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FROM NITTY GRITTY: A WHITE EDITOR IN BLACK JOURNALISM, BY BEN BURNS. UNIVERSITY PRESS OF MISSISSIPPI. 230 PP. $27.50.
In the inflamed racial climate of the 1960s, for a white to edit a black newspaper had become obviously impossible. I decided to leave the Defender, my decision a recognition that I was no superhero able to transform its editorial maladies, staff attitudes, and the ingrained shortsightedness of its top management. By then I had also come to recognize realistically that trapped in the innate contradictions between commercial success and racial militancy, black journalism had faced a perpetual dilemma from its founding in 1827. During all the intervening decades, the accepted thinking of black publishers was that the very racial belligerency that garnered readers for them inevitably lost advertising revenue, while diminishing militancy in their pages lost reader support and loyalty even as it increased advertising. African American newspapers chose to favor militancy over advertising. With Ebony magazine John H. Johnson challenged that conventional approach; he rejected racial militancy to win millions of dollars in advertising. Yet although he upset the general precept of the black press, he nevertheless was able to win a vast readership, unprincipled as his journalistic path might have seemed in some eyes.
The major role I played in Ebony’s early success could have been a source of much pride for me, but I never quite adjusted to Ebony’s deliberate disregard for the ongoing plight of so much of black America. I resigned myself to accepting the principles of black capitalism and the limitations they inevitably placed on Ebony, but I never became fully reconciled to its editorial policies. Eventually I came to understand that black journalism — whether the Defender and Ebony under black ownership or Sepia under white control – was as fully dedicated to profits as any other business venture.
Burns was the first editor of Ebony magazine and the first white editor of the Chicago Daily Defender.
Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Jan/Feb 1998
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