April Ryan, Charles Blow Sound Alarms at NABJ

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April Ryan, Charles Blow Sound Alarms at NABJ

White House reporter April P. Ryan declared that “for the last seven months, I’ve been under attack,” and New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow said that the Trump administration’s threats to press freedom “may be existential” — central to our existence — as the National Association of Black Journalists held its awards banquet Saturday night at its convention in New Orleans.

Unaudited convention attendance swelled to a record 3,319 registrants, NABJ President Sarah Glover announced at the event.

Ryan, NABJ’s “Journalist of the Year,” and Blow, chosen to deliver a commentary in the midst of the “Salute to Excellence” awards program, each cited the First Amendment as they placed Trump administration actions in the context of black journalists’ roles.

At a panel discussion Thursday, and again on Saturday, Ryan, a reporter for American Urban Radio Networks, said she had considered leaving the beat but decided “I’m not going any place because that’s what they want me to do. Every shoulder that I stand on would be broken down,” she said.

Ryan named pioneer black journalists who covered the White House, such as Harry McAlpin, who in 1944 became the first black reporter to attend a presidential news conference; Ethel Payne, who covered every president from Roosevelt to Reagan and was known as the “first lady of the black press”; and Alice Dunnigan, the first black female journalist to travel with a U.S president — Harry S. Truman, on his 1948 whistle-stop tour of 18 Western states.

Ryan’s profile rose in April after an encounter with then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who told Ryan to stop shaking her head as he spoke. “The hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork immediately went viral as women of color everywhere shared similar experiences of disrespect in the workplace,” Lilly Workneh reported later for HuffPost BlackVoices.

Devon Ashby of Morgan State University at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans. (Credit: Richard Prince)

Devon Ashby of Morgan State University. (Credit: Richard Prince)

Two months earlier, Ryan asked President Trump if he planned to include the Congressional Black Caucus in an executive order, only to have Trump ask if the caucus members were “friends” of hers. “Do you want to set up the meeting?” he asked.

Why stay? Ryan asked on Saturday. “It’s about Gwen Carr seeking justice” in the death of her son, Eric Garner, who died in 2014 after a police officer was caught on video choking Garner, 43, on a Staten Island, N.Y., sidewalk despite his pleas of “I can’t breathe!

“It’s questions about Trayvon Martin and why is George Zimmerman still walking the street.” Martin was the unarmed black teenager shot by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, in Sanford, Fla., in 2012. The Justice Department investigated both cases.

Blow cited Trump’s more recent words. Three people died Saturday in connection with a rally in Charlottesville, Va., that drew white nationalists from around the country to protest the removal of a Confederate statue from a city park. Trump condemned hate “on many sides” in response to the protests and a terror attack in which a car plowed into a crowd.

“The world needs you,” Blow said of black journalists, to question “why the president didn’t call out the racists and said the violence is coming from many sides,” to ask about the Justice Department’s rollback of civil rights enforcement and about reversals of protections by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And perhaps to raise questions internally. Blow said of the white nationalists in Charlottesville, “Nobody is asking which one is poor, which one didn’t have a father . . .”

The columnist went on to tell the journalists, “Don’t let this industry tell you that you have to be a brown version of a white person. You don’t.” Don’t let them say that to be “unapologetically black” makes one unemployable. Don’t agree “that the objective is to be color-blind, rather than color-mindful. It isn’t.”

Yvette Miley, MSNBC’s senior vice president of talent and diversity, picked up Blow’s theme as she accepted NABJ’s Chuck Stone Lifetime Achievement Award. “Thank you NBC for giving me the opportunity to be my authentic self at work,” she said. Miley also said she felt connected to other black journalists at competing networks.

In an extended tribute to the late Jim Vance, the anchor at Washington’s WRC-TV who was often praised as being comfortable in his own skin, Vance was shown discussing the 1970 creation of Blacks in Broadcasting, a local organization of black journalists that predated NABJ. Vance died of lung cancer June 22 after a 48-year career at the NBC-owned station.

Stanley Nelson, the accomplished documentary film maker who hosted a screening Saturday of his “Tell Them We Are Rising,” a film about historically black colleges and universities scheduled for airing on PBS next Feb. 19, said he felt an obligation to fill in important pieces of black history. “I’m interested in making films about institutions,” he said. “Usually it’s about heroes.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, greeted convention attendees Wednesday with gratitude that black journalists existed during the reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “Black journalists first started to question that designation ‘refugees’ ” to describe the displaced hurricane victims, who, after all, remained in the United States, Richmond said.

“To us, it was our big brothers and big sisters in the industry at our most vulnerable taking up for us, and for that we will never forget,” he added.

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