On a recent broadcast of "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," the host launched into his opening monologue with customary snark. But instead of riffing on a celebrity, he detoured and took on Johnathan Rodgers, the CEO and president of the black cable network TV One. Rodgers had recently announced that his channel planned to cover only the Democratic National Convention, which begins in Denver on Monday, and not the Republican convention, in Minneapolis-St. Paul in September.
"Black Republicans are very upset," Leno said. "Both of them."
Cheap laugh aside, there's a serious matter of communications ethics underneath Leno's jibe, something central to the issue of fairness in black mainstream media and whether black media moguls are part of a generations-old problem or part of a solution.
"We are not a news organization," Rodgers said at a Television Critics Association press event in Beverly Hills in July. "We are a television network designed to celebrate African-American achievement. If Hillary [Clinton] was the nominee, we would not be covering this year's Democratic Convention."
TV One is available in almost 44 million households, according to a Nielsen estimate in July 2008. "My audience is 93 percent black," Rodgers added. "I serve my audience."
Despite criticism, Rodgers hasn't budged on his decision. His demographically-based defense shares much with the programming philosophy of Black Entertainment Television, which has long defended itself against charges of insubstantial programming—most specifically the racy videos that have typified rap music, and BET, for years.
But in this racially-charged political year, BET seems to grasp that concept of how best to achieve journalistic legitimacy in the political context. Jeff Johnson, host of BET's new news and commentary program, "The Truth With Jeff Johnson," told the Associated Press on Aug. 13 that his show would cover both Democratic and Republican Conventions, saying that "it's important for our viewers to be able to see both sides."
That two black media organizations should be of two minds about covering this potentially transformative political campaign is instructive. It says much about the larger struggles of black media in an era when racial lines and responsibilities are increasingly fuzzy. The black press, as an institution, has traditionally championed equal informational access. It's ironic that these questions about equal coverage come on the 40th anniversary of the Kerner Commission findings, the controversial government reports that found the media complicit in fostering "two societies, one black and one white."
Rodgers has said his decision was meant to recognize the desires of his audience. TV One, he said, would be at the Democratic convention "to celebrate African-American culture and achievement," implicitly suggesting there's only one political party that reflects culture and achievement. This distinction runs counter to the basic balance that good newsgathering organizations strive for. It seems contrary to the open-door, change-driven meme of the Obama campaign itself.
And it's also a serious diss to those black conservatives who, genuinely moved by the Obama campaign and its potential, have started to make the pivot toward the Democratic contender. Black Republicans interested in Barack Obama are still Republicans, and they still expect their beliefs to be validated as acceptable representations of black culture, politics and progress. The idea that a major black cable outlet with a news component would focus on one political slice of black America at the expense of the other—however small "the other" might be—is a slap at fair play.
If Rodgers can't afford covering both conventions, that would be one thing. At least one analyst in black media extends Rodgers that benefit of the doubt.
"First, it is historic and of extreme interest to an African-American audience," said George Curry, columnist and former editor in chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and BlackPressUSA.com.
"Should TV One cover both conventions? Yes, if resources allow it," Curry said. "But if they had to choose one over the other for financial reasons, they made the right decision. This is not an issue of bias; it's a fiscal reality that most white networks do not have to deal with."
But Rodgers has said publicly that he based this decision not on pursestrings, but on the basis of perceived viewer preference, and the idea that TV One's stated focus—"lifestyle and entertainment television"—exempts it from the standards of news.
It's disingenuous for Rodgers to say that TV One is not a news organization. Of course it is. News is information: about entertainment, about lifestyles, about politics. The fact that TV One has reporters to dispatch to one of the conventions confirms that its directors understand the potential for groundbreaking political drama—news—at the Denver convention.
With a reach into 44 million households (not all of them African American), TV One would seem to be at least professionally obligated to follow the spirit of editorial balance that news organizations of any serious reputation have tried to maintain. TV One's one-party plan violates that spirit of journalistic balance.
The opportunity for black Americans to elevate their voices, to stand and be counted in the public square, to join the American political experience—all of it—has been central to black aspirations.
The notion that, 40 years after Kerner, a major black media outlet would engage in the same discretionary bias that mainstream media has been charged with for a lot longer than 40 years may be troubling to all black viewers. Rodgers' choice may be a good business decision. Whether it's a good civic decision, something that enlightens TV One's viewership, is another matter entirely.
Michael E. Ross is a West Coast journalist who blogs frequently on politics, pop culture and race matters at Culchavox. A periodic contributor to PopMatters, his writing has appeared in msnbc.com, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.