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Category: History

“News for the Rich, White, and Blue”: Nikki Usher on her new book and the state of American journalism

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Erik Carter

News organizations are facing an economic crisis

In their battle for survival, they are “realigning their priorities in ways that favor audiences who are willing to pay.” And those who are willing to pay tend to be rich, white, and politically blue.

On November 3, as part of the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Fall 2021 Information Inequalities Speaker Series, author and University of Illinois associate professor Nikki Usher discussed her new book News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.

Usher began by explaining that as newspapers face “market failure,” only non-geographical news is in a position to survive. As news becomes a private good (The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times come to mind), the result is inconsistent and unequal access to news. 

According to Usher, 1800 local communities lack any regular access to local news. Usher stated that political consequences result when news organizations pull back from places that don’t exhibit that aforementioned willingness to pay. 

She gave an example of one such consequence: many journalists had their “heads in the sand” about the rising tides of populism in rural America. As a result, they were blindsided when Trump won the election. But the win simply revealed what had been the case all along. 

The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged this after the election: “We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”

Usher said that another consequence of the delocalization of news is reduced trust: only 11% of Republicans say they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount. Additionally, when places lose news, they grow more polarized, with reductions in split-ticket voting. 

Usher said that she practices a kind of “gestalt scholarship,” employing the tools of ethnography and lived experience as well as quantitative data. She dipped into this side of her research, recounting a few anecdotes which represent the “materiality” of the loss of local news.

In 2018, the LA Times moved from its Downtown home, near Skid Row, to El Segundo. The move was not without controversy. In a 2018 editorial, an anonymous author wrote that “location matters, on both a physical and symbolic level, and… moving the headquarters far away from the local power base and the most important entities and stories the Times covers… is the wrong choice.” 

The Miami Herald’s old home got demolished in 2015. Now the newsroom is near the airport, across from a cow pasture. “It’s bad for the psyche for there to be no building to exist for people to see every day,” said an editor. (A recent bit of unnerving news regarding the future of the Herald and journalism at large.)

Usher then stated that newsrooms are “places of power” that are becoming “increasingly inhospitable places for those who are non-white and who lack financial resources.” 

In June 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after the publication of an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” led to a walkout by dozens of staff members. At the LA Times, Latinx journalists penned an open letter drawing attention to the fact that its 13% Latinx newsroom does not reflect its nearly 50% Latinx community. In Detroit, the disparity is even worse: an 80% Black population is served by a newsroom that is only 14% Black. 

In 1968, the Kerner Commission put down a series of recommendations to improve diversity, noting that the journalistic profession was “shockingly backward” in its absence of Black journalists. The American Society of News Editors set a target date for newsrooms to be at parity with the populations they represented: 2000. They’ve since pushed the deadline to 2025. 

It’s not looking good. That’s because, according to Usher, newsrooms aren’t hiring, and “when newsrooms don’t hire, they don’t hire minority journalists.”

Usher also touched on the “death of the working class reporter.” Increasingly, the only young people who are not deterred by journalism’s instability and lack of lucrativity are those who come from copious amounts of privilege. Add this to the inability of poorer students to pursue resume-building journalism activities alongside work-study jobs, and the preference of news outlets for the oft-wealthy students of elite universities, and one can see why “journalism is becoming a profession for the elite.” 

Usher said that when “newsrooms become bastions of privilege, [that’s] bad news.” Losing journalists who come from blue-collar backgrounds means losing the ability to “empathize” with a whole set of experiences.

Usher said that as news revenue goes increasingly digital, reliance on those willing to pay is even more pronounced, with “consequences for equity in access and geographically specific news coverage.” She referenced The New York Times, whose rise “mirrors the rise in inequality” of access to news. “They know they’re leaving people behind,” Usher said. She quoted Dean Baquet, who acknowledged that 98% of Americans “were now excluded from The New York Times’ journalism and might well have to do with substandard information.”

Usher also discussed “Goldilock newspapers” — not too big, not too small, but just right for survival according to the “upside-down logic” of digital advertising. The problem is that, as Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News put it, “the pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we’re covering” — sometimes to the detriment of local readers. As a result of this phenomenon, Usher has seen reduced coverage in places considered too low-income to get advertisers. In one instance, she saw a dismissal of concerns about ad- and malware clunking up the computers of those with inferior Internet access because “those people are less likely to subscribe anyway.” 

Where does this leave us? Usher identified a few potential solutions. She reiterated calls for more inclusive newsrooms, and added her own call for higher-ed financial aid reform so that lower-income students can have a fighting chance at pursuing journalism. She discussed the need for a “post newspaper consciousness” — to acknowledge that we cannot save the newspaper, but we can identify what journalism does best and save those “special parts.” 

She left the audience with a final recommendation: journalism should “embrace the partisan media system.” Usher clarified her position: the news media like The New York Times “hides behind a veil of neutrality,” when this is only an (unconvincing) illusion. “People want to see them advocate for social justice,” she said, and she agrees. Usher doesn’t think polarization is inherently bad “if it’s polarization toward social justice and breaking down systemic inequality.”

“There’s no use assuaging people who have given up and aren’t listening. And then you have lots of people unsubscribing because the phony neutrality was irritating them,” Usher said. For organizations like the Times, the veil of neutrality is looking like a lose-lose.

She advised them to “go for those who are still listening. And just own it.”

Post by Zella Hanson

“Rainforest Radio”: Linguistic Ecology in the Western Amazon

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Radio host Rita Tunay interviews a local elder on the Kichwa-language radio program “Mushuk Ñampi” [A New Path].
Photographs from Dr. Georgia Ennis.

Starting at the pre-dawn hours of 3 or 4 AM, the Kichwa people of Napo, Ecuador, gather with family and spend time talking and listening and drinking tea, in a tradition known as Wayusa Upina.

In Kichwa, the verb “to listen” also means “to understand,” says Penn State anthropologist Georgia Ennis, who spoke at Duke last week. Wayusa Upina provides natural opportunities for children to learn from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles. Kichwa pedagogies, Ennis explains, “have a lot less to do with a traditional classroom.”

But as multigenerational households become less common and Kichwa children spend more time in schools, the tradition has become less widespread. Meanwhile, other traditions, like radio programs in Kichwa, are becoming more common, and “the radio ends up filling the space” that multigenerational conversation might otherwise fill. Through music videos, social media, live performances, books, and radio programs, the people of Napo are finding new roles for an old language.

The town of Archidona, Ecuador, located in the Western Amazon.

Ennis studies language oppression and reclamation and is broadly interested in the relationship between ecological and linguistic change. “How can we bring language and the environment together?” she asks. While her work was initially focused on language standardization, she became interested in the environmental aspects during her research. The two issues aren’t separate; they are linked in complex ways. To explain ecology in a linguistic sense, Dr. Ennis offers a definition from Einar Haugen: “Language ecology may be defined as the study of interactions between any given language and its environment… The true environment of a language is the society that uses it as one of its codes.”

Many scientists believe we are witnessing a sixth mass extinction, and extinction is occurring at unprecedented rates, but Dr. Ennis says we are losing another kind of diversity as well: the diversity of languages. Her own work focuses on Upper Napo Kichwa in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Though there are 47,000 speakers, there has been a language shift toward Spanish among younger generations. “Spanish really remains the dominant language of social life,” she says, even though the majority of the residents are Kichwa.

The concept of “language endangerment,” or the rapid loss of marginalized languages as speakers adopt dominant languages instead, is complex and not without its critics. Dr. Ennis believes languages like Kichwa are “actively oppressed,” not passively endangered.

There are eight varieties of Kichwa in the Andean highlands and the Amazon. “Unified Kichwa,” which Dr. Ennis says is based on reconstruction of Andean varieties, was adopted as an official language of Ecuador in 2008, but this standardized version fails to capture local variation. In Napo, Dr. Ennis found that “the regional linguistic varieties were understood to be inherited from your elders.” Initially, she had “a much stronger stance” against standardized language, but she now sees certain benefits to Unified Kichwa. It can, for instance, help encourage bilingual education. Still, it risks outcompeting local dialects. Many of the people she worked with in Napo are actively trying to prevent that.

The reverse of language endangerment or oppression is language revitalization or reclamation, which aims to preserve linguistic diversity by increasing the number of speakers and broadening the use of language. Media production, for instance, can help create social, political, and economic value for Upper Napo Kichwa.

Ofelia Salazar of the Association of Upper Napo Kichwa midwives weaves a shigra bag from the natural fiber pitak.

In Napo, Dr. Ennis realized that many Kichwa are interested in reclaiming more than just language. They are also working to preserve traditional environmental practices and intergenerational pedagogies. None of these issues exist in a vacuum, and recognizing their links is important. Dr. Ennis wants people to realize that “ecologies are more than just biological ecosystems.” Through the course of her work, she’s become more aware of the ties between linguistic and environmental issues. Environmental issues, she says, are present in daily life; they shape what people talk about. Conversations like these are essential. Whether in radio programs or casual discussions, political debates or household conversations before the sun has risen, the things we talk about and the stories we tell affect how we view the world and how we respond to it.

By Sophie Cox, Class of 2025

School Segregation & Culture War: Color of Education 2021

Mary Hassdyk

Perhaps you’ve heard of the 1619 Project. A Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalism project which sought to place “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the project has been controversial and is thought to have sparked the current debate over critical race theory in the classroom.

Its creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, spoke at the Color of Education virtual summit on October 26. She discussed her journalistic research on systemic racial inequities in the education system, as well as the 1619 Project and the struggle over teaching race in the classroom.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones defined the public school as an “intimate place” where young members of society come together to “exchange ideas and culture, meeting across class and race.” The public school serves to create community, which, she stressed, is necessary for a healthy democracy. “A sense of community prevents polarization,” she said. “I know that a person who’s different from me still wants, fundamentally, the same things.” That gives us more of an opportunity to solve political problems without hostility. 

Instead, she often sees “segregated” low-income mostly-Black schools and “integrated” mostly-white schools, separated by a disturbing chasm of resources and opportunity. (She’s written about this in several Times pieces.) She remarked that “this bifurcation doesn’t serve our democracy and it doesn’t serve humanity.”

But that’s been a problem since before Brown v. Board of Education. What’s changed in the last few years, according to Hannah-Jones, is that in the wake of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, there is now a “culture war” being waged over critical race theory. 

Critical race theory is an academic framework that examines the intersection of race with law and public policy. The theory is controversial: many fear the fundamental critique of the US legal and economic system that the theory ultimately implies. (In 2020, whereas white conservatives and more moderate liberals tended to blame fatal incidents of police brutality on “a few bad apples,” the viewpoint consistent with critical race theory is that “the problem is the barrel and the systems that produce it.”)

Laws banning the teaching of critical race theory have already been passed or are in the works in several states, including here in North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper recently vetoed a bill which sought to regulate the teaching of several race-related concepts, including whether “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist.”

There’s also historical revisionism, known pejoratively as ‘revisionist history’: the reinterpretation of orthodox views surrounding historical events, or, according to fellow Times contributor and historian Timothy Snyder, “the parts of history that challenge leaders’ sense of righteousness or make their supporters uncomfortable.” (Snyder says that in the US, “the ‘revisionists’ are people who write about race.”) 

Critical race theory ultimately requires some revisionism — to critically examine the intersection of race with the laws and policy of the current moment, we must critically examine how we got here, and that means taking another look at the US’ legal history, war history, even its history of infrastructure. Critical race theory is usually taught in college humanities classes. (Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in the 1980s, and her work is decidedly college level — I’ve read her here at Duke, but certainly not before.) But because critical race theory and revisionism are linked, it’s come to pass that any K-12 effort to teach about how racism has informed US history now gets labeled as “critical race theory” by adversaries of these efforts. 

Critical race theory has become a buzzword — and in many circles, it’s a bad word. These days, if a parent thinks you’re teaching critical race theory, you might soon find yourself without a job. (The summit required a passcode and was not recorded for fear that educators participating might be “outed as believers” in critical race theory and subsequently maligned.)

Along with educators in the Zoom comments, Hannah-Jones discussed this problem: teachers are getting accused of teaching “critical race theory”; the term is being used as a weapon and to imply wrongdoing; and it seems that parents, legislators, and even some educators don’t know what it actually means. 

Hannah-Jones asserted that this is “how propaganda works.” The term “critical race theory” is being used to produce fear and automatic condemnation, which distracts from the content of the theory and shuts down further (more rational) conversation. Hannah-Jones gave some advice to educators: “When a parent says, ‘I do not want my child to learn critical race theory,’ Ask them what they think that it is. They don’t know. And then you get to say, ‘Well, no, that’s history. Well, no, that’s anti-slavery.’ You get the point.”

Hannah-Jones explained that “as educators, you have to have these conversations with people.” Parents don’t necessarily know what their children are learning in school — and that can be a source of anxiety. So when “bad-faith actors are fear mongering, saying ‘Don’t you know what terrible things your kids are learning?’” it’s all too easy for parents to become distraught and distrust their child’s teacher.

Moving to discussing other issues in education, Hannah-Jones emphasized that schools are generationally deprived of resources, which is a problem that “can’t be fixed overnight.” She’s seen parents trying to advocate for their children and failing because they lack proximity to social, political, or legal power. “Maybe they can’t come to PTA because they’re a single mother, or they work at Popeyes — they get dismissed,” she said. “There’s no meeting with the superintendent. They can’t call the media in.” And when power dictates one’s ability to make change, the generational deprivation of resources can only continue.

Jayden Grant, a senior at Falls Lake Academy, asked Hannah-Jones how to ensure that these issues are addressed on the level of charter and private schools, which aren’t governed by the same policies. 

Hannah-Jones replied that she is fundamentally opposed to charter and private schools, viewing them as “undemocratic by design.” As such, “holding them accountable” is only possible through public advocacy, namely through the media. Students have the strongest voice, she told Jayden. They’re the reason these schools exist in the first place; it’s up to them to challenge policies or actions they see as unfair and make the public aware. 

On that note, Hannah-Jones brought the conversation back to the question of which version of our collective past will be taught in the K-12 classroom. Hannah-Jones said that based on the feedback she’s gotten and conversations she’s had, the 1619 project has inspired kids. It’s made them excited about history and learning in general. She denounced the neoliberal “privatization and commodification of education,” stating that often, parents wrongly view themselves as consumers. “We need to center kids in these discussions,” she said.

Hannah-Jones wrapped up the discussion with a call to action. She told the audience to “get angry” that authors like Ruby Bridges and Toni Morrison are being blacklisted, because “that is the same kind of thinking that’s led to the inequality we see now.” She claimed that “people wouldn’t be freaking out about the 1619 Project if it wasn’t having an effect,” but the Project is making waves, because “those who control the stories about who we are control the culture.” And the culture Hannah-Jones wants to see is one which sees the “least of us as just as deserving as anyone else.”

Professor Emeritus at UNC Harry Amana had the last word, saying that one cannot be an educator without being an optimist. That’s because, as an educator, you believe that “if people knew better, they would do better.” 

Maybe one day, we all will.

Post by Zella Hanson

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