Collette Watson

Q&A: Media reparations with Collette Watson

While Black Americans have held steady conversations for years on how to repair the generational harms enacted by slavery, American institutions have only recently begun to take the question of reparations seriously. Case in point: HR 40, a House bill that would simply study what reparations could look like, has still not passed the House after decades of Congressional sessions (the bill was first introduced in 1989).

But in October, Black staff members at Free Press posed a more specific question: What do media reparations look like?

And they didn’t simply ask the question in a forum or host a panel. Instead, the staff drafted a 100-page essay outlining the historic and contemporary failures of media and the ways in which Black people’s stories have been distorted and excluded since the founding of the United States. The essay is a historical explainer, but also a provocation to consider a future where Black Americans own their own media companies and can tell their own stories, on their own terms. 

Collette Watson, vice president of cultural strategy at Free Press, is one of the architects of the project (along with folks like Alicia Bell and Joseph Torres). Watson spoke to me about the project, what Free Press hopes to achieve, and how she moved into working on this project.

What brought you to the table on the question of media reparations? Where are you coming from, and how did you get here?

I’ve spent a lot of time at Free Press, and even before my time at Free Press, evaluating the ways that the media system has perpetuated the myth of Black inferiority and how it has facilitated a lot of the narratives of oppression. What you realize, through our work over the years, is that there’s a lack of diverse media ownership, but also that government policies have facilitated that. So how did we get there?

You have to go to the root. And that takes you to the original sin of this country, which is slavery. African Americans were initially not even considered fully human, much less fully citizens. This was the environment in which a lot of our institutions were formed, so a total transformation is necessary.

This is the foundation of the Movement for Black Lives as a whole, but it also becomes our critique of the media system. Newspapers in this country were founded during the colonial time when reading was illegal for most Black people. Revenue for runaway slave ads were used to help make early colonial papers solvent and keep them afloat at a time when they were distributing the ideas of the American revolution.

And so the trafficking of Black lives was coded into the DNA of the system. It’s no wonder then that we find ourselves in 2021, with a lack of newsroom diversity, with a lack of diverse leadership, with a lack of Black, Brown and POC [person of color] ownership, and media mega mergers and monopoly run amuck. We never had a framework in our system of laws, nor in our public critique from which to say that that was wrong, because we never understood Black humanity.

So we must start with recognizing our original failure, which was our failure to reconcile and repair the enslavement of Black people in this country. And also the ways that our media system perpetuated that and continued to to reinforce this idea that Black people must be controlled.

Outside of Free Press, what folks did you look to (either contemporary or historical) that inspired this line of thinking, or had this line of thinking directly?

I draw a lot of inspiration from historical Black women, activists, and media makers like Ida B. Wells, who in her time challenged the foundations of society and the foundations of how news is gathered, how media is produced — the narratives about lynching and why Black people were being lynched. And we know that many of her practices and investigative journalism has defined the field to this day. But we also, I think, have to reckon with her truth telling and the way that she wielded journalism. When we find ourselves defining journalism according to false notions of objectivity, which actually just centers a white perspective, I think we should instead learn from the ways that Ida. B Wells spoke and illuminated truth. We are always quoting and talking about Ida B. Wells within the Media 2070 team.

I took a lot of inspiration from the heroic Black journalists of the Civil Rights movement era, the modern civil rights movement; people who went into communities where there were fights to desegregate schools and public spaces and put themselves in harm’s way to tell these stories. And then also from people like Zora Neale Hurston, who has a quote I like to say to myself a lot: “You have to tell your story because if you don’t, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

When I think about Zora Neale Hurston and the way that she stubbornly held on to the norm of Black storytelling and oral tradition, and the way that she chose to go about her media making, as far as her literary career — I find that very informative to have the media reparations, because we’re saying, first of all, Black stories are valid. And there’s so much right now that tells us the opposite; so that Black storytelling and Black control of narrative is needed. That, to me, is the takeaway from a lot of the work of Zora Neale Hurston.

I realize everyone has their own conception of how we move forward, but I wonder what your conception is If you’re bringing the concept of media reparations to a larger audience of younger Black journalists who want to change things, maybe current non-Black journalists who want to change things. Where do we go from here? What do you see as the route forward?

There is usually a knee-jerk response to times of unrest and social awakening. Especially after the shootings of unarmed Black people, or, you know, this uprising at the Capitol. And that knee-jerk reaction is usually a call for newsroom diversity. Diversity is kind of the flag and the banner, and I think newsroom diversity should be promoted of course. But there’s something my colleague, Alicia Bell, the director of the Media 2070 project, has said before that sticks with me, which is that oftentimes, we are integrating our people (Black and POC journalists) into burning buildings. And that is taken from the famous quote from Martin Luther King — “I fear that I’ve integrated my people into a burning house.” What I’m saying is that, though diversity is key, it is not the entirety of the solution and the only direction that we need to go in.

We have to reckon with the fact that we are bringing talented, fearless, young (and not young) Black journalists into newsrooms only to have their perspectives undermined, devalued, and pushed out of newsroom environment, taken off beat, and accused of bias, simply because of the color of their skin or their experiences with the subject.

We know that lived experience is actually an asset, because every journalist brings their lived experience and perspective to any reporting. It’s only vilified or seen as biased when it is a Black person or oftentimes a woman or other marginalized identities.

And so that’s why we say: “When Black people get free, we all get free.” Because if we can upend that anti-Blackness in newsrooms, it’ll change so much.

But back to your question: I think for Black journalists and people who want to make change, the first order of the day is solidarity and collectivism. Being able to come together within newsrooms, as Black caucuses of journalists or allies. To be able to formulate a shared set of demands, a shared point of view for what is needed in your community, because any newsroom is part of its community. So I think it’s that solidarity amongst Black journalists, within newsrooms, as well as solidarity with Black community.

What are the stories that haven’t been told? When the Kansas City Star issued an apology, it was a Black woman journalist who lit that spark within that newsroom, and her son actually is in the same newsroom (which I just love).

What you’re seeing is Black solidarity sparking institutional change. And so I think that is a big part of the past that needs to happen. But even as I say that, I know that white supremacy and white supremacist media is not something that was created by Black journalists and it’s not our job to undo it. So though I believe solidarity is key to spark change, I also am advocating for solidarity to hold white leadership and white controlled media accountable.

I think it’s incumbent upon allies, white allies, to put themselves on the line to facilitate that. Because if it’s left up to Black people to do that labor, we’re not doing anything except for continuing in that exploitative thread that goes all the way back to that original sin that we’ve never repaired. So I think the path forward is all about solidarity, building, and power shifting, but all of that starts with Black journalists being able to come together and formulate those shared ideals and demands for holding whiteness and white centered media accountable.

When you talk about that burning building, how do we tell younger Black journalists to put up with that unpaid time that often seems to be in vain? I’ve participated in diversity committees or whatever you want to call them. And it, it just, it seems like so much time and effort to put in without much gain.

I think that’s why we look forward. Not only for that newsroom solidarity, but we’re looking for broader solidarity amongst Black journalists, beyond even the confines of our newsrooms. And so we’re trying to be able to help folks to join forces across communities, across regions, and really to be able to critique how media has harmed Black communities in a way that they can then take to newsroom leadership and be able to say, “This is the framework. This is the way that this dynamic has happened. And also here is the way this has unfolded here.”

We’re working on this project to be able to give people shared language across the country, shared frameworks for critique and for investigation of what has happened and to give people that political and and social capital. Every time a newsroom begins to issue an apology for the upholding of racism throughout history, that opens a little more oxygen and a little more space for another Black journalist somewhere. Every time a major news organization or news leader broaches the subject of repairing harm or reparations, it gives people a little bit more of that oxygen that they need in their local situation.

And so what we’re trying to do, by putting it firmly within the context of history, is to say to people: This isn’t about individual journalists and their gripes, which is often the way that white supremacy and whiteness reduces what we’re talking about, but this is about a history of harm.

This is about a media system that operates to center whiteness and to diminish Black voices and dignity. And then these are a set of principles by which you can measure your organization and maybe even your own individual complexity. So, it’s a long-term project for us. It is something that we are looking at rolling out, definitely with local communities. We don’t see it as a top down, but we see it very much as being a relationship. We’re already working hard right now with the Philadelphia Inquirer on different things. We’ve done a lot with Charlotte Observer down in North Carolina, but the work goes deep and locally. And it’s about us being able to have a larger movement that then makes space for real change on the local level.

How do you go about that? Do you go to local Black community organizations, as well as the newsroom and say: “Do you have questions about this framework? How can we help you use this framework?” Or do you just start with the newsrooms?

It’s definitely both. We actually are sort of in the infancy of some of the organizing. What we have done is to try to break down that sense that newsrooms are an ivory tower that community members are not welcome within. Our proposition is that journalists are community members. And so, to have people from out in the community who know the histories and lived realities, that can be obscured sometimes by the ways that corporate media storytelling is gathered; to have those folks come in and be able to sit down and have coffee, or be able to have conversation, or even be prioritized as sources, instead of police information officers and press releases, is a way to begin to disrupt this historic harm.

We’re about to hold an interest meeting in Colorado where Black journalists are going to be invited to talk about Media 2070, and the history of harm against Black communities in Colorado. And what that can mean for the future of how local media can address information needs of Black community.

What we’re really looking to do is have events where journalists are able to talk about these topics, but also have local activists present and able to really speak to their realities that have been erased and that need to be repaired.

We are also putting together a policy cohort that’s going to be meeting early this year, which will begin to look at the ways that government policies, at federal, local and regional levels, have entrenched white control of media. That’ll be in conjunction with Black economic justice activists.

Media 2070 is an invitation to reckoning, but it’s not just about making current day newsrooms better. It’s about: What are the newsrooms that we want to have fully in place by 2070, where people in that time don’t even remember what it was like before. Black resource abundant communities in which Black people own media, whether it be television or radio or newspaper or whatever; technology platforms or whatever the new tech that’s going to have emerged by that time, and Black folks are controlling the creation and production and distribution of our own stories.

That includes all media; the music industry, book publishing, textbook publishing, and all of the different sources of information and media that shapes culture in this country, because what we have now is a culture of white supremacy.

And so we have a vision in which through reparations, we are no longer just extracting the labor of Black people, but Black people are actually putting our hands to shaping culture through media that helps us to live self determined and, and just joyful lives.

More diverse, newsrooms, more accountability by media makers, more accountability in government policy. But all of that is just the groundwork for the reparations that we believe must be paid. It must be to truly reconfigure this whole thing.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

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