October 9, 2020; Nieman Lab
“To try to foretell the future without studying history is like trying to learn to read without bothering to learn the alphabet.”
Octavia Butler, “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future”
These words from prolific African American Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler ring true to the crossroads our country finds itself at today. The White House has made it clear that accurate acknowledgement of our nation’s history is not part of its vision of the future by recently denouncing federal racial bias trainings and ignoring Indigenous People Day within weeks of each other. Especially after experiencing a summer of racial reckoning, and the largest civil rights movement in American history—during a pandemic which has taken over 215,000 American lives, a majority who are from the BIPOC community—how much longer can these histories be ignored?
The members of the Media 2070 project aim to reconcile the harms caused by historic racist trends in the media, for the public’s benefit, and Black members within the field, by advocating for “media reparations.” The group was started by Black staff members of the media nonprofit Free Press. Co-creator Alicia Bell highlights the importance of the year 2070: “We’re honoring that every 50 years there is a reckoning,” a reference to the two major public racial review commissions 50 years apart in the early 1910s and 1960s, periods of immense racial unrest. Neither of these commissions were acted upon, yet they reflect similar findings.
The Chicago Commission of 1919 was in reaction to the Chicago Race riots, and it found that racially skewed journalism was a major factor in inciting racial violence. Fifty years later, the 1968 Kerner Commission, in response to multiple years of unrest and deaths of major Civil Rights leaders, discovered through in-depth investigation that there were structural inequities determined by race which were outright ignored or agitated by the government and media.
These separate commissions highlight the United States is stuck within a cycle of denial and inaction when it comes to reckoning with our racial divides. Media 2070 hopes to break this cycle so “the record can be set straight.” By reconciling these ignored realities in the field of media, the public can be exposed to untold experiences, and hopefully pressure institutions and policymakers to take a more active role in reconciliation. For Media 2070, “media reparations” is a way for media institutions and the government to repair harms inflicted upon the Black community.
The group recently published an in-depth essay titled “Media 2070: An Invitation to Dream up Media Reparations.” Similarly to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, the essay provides historical context on how media organizations profiteered off of chattel slavery during its early years, and upheld forms of white supremacy more recently. For example, the country’s first regularly published newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, ran slave ads within a month of its founding in 1704, with the paper’s publisher even acting as a broker. More recently in 2017, a Color of Change and Family Story study found that Black families represented 59 percent of stories focused on poverty by major outlets such as CNN and Fox, yet make up only 27 percent of the poor families in America.
The essay also provid