Commentator & columnist Juan Gonzalez

The Democracy Now! co-host and co-author of News for All the People explains why Americans don’t have a free market in the media and tackles the racial politics of media ownership.

Co-host of the nationally syndicated news show Democracy Now!, Juan Gonzalez has been a journalist for more than 30 years. He's a New York Daily News columnist and has written extensively on Ground Zero illnesses. He's also written four books, including his new text, News for All the People. Raised in East Harlem and Brooklyn, Gonzalez is a founder and past president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists—and a member of its Hall of Fame—and was named twice by Hispanic Business magazine as one of the most influential Hispanics in the U.S.


Tavis: Juan Gonzalez is the co-host of Democracy Now with my friend Amy Goodman, and a columnist for the “New York Daily News.” His new text is called “News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.” He co-authors the book with Joseph Torres. Juan, good to have you on this program.

Juan Gonzalez: Oh, thank you, Tavis, my pleasure.

Tavis: You doing all right?

Gonzalez: Fine, fine.

Tavis: Good. There’s obviously a lot of research, a lot of work, to pull all this data together. Let me start by asking what made you think that there was worth, value, necessity in doing all of this about race and the American media? Why does it matter?

Gonzalez: Well, I think the reality is that many Americans are dissatisfied with the kind of news and information they’re getting from the media system, but it’s especially true among people of color. African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, Asian-Americans feel almost assaulted on a daily basis by the kind of news and coverage that is especially in the mainstream and commercial media.

They feel denigrated, they feel marginalized, they feel that their triumphs and their tragedies, their struggle in America is not properly represented, and I, as a journalist who’s been in the commercial media now for 35 years as well as in alternative and dissident media with Amy Goodman and Democracy Now, still feel frustrated over the inability of our press to properly represent the American people.

I decided to try to go back and understand how the system got to be where it is today from the very beginning of our press and why it’s been so difficult to have a fair and representative press in America.

Tavis: Before we go back, let me stay with the contemporary moment. You used some strong language – assaulted, denigrated, marginalized. Why do people of color feel that way?

Gonzalez: Well, they feel that in essence the media is constantly portraying us as the other, as the problem. Whether it’s with immigration, whether it’s with Arab-Americans and Muslims in the country, the sense that this is the threat that America is constantly having to deal with, or whether it’s in the early days with the Native Americans and during the period of slavery, the dangers of slave insurrections or violence of slaves against their masters.

People of color have consistently been portrayed in our media as the other, as the threat, and this has devastating impact on the young people who are developing and growing up in these communities.

Tavis: I use the phrase “people of color” oftentimes in my discourse, and there’s value in using the phrase people of color because oftentimes, it’s relevant to a broad swath of the American public; other times it’s just a shortcut to make a point, as you well know.

But there are differences amongst the various racial and ethnic groups in this country, so how is it that you go about writing a text that puts all that together under the umbrella of –

Gonzalez: Well, we try to tell the separate stories as well as what is common to the experiences of each of the groups. We go through the history of the development of the African American press in the United States, of the Latino press, of the Asian and of the Native American, and also the conflicts within the groups.

There were often conflicts over race, over class, within the different ethnic and racial groups in the country, but there’s a commonality among them, which is unfortunately that as our nation expanded across a continent and increasingly acquired more territory, the subjugation of the peoples in those territories became a use part of the theme of American journalism so that we were able to on the one hand look at the difference between them.

For instance, the Cherokee Indians had a press that was constantly talking about opposing the conquest of white settlers, but the Cherokees at the same time held slaves and were supportive of the slave system, so that we look at both the commonalities of the experiences of the different ethnic and racial groups, as well as the difference between them. We don’t hide any of the problems that occur within the groups as well.

Tavis: While we’re on this notion of people of color, Juan, you’ve heard this a thousand times, I know, and I’ve certainly heard it a thousand times, and that is this notion – I know you hear it especially being on Democracy Now – this notion of a liberal media bias. You know that phrase that we hear thrown at us all the time, the liberal media bias.

Gonzalez: Yes.

Tavis: I’ve said many times there is no liberal media bias; there is a capitalism media bias. In other words, all they want to do is make money. They want to sell papers, they want to sell books, they want to sell advertising on television, radio and now the Internet.

Which raises the question, in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, if not because it’s the right thing to do, then why not correct this problem for the sake of making money, given that that’s who your audience is more and more every day. Does that make sense?

Gonzalez: Well, there’s no doubt that many of the major media companies want to exploit the market.

Tavis: Precisely.

Gonzalez: As more and more consumers are becoming African American, Latino, as the non-white population of the country is growing they have more of an interest in marketing to them.

But our media system was more than about consumption. From the very early days of the republic there were major debates about how news and information should flow in a democracy.

Interestingly, the founders had a major debate when they created the postal system as to whether the American people were going to receive their information in newspapers with government help and government subsidy.

These debates involved Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, all the founders, with big differences among them. We found that the government plays a very important role in the development of media policy in America.

In the early days, the post office, it made good decision. Increasingly it had centralized information flow, and it has allowed major companies to get bigger and bigger.

The result has been that ownership by racial minorities of radio stations, of television stations, has declined. The number of African American journalists and Latino journalists working in the mainstream newsrooms has declined in recent years, so that what we’re seeing is that centralization of media ownership results in fewer African American and Latino and Native American voices being heard.

Decentralization of our media ownership allows democracy to flourish, allows dissident and different viewpoints to be heard, and allows marginalized groups to speak and be heard by the rest of America.

Tavis: I want to come back to that point that you make so brilliantly now, about the government’s role in this process, but I want to stay with what I asked a moment ago, because you’re making, I think, the case I’m trying to make, which is that if for no other reason than the fact that you just love making money, how do you as a media company continue to thrive and survive into the future in this multicultural, in this multiracial, in this multiethnic, in this less than it used to be white place called America, how do you do that if you don’t respond to and respect people of color as consumers, if you care about making money. You follow me?

Gonzalez: Right. Well, see, but the problem is that the companies want to have us as consumers, but they don’t want to promote the necessity, the importance of disparate voices in a democratic republic –

Tavis: How do they get away with that?

Gonzalez: I think they get away with it because unfortunately, the citizen movement in America, which in the ’60s and ’70s held the media companies accountable, has become disarmed, to some degree. Between 1971 and 1973, there were 340 license challenges in the United States to the station licenses of radio and television stations by African Americans and Latinos who walked into their local television station.

They said, “We’re sick and tired of the kind of programming you have. We’re sick and tired of the fact that you don’t employ any of our folks and that you don’t have programs geared to our communities,” programs like this one and others that have really shown the way, and they fought to open those places up and the companies responded.

What did the government do? It used to be that a station license had to be renewed every three years. They expanded it to every eight years. They made it more difficult for this effort at accountability to occur, and so now what you have is that the media companies are sliding backward.

They’re still marketing, but they’re not being held responsible for their public interest responsibilities by the government to provide news and information, to provide quality children’s programming.

No one is gauging how much time they’re devoting to commercials rather than to content, so that the safeguards that existed before to assure that the public airways were used to serve a public function have been whittled away. So they’re able to develop the consumers, to exploit the market, but they’re not being held responsible for their public interest requirements.

Also, the citizen movement has become disarmed. Then unfortunately too many of our civil rights organizations, which used to stand up against media concentration, are increasingly getting huge amounts of contributions from the Comcasts and the Time Warners and the other major media companies and telecom companies, and are now less confrontational to big media.

Tavis: When you say that government has been too – and I’m paraphrasing here – the government has just been the best friend of big media business of late, during the Bush years, these policies got much more lax, as you note in the book, and you and Joseph Torres lay this out, during the Bush years the rules for media got much more lax.

The FCC just gave them a pass on so many things, and what you would call centralization I call monopoly.

Gonzalez: Right.

Tavis: So media becomes more monopolistic. That happens, quite frankly, and I say this respectfully, I respect his mother and father, but that happens when the guy named Michael Powell, an African American, is head of the FCC, the son of Colin Powell.

So Michael Powell, as head of the FCC, and his cohorts let a lot of this mess happen. They let these rules get more lax during the Bush years, running the FCC. He’s no longer there, but that happened during the Bush years.

I’m not raising that for any reason but to ask whether or not in the Obama era, whether or not the rules are getting tightened. Are things getting better or is it business as usual?

Gonzalez: Well, unfortunately, in the Obama era, when Barack Obama was running for office he utilized the new media to a great extent to be able to mobilize the masses of people to support him, and he also promised that he would fight for a free and open Internet.

Because really, the battle in the media today is over the future of the Internet, as voice, video and print all converge in the Internet. Unfortunately, his FCC chairman, Janikowski, does not have a good record on this. Because the issue right now is on the Internet, will the people who control the pipes through which all of your information flows to your smartphone, to your computer, to your television set, will they be able to speed up or slow down content over the Internet depending on whether people are able to pay.

So if you’re able to pay, right now your website or my website or anyone else’s can be accessed at the same speeds as CNN’s website, as “The L.A. Times” website.

But if the major media companies have their way, it will be possible for them to speed up or slow down sites depending on who pays the most, and therefore small entrepreneurs, racial minorities, people who don’t have the cash to pay, will be slowed down and we’re going to begin to recreate the same kind of inequities, economic inequities and racial inequities that existed in the old media, in radio and television and in print.

We’re going to find it replicated in the new media unless government policy assures an open, non-discriminatory Internet, unfortunately Janikowski and the Obama administration are talking one way but they’re allowing the companies to have much more of their agenda at the FCC.

Tavis: You said something else I want to go get, because this was in the news just weeks ago and I wanted to raise this to ask your take on it and what you and Brother Torres has to say about it in the text.

When Al Sharpton was being considered for the job at MSNBC, “New York Times” ran a number of front-page stories, major stories, about the role that Sharpton had played as one of those civil rights leaders, the role that others had played, he and the NAACP and the Urban League and a number of other organizations, a front-page story about the role they had played in signing off on Comcast being given the approval to purchase NBC.

Gonzalez: Right.

Tavis: Now you said earlier, back in the day, that Black folk didn’t used to do that. They used to complain when they weren’t being respected and when their issues weren’t being raised, et cetera, et cetera.

Now these companies have figured out a way to go after these civil rights leaders, to go after these organizations, and I’m not going to say buy them off. What I am going to say, though, is to figure out how to get their support so they can get approval for these mergers.

So this story becomes a front-page story when Sharpton is being considered for MSNBC, because he’s going to work for the company, potentially, that he signed off on or supported publicly being able to purchase NBC and MSNBC.

Gonzalez: Right.

Tavis: So that’s how it becomes a national story. Now I come back to that because it was in the news then and it’s been in news prior to that, and I’m sure will be again in the future, but what has happened that allows Black and Brown, all kinds of organizations of color – so I’m not demonizing just Black folk or just Black organizations – but what’s happened in the intervening years that allows these institutions, whose communities are not being well-served by these networks to sign off on all these mergers?

Gonzalez: Well, it is really frustrating, because given the role that civil rights organizations played in the ’60s, to see what is happening now, to some degree, you can understand. Government programs have been cut, many of these civil rights organizations are doing good work and they’re looking for support.

Along come a Time Warner, along comes a Comcast, along comes an AT&T or Verizon and gives money to their scholarship programs, helps their building funds, and then a lobbyist comes along, “Listen, can we trouble you to sign off on this letter?”

They may not even understand the full impact of what they’re doing, but they agree to sign off. Some do understand the impact. In the case of Reverend Sharpton, I have great admiration for what he’s done.

I think it’s terrific that he’s got a new show, but in the old days the civil rights organizations would not only have said give us a show and show that you’re going to do some good programming, but we want a written agreement from you of the gamut of things that you’re going to do to improve the quality of your programming.

Tavis: But they did have some African American committee they put together, Comcast, did.

Gonzalez: Yes.

Tavis: It’s got some high-profile Black people on it that said they were – I didn’t get into all the details, but they did have a committee, though.

Gonzalez: Right, but they make nonbinding agreements.

Tavis: Nonbinding agreements.

Gonzalez: So along comes a new executive at one of these companies and decides, oh, we’re going in a different direction. Gone is whatever progress was made. Whereas in the ’70s, when it was tied to license challenges and the companies made written agreements that were binding, then a new policy in the same media company couldn’t change the direction. It was a lot more difficult to do it.

So I think that what’s happening is that these civil rights organizations unfortunately are not maintaining the kind of consistent and direct approach to the companies that assures a long-term, substantive change in the quality of the programming. They’re just getting crumbs in order to give their approval, and then the mergers occur.

Tavis: So with all the well-to-do Hispanics, with all the well-to-do African Americans, with all the well-to-do Asians, tell me why there are, to your earlier point now, Juan, fewer – fewer – stations, fewer outlets, fewer newspapers owned by people of color than in the past. How is that possible?

Gonzalez: Once again, I believe it comes down to government policy. In the ’70s the Carter administration began a series of policy decisions at the FCC that provided an incentive for a media company to sell a station to a minority owner or to get a tax credit. It was called a minority tax credit.

Suddenly, the number of minority stations owned by African Americans and Latinos increased dramatically. Along comes the new congressional majority in Congress in 1994 during the Gingrich revolution in Congress, and the first thing that they do is they eliminate the minority tax credit at the FCC. From that time since then, the percentage of minority ownership in radio and television has gone down.

Increasingly now these huge mergers in companies that are also not just television companies but are newspaper companies as well have eaten up a lot of the Spanish language press in America.

Most of the Spanish language press in America is not owned by Latinos. “De La Mundo,” is owned by NBC. Univision is owned by American Hedge Funds together with the Televisa, the Mexican moguls from Mexico, that’s foreign ownership. That’s not of the 35 million in the United States.

So we’re in a situation where the white population of the United States, by 2040, 2050, will be a minority of the country, but despite the amazing growth of the non-white population of the United States, minority ownership is decreasing.

Tavis: How do you – I’m not naïve in asking this question, but my white brothers and sisters, mostly white brothers, who run these networks can clearly look at what they’re putting on the air every night and see that pretty much it’s all day, all night, all white.

There are so few people of color who get a chance to ask the questions, to raise the issues, to profile people who ought to be profiled, there are so few of those opportunities, if you’re running these networks, you’re sitting in your office, you see this all day long.

So again, I’m not naïve in asking this, but how is it that this gets justified in a country, to your point now, that is changing demographically so fast?

Gonzalez: Well, it’s astounding to me that it continues, but I think the problem is that we do not understand, many of us who have been in this – because I concluded that I didn’t understand the system after 35 years of being in it.

Tavis: Hence the book.

Gonzalez: Hence the book.

Tavis: Yeah.

Gonzalez: You had to go back and see how the media system developed and the critical role that government policy has played. We have not had a free market in the media. We have had government decisions. Every time a new technology comes on the scene, whether it’s the telegraph or early radio or then cable television or then the Internet, the new technology destabilizes the existing order, forces a new information system to be developed, and the government has to rewrite the rules by which information and news will flow to the American people.

Tavis: And when they rewrite these rules and regulations, it’s to keep the status quo.

Gonzalez: Or to turn it over to the most powerful sectors of the society.

Tavis: Right.

Gonzalez: But that’s when the citizens can get involved, and sometimes win victories. You can win victories, as was done in the 1970s. All of those license challenges resulted in people like Ed Bradley getting on the air and Geraldo Rivera and (speaks in Spanish) in San Francisco, and Gloria Campos Brown in Dallas. The first generation of African Americans and Latinos and Asians who came into television was as the result of those community protests against these media companies.

Tavis: I imagine there’s somebody watching right now who is saying that this conversation is futile because with all due respect to Juan and Joseph and Tavis, we now live, thanks to the election of Barack Obama, we now live in a post-racial America, and that we’re the ones who are out of step.

Gonzalez: Right.

Tavis: If this is a post-racial America, you don’t need to have Black media or Brown media or Yellow media. I’ve said many times that I think members of the media who are people of color, or media of color is more relevant and more necessary now than ever before. That’s my sense.

Because there’s some questions that don’t get asked if we don’t ask them, some issues that don’t get raised if we don’t raise them, some topics that don’t get addressed if we don’t address them, and some people who will never get profiled if we don’t profile them.

That’s my sense of it, but how do you respond to that notion of the fact that we now live in a post-racial America, so we don’t even need this.

Gonzalez: Exactly. Well, that’s – and you get it even from young progressive white people who say, “Oh, this is identity politics. That’s from another era.” But what we discovered was that this has been a consistent cry throughout the history of the United States.

When John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish in 1827 created the first Black newspaper, “Freedom’s Journal,” their first editorial was, “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.” Right, from the press and the pulpit we have been denigrated.

So that from the very beginning of the Black press in America, the same issue has been raised. We need to plead our own cause; too long have others spoken for us.

So if this is post-racial, why has it been such a consistent problem throughout American history? I think that the same, whether it’s with the heroes and the heroines of the Asian press or the Native American press, in a true democracy all the people must be able to speak and be heard, and the perspectives of the different peoples of the United States must have a platform.

Tavis: You know how this works. I’ve got 30 seconds to go, and I could do this for hours. After all the research that you and Joseph Torres did, any reason, any reason at all, given that government is the real culprit here, any reason at all to be hopeful?

Gonzalez: Absolutely. Absolutely, because the main arc of the American press has been from news for the few and the powerful to news for all the people. There has been progress. Sometimes it’s gone backwards for a while, but generally speaking, more and more people are getting access to news media, they’re getting a sense of the importance of the news media in a democracy, and you still see evidence of determination to struggle to change the system.

Tavis: I’ve said many times what we get in America isn’t really broadcast, it’s narrowcast, and that’s why I’m so delighted that Juan Gonzalez and Joseph Torres have written this powerful new book. It’s called “News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media.” Might I humbly, highly recommend it to you. Juan, thanks for a great book.

Gonzalez: Thank you.

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Last modified: November 3, 2011 at 1:28 pm