The Practices of Modern Media Approaching the Twenty-first Century
In contemporary media, white racial consciousness as a news value is unarticulated in journalists’ judgments about the external environment. As a news value, race is also not officially a criterion for the selection of news stories or parts of stories. But the history of race as a news value in mass media suggests that it is built into the economic foundation of the system. “Racism is above all a social relation— ‘systematized hierarchization implacably pursued,’ in Fanon’s words—anchored in material structures and embedded in historical configurations of power” (Sho- hat & Stam 1994: 19). Did this mean that the transplanted European society in the United States had shunned the post-Enlightenment ideal of the “one-ness of humanity”? Saxton suggests that they had not left the path they began, seeking “historical explanations through geography and environment for racial differentiation”; instead the new society was structurally conflicted over reconciling the “the rights of man” with the existence of African and Native American enslavement (231—33).12 However, despite the differences in positions about slavery and abolition, the presence of “race”—African and Native American—was viewed as a problem for the union (234).
Saxton’s point about the continued acceptance of some of the principles of the Enlightenment does not appear to adequately take reflexivity of mass media systems into account. For example, it does not sufficiently contemplate resistance to racial oppression and the impact it had on how racial differentiations and racial animosities were articulated by whites. Given the history of modern journalism and mass media, how has the history of its formation affected practices in the media of our contemporary world?
In contemporary media coverage of racial issues we have seen some important news stories used as an opportunity to focus on racial differentiation between black and white. This has happened when fundamental changes were taking place in racial relationships in the society (Ferber 1998). We saw this in 2008 in the coverage of the Democratic Party primary races between Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, when the issue of “working-class whites,” their loyalties, and their relative importance to the body politic became important in coverage. This was particularly a factor in the Pennsylvania primary in late April. The state was described as being three distinct regions, one of which was like Alabama of the past and consequently unlikely to support a black candidate like Barack Obama in the primaries and particularly in the general election.
We also saw racial differentiations articulated in the media coverage of the infamous Central Park Jogger Story, in which a white female investment banker jogging through New York City’s Central Park was raped and six black and Latino teens were wrongly convicted. This case unfolded during New York’s 1989 mayoral campaign in which David Dinkins, the first serious African American candidate, was running. The language used in the coverage of the case was ugly. I conducted a study of coverage of the story based on a content analysis of a sample of 251 newspaper articles in the New York Daily News and New York Times over the course of fourteen years, from the time of the incident until the case was overturned and the convictions vacated in 2002. In the coverage, words like “wilding,”13 wolfpack, pack, were often used.
Are the media still operating as an arena for the development of white nationalist identities? The cases above suggest this phenomenon may still exist. When we consider the political economy of advertising in our contemporary world, this seems still to be the case.