Three cheers for C-SPAN. Were it not for the cable network's coverage, I would have missed out on the thoughtful, incisive conversations at the 10th annual State of the Black Union (SOBU) on Feb. 28 in Los Angeles.
C-SPAN was also on hand to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington D.C. This three-day meeting wrapped up this past weekend as well. Thing is, I didn't have to be a cable subscriber -- or a news and public affairs geek, for that matter -- to hear about it.
CPAC received extensive coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Times, CNN, Fox and NPR. In contrast, the State of the Black Union barely got a mention in the mainstream press. I did manage to find a 593-word write up in the Metro section of The Los Angeles Times, but not much else.
"The State of the Black Union barely got a mention in the mainstream press."
The disparity in press coverage between these two events is a textbook example of censorship in contemporary U.S. journalism. Indeed, news coverage of last weekend's meetings provide a controlled experiment for detecting bias in commercial as well as public service media.
Consider the newsworthiness of each respective meeting. It isn't news that the Republican Party is in shambles. And each passing day further discredits the conservative philosophy that has brought us to the brink of economic collapse. But apart from distancing themselves from the Bush administration and denouncing President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package, CPAC attendees didn't spend much time articulating a substantive policy agenda.
Not surprisingly, it was the backbiting and demagoguery that dominated news coverage of the conservative meeting. By the time Rush Limbaugh addressed the crowd -- his speech was broadcast live by C-SPAN, CNN and Fox -- it was clear that CPAC was high on entertainment value, but there wasn't much news being made.
"CPAC received extensive coverage in the New York Times, the Washington Times, CNN, Fox and NPR."
The SOBU, on the other hand, addressed far more substantive issues: education, economic inequality and race relations among them. In the wake of Obama's election victory, the symposium certainly had a celebratory air about it. But attendees were equally sure to put the new president on notice. Participants pledged that they would work within their local communities to hold the president accountable for his words and deeds.
Despite the unanimity and resolve that emerged from this historic meeting, the mainstream press ignored the proceedings.
Why would this be the case? After all, both meetings featured speakers with considerable name recognition and marquee value. For instance, CPAC featured luminaries in the Republican Party, past and present, from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, to Robert Bolton and Mike Huckabee. Then there were the big guns: conservative pundit Ann Coulter and National Rifle Association leader Wayne LaPierre.
Meanwhile, the guest list of SOBU read like a who's-who in African-American politics and culture. The Rev. Al Sharpton was on hand, as well as Representative Maxine Waters, legal scholar Lani Guinier and cultural critics Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, the first African-American to lead either major political party, attended both events. And just for the record, President Obama spoke, via pre-recorded video, at the SOBU event. As a matter of routine, the press corps covers Obama's addresses, pre-recorded or not. Not this time.
"The disparity in press coverage between these two events is a textbook example of censorship in contemporary U.S. journalism."
Talk about a news peg! As event organizer and host, public broadcasting's Tavis Smiley noted, 10 years ago, no one would have dreamed that Americans would elect a black man to the nation's highest office. Likewise, a decade earlier, who would have guessed that another African-American would be named Republican National Committee Chairman? And yet, the corporate media didn't find this story compelling enough.
Even more remarkably, pubic radio and television failed to take notice as well. Never one to turn down an opportunity to cross-promote their programs and personalities, public broadcasting's refusal to cover an event organized by one of their own, Tavis Smiley, is beyond comprehension. Either they are not as clever as they like to think they are at NPR and PBS, or this is one of the most dramatic (and revealing) instances of self-censorship in recent memory.
To be clear, this was not an isolated incident. As it happens, there was a lot more happening in the nation's capital last weekend aside from conservatives on parade and a late winter snowstorm. Or haven't you heard?
Last weekend, thousands of young people converged on Washington D.C. for Power Shift 2009: a four-day meeting of student activists from across the United States and around the world. In addition to workshops, lectures and concerts, students mobilized "to take a message of bold, comprehensive and immediate federal climate action to Capitol Hill." The national press corps was MIA.
Capitol Climate Action, a group that organized mass civil disobedience aimed at the coal-fired Capitol Power Plant on March 2, joined the students. The largest mobilization of its kind, the event marks a new phase in the struggle for climate action and environmental justice.
But unless you were reading the alternative press or are lucky enough to have access to independent newscasts like Pacifica radio's Democracy Now! the only news coming out of the Washington D.C. last weekend were reports about a few inches of snow and Limbaugh's hot air. It's press coverage like this that leaves me cold.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He can be reached at email@example.com.