May 1 2002

Reparations and the Media

A slanted arena for discussions of slavery recompense

Speaking in defense of reparations for slavery on Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes (4/25/01), attorney Alexander Pires explained that if advocates for reparations could “tell the story” of slavery and its consequences, the public would “respond to it.” “So what you’re saying is you really want a debate,” Alan Colmes replied, “and…that’s exactly what we’re doing here. We’re discussing it. We’re debating it.”

There have certainly been numerous radio and television programs on the issue. Yet have the media really featured fair debates, providing a level playing field for advocates and opponents of reparations to voice their concerns and argue their cases? A careful look at these exchanges suggests otherwise.

Consider, for example, the media’s treatment of reparations opponent David Horowitz. His controversial advertisement, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea–and Racist Too,” led to protest at many college campuses when he attempted to place it in college newspapers during Black History Month in 2001. Despite the fact that, as prominent African-American scholars demonstrated (Black Scholar, Summer/01), the advertisement presented faulty historical information, commentators accepted Horowitz’s premises as factual. On National Public Radio’s call-in show Talk of the Nation (3/26/01), Juan Williams remarked, “The ad had no factual errors, but it is strongly opinionated.”

One of Horowitz’s ten arguments against reparations declared that African-Americans actually owe a debt to America because “in the thousand years of slavery’s existence, there never was an anti-slavery movement until white Anglo-Saxon Christians created one.” As scholars have pointed out, this historical account is inaccurate, ignoring the central role played by African-American abolitionists, some of whom worked on the issue long before most white reformers became interested.

Yet, when a caller to Talk of the Nation challenged the assertion that African-Americans owe a debt to America, Williams defended Horowitz, telling the caller, “It seems to me what you’re saying is if someone says that reparations, in fact, should be owed from black Americans to white America for ending slavery, you view that as a racist statement. . . . I don’t take it as a racist statement. I take it as a point of opinion.”

Taxpayers = whites

The media have also followed opponents of reparations in promoting misunderstanding about the payment of reparations. Although advocates argue that the U.S. government should make recompense for its role in facilitating slavery, which would involve funds provided by all taxpayers, the media have continually suggested that African-Americans are “unfairly” asking white Americans alone to pay. “You want us to pay reparations because we happen to be white,” Chris Matthews demanded of Rev. Al Sharpton (Hardball, 1/10/02). As Sharpton tried to explain the notion of governmental responsibility, Matthews interrupted him continually with comments such as “so I have to pay taxes,” “you’re asking me, personally, to pay taxes” and “my parents weren’t even–grandparents weren’t even here in 1865.”

Likewise, prominent advocates of reparations such as Rep. John Conyers (D.–Mich.) and Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, have repeatedly asserted that they do not favor giving payments to individual African-Americans, instead favoring programs that would counteract the lasting effects of slavery. But many media figures have refused to listen. “Should Washington cut each and every black American a big check?” inquired ABC’s Barbara Walters, introducing a 20/20 segment (3/23/01) devoted to the issue. In what followed, reporter Chris Cuomo commented that “many are looking for a dash of cash with their justice.”

When addressing the call by some African nations for the West to consider reparations for its role in slavery, the media have similarly focused on money, often in hostile terms, even though there has been no official proposal for financial damages. Interviewing Rep. Tom Lantos (D.–Calif.) on Hardball (9/06/01), Matthews asked, “Do you have any idea what they mean when these people who are pushing for reparations, what they have in mind, how much loot they’re talking about here, holding the West up for?” These questions only thinly veil a stereotypical view of greedy African-Americans and African nations demanding “easy” money.

A common strategy of those who oppose reparations has been to portray supporters as driven by revenge. Walter Williams, for example, has described the reparations movement as “a sniveling cry for collective retribution” (Washington Afro-American, 1/26/01), while Horowitz claimed in the online magazine Salon (5/30/00) that advocates seek “legislated payback.” The media have unquestioningly adopted this biased characterization and terminology.

Introducing a segment of Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (5/28/01) devoted to a debate on this issue, Sean Hannity declared, “A growing number of black Americans are saying it’s payback time for slavery.” Similarly, Nina Totenberg, as guest host of NPR’s call-in program The Connection (8/21/01), told the audience during an hour featuring a discussion of reparations, “We’re talking with two professors deeply involved in the debate over payback for those who’ve suffered the effects of American slavery.” Again, a troubling stereotype is invoked: Angry, vindictive African-Americans are seeking revenge against innocent white Americans.

Respect vs. hostility

In interviews and debates, the media have been respectful, even complimentary, when describing opponents of reparations, while they have approached supporters of reparations with suspicion and hostility. Those who oppose reparations are portrayed as reasonable, logical participants in a debate. On CNN’s TalkBack Live (3/26/01), Bobbie Battista asked, “Doesn’t [David Horowitz] have the right to . . . express his opinions?” On The Point With Greta Van Susteren (3/27/01), CNN’s David Mattingly described Horowitz as “a man with a clear, but highly controversial, point of view.” By contrast, those students who protested against Horowitz’s advertisement on college campuses constituted, in Mattingly’s terms, “a predictably emotional audience.”

Although Horowitz clearly had much to gain personally from the publicity surrounding his advertisement, his arguments were described as beneficial to the public. “I will say this for you, David Horowitz,” NPR’s Juan Williams commented on Talk of the Nation (3/26/01), “I think that this issue is now receiving widespread attention all over the country because of your efforts.” Later in the program, Williams asked Horowitz, “So in fact you accomplished your goal, which is to get people to pay attention?”

The deference shown Horowitz stands in sharp contrast to the media’s reaction to reparations supporters. On Fox NewsThe Edge (9/7/01), host Laurie Dhue questioned the motives of reparations supporter Jesse Jackson, asking, “Is the embattled civil rights leader exploiting the ancestors [sic] of slaves in order to mobilize black support for his own political comeback?” On Hardball (9/04/01), Chris Matthews similarly attacked Jackson for supporting the quest by some African nations for reparations from the West for slavery. “And now these jokers down there in Africa who’ve made a botch of their countries for 30 years are now trying to get some sort of money for what? For 200, 300 years ago, the slave trade?. . . It’s the biggest joke in the world, and you’ve got Jesse down there just playing it like the best show in town.”

For Matthews, African leaders were not merely “jokers,” but were themselves suspect for bringing up the question of reparations. “Is this a cover for their failure to pay their debts?” he demanded later in the program. “Is that what it’s about? They can’t manage the world debt they owe, those Third World countries and Fourth World countries? . . . So they’re talking about reparations.”

“Go back to Africa”

Fox’s Bill O’Reilly even suggested that some reparations supporters should not have the right to argue their case. On Factor (3/06/01), reparations supporter Rev. Al Dixon argued that the hardships faced by African-Americans should not be compared to the experiences of other immigrants because they “didn’t come here on [their] own.” In response, O’Reilly issued a shocking challenge: “Reverend, you can go back to Africa if you want to. I mean, you could go and repatriate back to the continent or anywhere. Not any country will take U. S. citizens, but African countries will.”

One can hardly imagine O’Reilly admonishing a white American guest to leave the country rather than to exercise the fundamental right to criticize America. And although O’Reilly’s choice of words–“go back,” “repatriate” (not expatriate)–was inaccurate, since Dixon is African-American, not African, the errors were revealing. African-Americans, O’Reilly suggested, are not true citizens with the right to voice their concerns.

Media coverage of reparations shows that it is not enough to be asked to participate in a debate. Even in such a forum, it is often the media’s approach that slants coverage against supporters of reparations. In The Debt, Randall Robinson comments on the media’s often detrimental influence on Americans’ views, noting that what Americans “know” is “distilled, shaped, edited, and ultimately permitted by news industries in private hands.” Yet we can hope that supporters will continue to challenge the media and argue their case before the American public, refusing to be intimidated or silenced.