is executive director of the Center for Community and Economic Justice in St. Petersburg, Fla., senior professor teaching research methods and leadership courses at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., and chair of the Sojourner Truth Center for Interactive Justice.

"I am always involved in black women’s issues," she says.

When Scruggs-Leftwich heard about Imus’ "nappy-headed hos" reference to members of the winning female basketball team at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, she and other activists e-mailed commentaries to Web-based media within hours.

And by the end of that week, on Friday, April 13, Scruggs-Leftwich was among 40 female leaders convened by the Washington-based National Congress of Black Women for a discussion of race and media at the National Press Club in Washington. Participants represented groups such as the National Council of Negro Women, Women’s Chamber of Commerce, National Organization for Women, Feminist Majority and the YWCA.

The coalition that formed that day still meets or holds conference calls weekly, says E. Faye Williams, a lawyer and the national chair of the National Congress of Black Women.

Members are available for interviews and talk-show appearances. CNN declined their request for a meeting, but since April they have met with TV executives from BET, MTV, CBS and NBC, and addressed a shareholder meeting of Viacom, the New York-based media giant. The National Organization for Women has scheduled a protest tonight at Viacom headquarters, coinciding with MTV Video Music Awards, to protest racism and sexism in music. Rev. Al Sharpton’s New York-based National Action Network organized protests over the use of degrading lyrics by the music industry in early August in more than 20 cities including New York, Los Angeles and Detroit.

Sept. 25 Hearing

Robin Hickman

Members have also met with political representatives, including Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., who is sponsoring a congressional hearing, From Imus to Industry: The Business of Stereotypes and Degradation, on Sept. 25.

In an interview last April Scruggs-Leftwich noted that some black women–including Gwen Ifill, moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer;" and Julianne Malveaux, an economist, author and president and CEO of the multimedia concern Last Word Productions, participated in TV discussions about the verbal denigration of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights players.

But given that the incident directly concerned black women Scruggs-Leftwich saw a problem.

"By and large there was no effort by the media, particularly by the electronic media, to involve any women of color in a discussion of this event and in commentary, which would put this event into context," Scruggs-Leftwich said.

A study in May by Media Matters for America, a Web-based media watchdog group based in Washington, quantified the paucity of black women in popular TV news shows.

The group surveyed cable news programs that broadcast from 4 p.m. to midnight and found that all 35 hosts were white; 29 were male. Guest lists were somewhat more diverse but minority females were the rarest group to be found.

Media Matters said it conducted the study because the increased diversity of news program guests during the Imus coverage made researchers wonder what the more typical representation was like.

Legacy of Slavery

Sheila Johnson, a volunteer with Child Abuse Prevention Services in New York’s suburban Long Island, says Imus’ remarks resonated with the legacy of slavery in a country that only 40 years ago ended the last of the Jim Crow laws that sanctioned racial oppression and segregation and were named after a 19th-century minstrel song that stereotyped blacks.

"White men had the power to physically assault us, rape us and harm us," she says, referring to slavery. "Fast forward: We’re suffering a kind of language rape and it certainly assaults our emotional well-being, our minds. These words were always used to label women and define us and also keep us in our place and also to objectify us."

Johnson conducts workshops for seventh grade girls at the abuse prevention center. After the Imus incident some of the girls in her group admitted they use the same words that Imus used to refer to other girls.

Meanwhile, the Imus incident spurred Anita Hill–who in 1991 caused a furor when she accused her former boss, Clarence Thomas, now a justice on the Supreme Court of the United States, of sexual harassment–to recall her own public insults and call for stronger media reform.

"Fifteen years ago, in a book defending Clarence Thomas’ selection for the Supreme Court, author David Brock described me as ‘nutty’ and ‘slutty,’" Hill wrote on the Feminist Law Professor blog.

Hill, author of "Speaking Truth to Power," added: "We need a movement to counter the verbal assaults on women that flow freely in modern media outlets and that have now crept into our workplaces and are increasing in our schools. In addition to our efforts to ‘Take Back the Night,’ we need to ‘Reclaim the Day!’"

Angeli R. Rasbury, a writer, educator, artist and lawyer, writes about women, girls and culture and works with youth in New York City.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at editors@womensenews.org.

For more information:

Media Matters, "Locked Out: The Lack of Gender and Ethnic Diversity
on Cable News Continues":
http://mediamatters.org/items/200705070003

Anita Hill’s May blog at Feminist Law Professors:
http://feministlawprofs.law.sc.edu/?p=1793

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