Paul Holmes 26 Oct 2022 // 12:00AM GMT
WASHINGTON, DC — A more equitable media would tell new stories, make new heroes and — most importantly — create a new idea of what women and people of color can achieve, according to a discussion at PRovokeGlobal today sponsored by Weber Shandwick and moderated by the agency’s CEO Gail Heimann.
Attendees heard from Baratunde Thurston, TV host, creator of the “How to Citizen” podcast, and author of “How to Be Black,” and public relations and marketing veteran Bonin Bough, co-founder and chief strategy officer, Group Black, both of whom have been working to ensure that more diverse voices have a role in shaping the conversation and delivering new perspectives.
Thurston recalled growing up in Washington, DC, in the 70s — "not the left-right political power center, but Chocolate City, Black people propping up America, running government offices.” His father died in a shooting, his mother never graduated college yet she became a computer programmer for the US government. He was educated in public school and private school and had early access to technology because of his mother’s work.
“I was able to benefit from the ability to reshape a narrative through access to some of these new tools,” he said. “I took all of that education and all of those opportunities and I went into standup comedy, worked for The Onion, helped Trevor Noah relaunch The Daily Show.”
Today, he said, “My mission is to make the unpalatable more palatable, to occasionally sprinkle jokes into horrible truths and to remind us of who we have yet to become.”
Bough, meanwhile, has moved from public relations and marketing — he was an early adopter of many social media tools and technologies — to his current role, addressing the challenges faced by Black-owned businesses in the media space.
“In the 50 years before the turn of the century, there were 500 Black-owned newspapers, and those newspapers shaped the narrative for our community,” said Bough. “Today, you can count them on your hand, really. When we saw that it became appalling and dismal that less than .2% of media is Black-owned, less than .5% is women-owned and when you add in all the other ethnicities you don’t get much further than that.
“That’s not to say that the 99% of white-owned organizations are wrong, it’s just that it’s one thing to be in front of the camera, it’s one thing to be behind the camera, but it’s a whole other thing to own the camera, because those are the people who greenlight the narratives that are shown to the world.” So Group Black set out to invest in emerging Black-owned media companies.
“We help small companies really do the four things that we have learned they need: they need scale; they need content creation; they need distribution; they need capital. These are companies — if you look at the venture world, Black-owned businesses don’t get this kind of investment. But also they need access to the room, so we provide the funnel so brands can buy across a diverse ecosystem of companies.”
Today, he said, Group Black is working on an acquisition that would make it “the fifth largest media company period in the world and the largest Black-owned media company in history.”
Asked by Heimann whether American history would have looked the same had media equity been a reality over the past 100 years, both delved deeply into the issues raised by a lack of equity.
Said Thurston, “We would of course still have history. There would be different heroes, we would focus on different version of crime — there is a crime beat that focuses on theft at scale, that focuses on displacement, that focuses on a ridiculous amount of dehumanization. There’s a version of our history where media tells white people it’s okay, that they don’t have to be so afraid. A lot of the stories that get us emotionally engaged are ones that provoke fear and push certain emotional buttons.
“But I think of a different history and a different narrative not just as can we have more women’s stories and more Black storytellers, but can we have stories that reach deeper into what we know we’re capable of and gets beyond the surface. A lot of media right now is real transactional stuff: if you want sex, drink this beer. But if you want to feel whole, have a different relationship with nature and the planet, where’s that story? It takes a little bit more effort so most people making stories don’t bother to pursue it. But the return on investment on that is so much higher than a series of transactions.”
Bough, meanwhile, talked about how the lack of images of women in STEM had impeded progress of women in everything from computer gaming to mathematics and the importance of Barack Obama in showing Black people what was possible, and asked, “If there was more equity would history be different? I don’t know. But I think the bigger thing is that we would have more narratives that show society what a balanced world should look like.”
But both agreed that simply elevating more Black voices is not enough. “I remember doing some work around criminal justice reform and in the early days we thought we just needed more Black cops, because those cops won’t brutalize Black people like white cops do,” said Thurston. “No. We had an 80s rap song about Black cops and they can be worse to try to prove that they are a part of the system that they can be even more brutal. It becomes a fraternal, testosterone-driven I’m more manly than you.
“The deeper opportunity and much harder challenge is okay, we have representation, but media equity needs to be about ownership, not just being in the room but owning the table and leasing chairs.”
Asked about the barriers to more Black voices in media, Thurston talked about some of the ideas contained in his much-lauded TED talk.
“This is a simple and useful approach to problems and to approach abuses of power. If I am faced with a perceived loss of power, it is my natural response mechanism to cling to that, to defend that, to fear any change. A man who fears pay equity because a women is going to get more money or as much money as he is, that’s only a problem if you see things in zero-sum a way. You could also recognize that your household gets more money or your neighborhood gets more money.
“You need to focus not just on the liberation of the oppressed but the liberation of the oppressor. Because if men don’t see ourselves as benefiting from gender equity then we will block it, because that’s a narrative we’ve been told for hundreds if not thousands of years, and so we are captive as well. We need to see our freedom tied up in our partners’ freedom.”
Beyond the moral imperative to address things differently, Bough pointed to the commercial opportunity: "The only time you find growth is in under-served communities and under-invested opportunities." He cited the Black Panther movies and the Latin GRAMMYs. "You can make impact in those communities and you can drive business growth. These are layups; they are sitting right there."
Thurston agreed, expressing frustration with some unchallenged assumptions: "One assumption is that power is something that certain people have and others don't and that it is a charitable act to grant access to the other. And so we should help out these communities by throwing some spending at them to their benefit, still not recognizing the benefit to themselves, focusing on the 'us v them' dynamic and not understanding that we need a 'we' dynamic."
As for the future, Bough explained: “Our sights are not set on being a Black-owned media company, our sights are set on being one of the NBCs of this generation. Just because we are Black-owned doesn’t mean that we are Black-targeted. If Viacom can own BET, we can own NBC. We see a world — we call it the inclusion age — where we don’t have to have these conversations, where it just is. But the only way for that to happen is we have to show the world what that looks like.”