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Undercovering John H. Johnson

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Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Pioneer's Significance Escapes Many in Media

John H. Johnson might have been a historical figure in the life of America and especially black America, but you could hardly tell that from America's front pages and network newscasts after he died Monday at age 87.

Johnson, founder of the company that publishes Ebony and Jet magazines, was missing from most front pages, according to a survey of the front pages posted on the Newseum's Web site.

Notable exceptions were the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif., the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the News and Observer in Raleigh, N.C., which all began their stories about Johnson on Page 1.

Why was Johnson important?

"Archbishop [Desmond] Tutu tells the story everywhere," longtime Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr. said Tuesday on National Public Radio's "News and Notes" with Ed Gordon. "He was a little boy in Africa beaten down, oppressed, and he saw in the gutter one day a torn-up magazine. It happened to be the issue of Ebony with Jackie Robinson on the cover and he said he sat down and he read that and he looked at all the pictures of blacks in offices and in science, looked at black scientists. And he got up from there and he said, `They've been lying to me.' And he said from that point on, he was a transformed individual."

"Jet helped launch the modern civil rights movement in 1955 when it published open-casket funeral photos of the mangled body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicagoan who was savagely murdered while visiting relatives in Mississippi," Clarence Page wrote today in the Chicago Tribune.

"Sixty years ago, John H. Johnson single handedly created the Black consumer market," Ken Smikle said in Target Market News. "Before the introduction of Ebony magazine in November 1945 . . . for advertisers, especially those that were nationally recognized, the Black consumer market didn't exist and neither did the need to advertise to it."

America's first black billionaire, Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, said on the "News and Notes" show, "He is absolutely a pioneer as a business entrepreneur. What he accomplished against the seemingly insurmountable odds -- I don't think an Andrew Carnegie, a Rockefeller or Bill Gates or anybody could take a higher claim to being a more dynamic and successful American businessman than John H. Johnson."

"Absolutely," agreed Black Enterprise magazine founder Earl Graves Sr., who was on the show with Bob Johnson. "You know, he will be a part of history in this country not only for all that he has done for African Americans but for this country in general."

Newspapers that had no front-page story but referred to a piece on Johnson inside the paper, sometimes using a front-page photo, included the Los Angeles Times, California's San Jose Mercury News, Florida's Tampa Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, Minnesota's St. Paul Pioneer Press, Mississippi's Biloxi Sun-Herald, the Kansas City Star, the New York Times, the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y., Texas' Austin American-Statesman, the Dallas Morning News and USA Today.

Papers that gave Johnson no front-page presence at all included many of the mainstream papers with African American top editors -- along with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, which just in May had covered Johnson's return to Arkansas City, where he grew up in the 1920s, and where his hometown and state helped turn his childhood home into a museum.

"We played it inside the B section -- the local section. It's a territory thing. It played there where we publish obituaries. Even though he was born here, he left these parts about 72 years ago, so that all-important element of local connection was tenuous and distant," deputy editor Frank Fellone told Journal-isms.

Of the three broadcast networks, "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News" both gave Johnson short mentions on the nightly newscasts Monday -- 57 words on CBS and 66 on NBC. There has been no mention on ABC's "World News Tonight."

"Peter Jennings died on Sunday night. Monday's broadcast was devoted to his life and legacy," ABC spokeswoman Cathie Levine said. As for Tuesday, "There was a lot of news we were unable to cover on Monday due to Peter's death. On Tuesday we moved on to that day's news. I'm sure you can understand why we chose to focus on him in that way," she said.

National Public Radio covered Johnson substantially, as did PBS' "News Hour With Jim Lehrer."

It was largely left to the black media -- and African Americans at mainstream media -- to fill in much of the void. "If it wasn't for John Johnson none of us in black media would be here today," syndicated morning radio host Tom Joyner said in a statement. On his show, in the "Express Yourself" segment Tuesday, callers shared their favorite Ebony or Jet story or experience with Johnson Publishing, including Ebony Fashion Fair products and the Johnson fashion show; the "little-known Black History fact" was devoted to Joyner's "hero"; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson called in to talk about Johnson's significance; and Tavis Smiley devoted his commentary to Johnson's legacy as well as a tribute to Jennings.

BET, which just put its news show on hiatus, ran news briefs throughout the day, though the switch to airing news briefs does not fully start until October, spokesman Michael Lewellen said. He pointed to statements issued by Robert Johnson and to coverage on BET's Web site, and said a half-hour television special was being developed. [Added Aug. 11: Lewellen said it would air Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific times.]

Black newspapers, especially the Chicago Defender, rushed to print commentary and obituaries. "Not only did we rush to print the commentaries and obituaries, we put out a special edition that day," Executive Editor Roland S. Martin told colleagues in the National Association of Black Journalists tonight. "We had discontinued the Tuesday edition. But other than two ads, the entire 16-page paper was dedicated to John H. Johnson."

"Because of the tremendous demand of the Tuesday paper - we have completely sold it out and folks have asked for reprints, even from out of state - we will print a commemorative edition dedicated to John H. Johnson on Aug. 26," Martin added.

For the mainstream newspapers that put the Johnson obituary on the front page, it did not seem like a difficult choice.

"I've been familiar with Mr. Johnson's work for many years," said Ellen Soeteber, editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who had worked in Chicago. "He definitely met our overarching criteria: Did somebody make a significant difference in the community, the field or in society? Most definitely. Not just in the African American community, but in the whole U.S. society."

At the Baltimore Sun, assistant managing editor Sam Davis, a black journalist, brought Johnson's passing to the attention of news editor Joe DeCarlo, and "there was a good healthy discussion. This is a self-made man," DeCarlo told Journal-isms. "Regardless of color and creed, you need to think about the people who had a major effect on society. The bottom line is we felt that he was an important force in the U.S. economy and in the African American community. Given his accomplishments, our readership and the news of the day, [we felt] he really should be out there."

The Washington Post ran not only Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb's front-page obituary but an appreciation in the Style section by Jacqueline Trescott. For Deputy Metropolitan Editor Keith Harriston, a black journalist who represented the Metro section, which is responsible for obituaries, it was an easy sell in the meeting on the front page. "Unlike Johnnie Cochran's obit, which took considerable lobbying on my part to get it to A-1, I told Len Downie about Johnson's death, that was 'at least' an A-1 key. That was it. He took [it] on A-1, rightfully so," Harriston said, in a reference to Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. "I didn't have to lobby at all."

The disconnect in some quarters left some uneasy. Dori J. Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute, was on a panel at an all-day workshop Tuesday at the convention in San Antonio, Texas, of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, a journalism educators group.

"He was my lead in and example at the panel this morning," she told Journal-isms by e-mail. "I used the embarrassingly bad coverage to make the point that mainstream media is working hard to become irrelevant to people of color. Of course, first I spoke of his achievements. Then I asked the audience how many people read Ebony or Jet. Big surprise, only three raised their hands. So I suggested that the reason they didn't read it was because it's not that relevant to them, and that is what is happening with people of color and mainstream media. Then I pulled out my little show-and-tell -- USA Today. It had a small front page pix of Johnson with the story in the Business section -- a small story on the bottom of page 4B. I think they got the point.

"Really," Maynard concluded, "I couldn't believe it myself."

She added later that content audits show that people of color are overrepresented in stories about crime, sports and entertainment, and underrepresented in articles on lifestyle, everyday life, business and politics. While Johnson was on page 4B, she said, the USA Today cover story was "Paroled gangsters find they can't go home again," with two mug shots of African Americans on the jump page.

Funeral arrangements have been set for Monday, Aug. 15, at 11 a.m. at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, 5850 South Woodlawn in Chicago, with public viewing Sunday, Aug. 14, from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Johnson Publishing Co., 820 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago.

  • Donald Adderton, Biloxi (Miss.) Sun-Herald: John H. Johnson found and filled black holes in the mainstream media
  • Michael Cottman and Associated Press, John H. Johnson, a Pioneer in Black Magazine Publishing, Dead at 87
  • Editorial, Chicago Tribune: John H. Johnson, ideas man
  • Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer: A pioneer in publishing
  • Editorial, USA Today: A vision of no bounds
  • Dorothy Gilliam, Appreciation: John H. Johnson
  • Joi Gilliam, Black College Wire: John H. Johnson Leaves Legacy at Howard U.
  • Annette John-Hall, Philadelphia Inquirer: He stirred pride in the face of prejudice
  • Roy S. Johnson, Chicago Defender: John H. Johnson: Unapologetically Black
  • Felicia R. Lee, New York Times: He Created a Mirror for Black America
  • Roland S. Martin, Chicago Defender: John H. Johnson deserves R-E-S-P-E-C-T
  • Charles Sheehan, Chicago Tribune: Magazines' stories were `gospel' for many blacks
  • Elmer Smith Philadelphia Daily News: Remembering Mr. J
  • Leslie Gray Streeter, Palm Beach (Fla.) Post: 'Ebony,' 'Jet' creator hailed glamour of black
  • Jacqueline Trescott, Washington Post: The Publishing World's Black Light
  • Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune: Ebony, Jet are old school but still relevant
  • A. Scott Walton, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Magazines a new world for blacks

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Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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