Student Podcast Contest: Celebrity Journalism and Social Consciousness

podcastlogoJournalism History conducted a national student podcast competition during the fall of 2020.

In this honorable mention episode, Duquesne University student Marcela Mack talks to author Carrie Teresa about her book, Looking at The Stars; Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow’s America.

Transcript

Carrie Teresa

I think that because of black press coverage of, of black celebrities, I think celebrity journalism as a whole has some social consciousness.

Teri Finneman            

Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.

I’m Teri Finneman and I research media coverage of women in politics.

Nick Hirshon              

And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports media.

Ken Ward                  

And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.

Teri Finneman            

And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by ship historian Tim Yoder. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast.

This week, the Journalism History podcast is featuring the winners of our national student podcast competition. Throughout the week, you’ll be hearing form students across the nation as they share their stories of journalism history.

Marcela Mack

I’m Marcela Mack with Duquesne University. Today, we’ll be looking at the history of black celebrity journalism through the eyes of Dr. Carrie Teresa, the author of the book titled Looking at The Stars; Black Celebrity Journalism in Jim Crow’s America. This book is an insightful and informational look at the black press dating back to times of segregation. Without the efforts of the black press, there would not be as much representation of people of color in celebrity journalism today. I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Teresa to tell us a little more about the topic.

Carrie Teresa

So I began working on Looking at The Stars in a journalism history course during my — I think it was my second year of graduate school. And I kind of stumbled upon the topic because I was taking a journalism history course, which was my first introduction to black press journalism. I had never learned about black press journalism in high school or even in undergrad.

Carrie Teresa

So I had no idea that newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier existed. I knew a little bit about, like, the abolitionist press pre-Civil war, but I didn’t know that these newspapers extended beyond the end of the civil war to have the kinds of readerships that they had. And I was so enamored with the editorial style, and the approach to reporting and some of the investigative work that these newspapers did, I just immediately sort of fell in love with the black press as a topic. And so that semester, as I was studying the black press and trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do with it, for the final project in this class, my husband, who is a huge sports fan and who had started boxing recreationally at our local gym convinced me that we should watch the six-hour documentary on Jack Johnson.

Carrie Teresa

Unforgivable Blackness is a Ken Burns PBS documentary that I had absolutely no interest in watching because I am not interested in sports. I am not interested in boxing. And one rainy Saturday night, he finally kind of convinced me that we should sit down and watch it because he knew I was interested and had always been interested in African-American culture and in the cause for civil rights. That was something I had always carried with me and was probably why I fell so in love with the black press. And we sat down and we watched the documentary and I fully expected to fall asleep. And I did not. I was completely riveted by Jack Johnson’s story. I was riveted by the idea that he was as popular a mass market celebrity, as he was in a time when we really didn’t have mass market entertainment mechanisms.

Carrie Teresa

You know, we had newspapers, we had some film, not much, we didn’t have TV, we didn’t have radio. You know, we didn’t have all the mechanisms of celebrity that makes celebrities so ubiquitous now in 2020, but yet Johnson was essentially — on top of being a household name and being this sort of larger than life character — he was a pioneer in sport. He was the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

And so that kind of color line trope, the idea of, you know, a celebrity and an actor, an actress, a musician, or an athlete across the color line to get mainstream attention was always something that I found interesting, but I’ve always kind of considered it like kind of like a surface-level understanding of, of what celebrity culture could look like if we just approached it differently. And so, you know, in understanding Johnson’s story, is this pioneer over-the-top celebrity in the vein of Muhammad Ali, in the vein I think he would like to think of Mike Tyson, though Mike Tyson, I think, is a far more problematic character. So Jack Lee has written some really good stuff on Mike Tyson. You know, I just kind of fell in love with the idea of looking at journalistic coverage of Johnson through the eyes of the black press because Johnson as an African-American celebrity who did whatever the heck he wanted, including traveling with groups of white women and gambling and carousing and carrying on, I mean, I kind of knew what the mainstream press thought of him and that was covered in Ken Burns’s documentary. And so the fact that there was racist mainstream coverage of Jack Johnson was really no surprise to me at all. And I wasn’t particularly interested in that. I was really interested to understand what black fans and black journalists thought of Johnson in his time because he was such a ubiquitous celebrity.

Carrie Teresa

And because he was such a controversial character, I thought that was just a really interesting cultural question. And so I wrote that paper for my journalism history course that became my first article publication. And I realized how much I enjoyed going through the archives and reading black press newspapers. I’m a student of popular culture, everyday culture. I am, I’m a celebrity gossip kind of follower just in my private life. And so the prospect of following other celebrities, essentially in the gossip pages of these newspapers, seemed like this really kind of novel topic to cover for my dissertation. And so that’s what I did. So I expanded my approach in looking at the framing of Jack Johnson and black press newspapers to include an inductive reading of black person newspapers for a 40-year period, 1900 to 1940. So what other celebrities were famous during that period and to figure out how they were covered if they were celebrated by black journalists and fans, if they were criticized, you know, what were the repetitive frames that kept coming up over and over again? And how could those frames help us to understand how black celebrity culture works today? So once my dissertation was done in 2014, I got a book contract with the University of Nebraska Press. I spent two years editing the project and it came out as Looking at The Stars in 2019.

Marcela Mack

So this is a really a great story. And I think it’s really interesting, kind of the contrast of maybe the story that the mainstream media does, and then the story that the black press displays. Did you find with every certain celebrity that you would look into that there were always those stark differences?

Carrie Teresa 

Yeah. You know, I really wanted to avoid doing a comparison between mainstream media and black press media. And here’s why, because I think that up until very recently, the way we’ve thought about black celebrities has been this color line trope, the idea that a black celebrity doesn’t have any cultural value until they get the attention of the mainstream press. And I hate that idea. I wanted to throw that idea out all together because the underlying assumption of that is racist. It’s a racist ideology. It’s the idea that the only thing that has value is what white America assigns it to have value. And I wanted my work to be as far away from that as possible.

So, I made the conscious decision to not look at any mainstream press coverage at all and to focus only on the black press. Going into it with the proposition that the most important black celebrities of the time were the black celebrities that the black press covered and that they celebrated and provided as exemplary models for the, for black communities during that period. Those are the black celebrities we should be talking about today in 2020. Those are the people who should have statues and public commemorations of them. Those are the folks that are truly important. And now some of those people are overlapped with, with, you know, the sort of like mainstream pioneers of Jack Johnson, Hattie McDaniel, Bert Williams, Jesse Owens, Joe Lewis, those people are incredibly important. They just happened to get mainstream attention. It doesn’t mean that they are more important than the folks who never did. So I never looked at mainstream newspapers as a result.

Marcela Mack

Yeah, I agree with that. I think that’s a good way to go about it. There definitely is an opinion of kind of where there’s mainstream and then black media, where it all really should just be one and not have prerequisites for you to be included in the main picture.

Carrie Teresa

Yeah. I never, I never liked that idea and I was never comfortable with that idea. And I, you know, I mean, especially back in the early 1900s, when you know, which is my time period, I mean, there was absolutely no diversity in mainstream news outlets. There was no newsroom diversity. I mean, we’re, we’re operating under the Jim Crow regime of segregation and discrimination. We didn’t start to see newsrooms diversify until the civil rights movement. So that way, newspapers had more access to cover civil rights. But even today, if you look at the numbers from like the Pew Research Center, newsrooms are not nearly as diverse as they need to be to reflect their readership and America’s population. They’re still predominantly white and male, and so there’s no way that those newsrooms, populated the way that they are, can tell the story properly of news subjects who don’t look like them and share their experience.

Marcela Mack

Yeah. Yeah. I’ve interned in a newsroom before and seen that firsthand.

Carrie Teresa

In action.

Marcela Mack

Yeah. What kind of impact do you feel that the representation of black celebrities has on the history of celebrity journalism as a whole?

Carrie Teresa

Well, I think that celebrity journalism, I think that because of black press coverage of, of black celebrities, I think celebrity journalism as a whole has some social consciousness. And so it basically, what that means is that when celebrity journalists cover their subjects, they have some frame of understanding of why they might have an obligation or a passion for social justice causes. So black press coverage of celebrities gave us what I call in the book the frame of the entertainer activist, the singer, the musician, the sports star, the actor who also fashions themselves an activist and a philanthropist. Um, and so because we have this frame of entertainer activists from the black press, we have some way to understand and to cover with, you know, some, I think integrity. Folks like Beyonce, who are not only, you know, incredibly talented artists, but who are very active philanthropists and cultural critics and activists, um, and, and political actors, you know? Um, and so I think that that is the lasting legacy of, of that, that coverage from the black press, is that we actually have a frame to understand what an entertainer activist is, where they come from and what cultural function they serve for their readers and for their fans.

Marcela Mack

Yeah. Like that and seeing more to them. Yeah.

Carrie Teresa

Yeah. And there’s, there’s less maybe of a question than there would be otherwise of why is this person talking? They don’t, you know, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t, they don’t belong in this conversation. There was that sort of Fox News pundit who told, who said, LeBron James should just dribble or says some, some mundane offensive comment. And, you know, LeBron James is obviously a really outspoken activist. And, you know, just like this kind of, like, amazing cultural force, as well as like the most dominant basketball player on the court, and so the idea that LeBron James, with all of his influence, all of his resources, all of his experience navigating his career and his life wouldn’t have a say in American culture, politics is just outlandish. And I think that that comment was considered outlandish because we have an understanding of entertainer activism in that especially celebrities of culture carry with them, this, this passion and this obligation to use their elevated cultural status to help the communities that they, that they came from and the communities and the fans who look to them for — as models and for inspiration.

Marcela Mack

Do you feel like representation of black celebrity journalism has come far?

Carrie Teresa

I don’t know. I mean, I do think it’s, I do think it’s come far in that we have all these different means of covering black celebrities and all these different voices weighing in. I think when it comes to, you know, the mainstream kind of gatekeeping, pop culture, publications, like Variety and Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly and all those, all those sort of mass market, mainstream publications until their newsrooms are as diverse as the population that they serve. There’s still going to be, there’s always going to be work to do.

Marcela Mack

Is that something you see happening in the near future?

Carrie Teresa

I hope so. Yeah. I mean, I hope so. It’s hard, you know, with the pandemic, it’s hard to, you know, it’s hard to imagine any — pretty much any institution expanding and, and just being able to expand just because of economic concerns, but hopefully when all this is over, we will have learned some lessons and those newsrooms will start to shape up the way that they should. I think there’s far more, far greater awareness of the need than there ever has been before. So I think that that’s the first step.

Marcela Mack

All right. Huge thank you to Dr. Carrie Teresa for speaking with us today.

Teri Finneman               

Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal. If you like our podcast, leave us a rating and a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. “Good night and good luck.

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