In 1965, WIS-TV in Columbia, SC, hired their first African American employee. A recent college graduate, Isaac Washington was excited for the opportunity, even if it meant he would be pulling cables behind cameras. Over the next six years, Washington would see civil rights laws change South Carolina, Columbia, and WIS-TV. But first, he needed to pull cables behind cameras.
Not long after Washington was hired, in 1966, WLBT in Jackson, MI, would have their license revoked due to a violation of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) fairness doctrine. When the station leadership was replaced with African American leadership, the broadcasting industry saw the real-life impact of the fairness doctrine and began to take note. By 1968, stations across the country began launching African American public affairs programs to address both the hiring of African Americans and the airing of issues and topics important to the African American communities.
On May 28, 1971, WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina, the capital of a state with 44% Black population and a history of civil rights resistance, launched Awareness, the first television show in South Carolina to be topically oriented towards and produced by Blacks. Still on the air today, it is believed to be the longest continuously running locally produced television show in the country. Many other public affairs programs launched in response to the WLBT case were either cancelled in the mid-70s or transitioned to include minority groups beyond African Americans.
Through in-depth interviews for the article “’We Matter’: Cultural Significance of a Counter-Narrative Black Public Affairs Program” (Journalism History, December 2021), early employees of Awareness recalled two main reasons Awareness was, and continues to be, important. First, it allowed the African American community to present a counter-narrative to what was being shown on mainstream news. They would bring in guests from the NAACP or Urban League to discuss issues in-depth. They also regularly had politicians as guests, such as Shirley Chisholm, the first African American female elected to U.S. Congress and Congressman James Clyburn. Unlike the two-minute segment on the evening newscast showing protesters at a local business, Awareness was able to bring protesters and business owners into the studio and discuss the issues head-on.
Second, it allowed the African American community to see themselves on television. Not only did they see local Black business owners, dance groups and community activists, but they also saw celebrities. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Coretta Scott King, Sammy Davis, Jr., Rosa Parks, the Jackson Five, and Oprah Winfrey have all been guests on Awareness. The symbolic annihilation of Black faces from the local news station did not go unnoticed in a city with a 44% Black population. Suddenly, young Black children could see someone on local television that looked like them and believe that they could grow up to be a television news anchor.
Jacquelyn Johnson, co-host of Awareness said, “Awareness was the show where you could tune in and see Black people being celebrated and talked about. Awareness was the show where Black people really mattered. We matter aside from who is being shot, robbed. Aside from the criminal element of Columbia. We matter. We matter elsewhere. We matter in the arts. We matter in the sciences. We matter in teaching professions. We matter in politics.”
Awareness, and the broader conversation regarding public affairs programming, civil rights in the media, and the FCC fairness doctrine, can be discussed in the context of media law, broadcasting, media theory, and media representation of traditionally marginalized groups. I have presented it as a case study while teaching Women and Minorities in Mass Media, a large lecture class focusing on media representation. These activities and discussions may be useful in undergraduate classrooms but could also be easily adapted for graduate students.
Suggested Class Activities & Discussion
Using Awareness as a case study for discussing symbolic annihilation, have students identify television shows, movies, radio stations, podcasts, books, etc., that are intentional about inclusion. Students can present their chosen media to the class or post it in an online discussion board. Potential question for follow up: How would this media look/sound/feel different if symbolic annihilation was the norm?
- Kerner Commission Report on the causes, events and aftermaths of the civil disorders of 1967: https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/national-advisory-commission-civil-disorders-report
- History on the Kerner Commission Report: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/1968-kerner-commission-got-it-right-nobody-listened-180968318/
- The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC discussing Crazy Rich Asians (8/24/18, 20 min segment titled “Seeing your Asian self on screen”: https://www.wnyc.org/story/the-brian-lehrer-show-2018-08-24
- Black Power TV by Deborah Heitner: https://www.dukeupress.edu/black-power-tv
Show examples of a counter-narrative in-class and discuss why counter-narratives are needed in media coverage. Have students work together in class to define, in their own words, what a counter narrative is, and find a recent local or national news story and describe what they would do to present a counter-narrative.
Here are a few great counter-narratives I’ve used as well as a research example showing the power of a counter-narrative on social media:
- Greenville News story on police seizing property in South Carolina: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/in-depth/news/taken/2019/01/27/civil-forfeiture-south-carolina-police-property-seizures-taken-exclusive-investigation/2457838002/
- 1619 Project (podcast by The New York Times): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/23/podcasts/1619-podcast.html
- “’Hope in a hashtag’: the discursive activism of #WhyIStayed by Rosemary Clark,” Feminist Media Studies, Volume 16, Issue 5, DOI: 10.1080/14680777.2016.1138235
FCC Fairness Doctrine
Present the WLBT case from Jackson, Mississippi, showing the real-life impact of the fairness doctrine. As a class, discuss the following: Why was it important that WLBT present differing viewpoints to civil rights issues? Why should media accurately represent their audience? If the fairness doctrine was this important, why was it eventually repealed? How does the fairness doctrine intersect with political speech? Did Awareness and other public affairs programs accurately address the spirit of the fairness doctrine?
- Washington Post Perspective Article (2/4/21): https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/02/04/fairness-doctrine-wont-solve-our-problems-it-can-foster-needed-debate/
- Quick overview of the fairness doctrine (8/23/11): https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/post/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-fairness-doctrine-in-one-post/2011/08/23/gIQAN8CXZJ_blog.html
- Quick academic overview of the fairness doctrine: https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/955/fairness-doctrine