A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.

Kidada speaks with Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic who covers race, politics and justice, about the role of the Black press in America, both historically and in the present. 

They look at how conspiracy theories, misinformation and slander have been used as a form of media propaganda since the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, and how pioneering journalists like Ida B. Wells-Barnett laid the groundwork for identifying and calling out these campaigns. 

Additionally, they discuss the evolution of legacy media outlets over time to include more diverse voices, and what it means to tell the truth objectively when reporting on American history as a Black journalist.

View Transcript
Kidada E. Williams: On November 2nd, 2021, some QAnon followers gathered in Dallas, Texas at the site where John F. Kennedy was assassinated nearly 60 years ago. They were there waiting for his late son, John F. Kennedy, Jr., to rise from the dead and become vice president to Donald Trump, who they believed would be reinstated as president. They gathered with flags, folding chairs and Trump 2024 merchandise. No one arrived. 

And while these theories seem farfetched, conspiracy theories rooted in white supremacist ideology are nothing new. Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, is pretty familiar with this history. 

Adam Serwer: I always tell people, you know, one of the first fake news controversies in American history was the Klan. 

KEW: For hundreds of years, the Black press has played a major role in combating white supremacist ideology. Also, Black journalists and Black news outlets reflect the best of Black society back to itself, both then and now. 

This is Seizing Freedom: The show where we dig into archives to bring you stories about how African Americans freed themselves during the Civil War and built new lives in Reconstruction, and beyond. And where we talk with artists, thinkers and activists who follow that quest for freedom to the present and future. I’m Kidada Williams.

In today’s episode I speak with Adam Serwer, staff writer at The Atlantic, who covers race, politics and justice. We discuss how the Black press countered white supremacist conspiracy theories in the past, the role of Black journalists in today’s media landscape, and Adam tells me what he thinks the future of the Black press could look like.

AS: There were whole newspapers that said the Klan did not exist. You had people who were victims of the Klan who were literally testifying in Congress about seeing people be murdered or being attacked or mutilated themselves. And you would have these Democratic-aligned papers and some Republican papers as well saying, ‘Oh, you know, the Ku Klux Klan is like a fictional invention of fevered imaginations.’ 

But it was completely made up, and Black newspapers were saying, ‘This is nonsense; it’s made up.’ These papers were often responding to essentially lies that were put forth in democratic-aligned, white supremacist papers. You know, so that part of it isn’t new, and the other thing that isn’t new is Black writers serving as a corrective against that type of misinformation and slander. 

I think what’s distinct now is that obviously it is…I don’t think human beings are any more vulnerable to propaganda than they were before, but it is so much easier to get into your brain and you can very much silo yourself off in an information ecosystem that is impenetrable by contrary information. A lot of those Black outlets no longer exist, but the role of Black journalists, I think, in countering this kind of propaganda, I think remains similar to what it was back in the day. But, you know, as is often the case the disinformation can win out and it can have a devastating impact.

KEW: Propaganda fueling propaganda. That probably sounds familiar. Adam told me about how the work of journalists like the legendary Ida B. Wells redefined how lynchings during the Jim Crow era were understood, and about the bigger implications of not correcting those lies.

AS: There was a campaign of terrorist murder that was occurring during her lifetime, and she was one of the people who was primarily responsible for not only countering that propaganda that was justifying that campaign of terrorism, but for laying down a historical record that historians would use to show that it was, in fact, a propaganda campaign; that this was political terrorism and, you know, not simply what you might think of as mob violence. 

And she was also subject to it. I mean, you could talk about cancel culture today, but Ida Wells literally had a newspaper called The Free Speech that was burned down because she said that Black men are being lynched for consensual relationships with white women. You know, I think sometimes people forget that, you know, white supremacy was the governing ideology of the United States for longer than the United States has existed without that ideology being its governing philosophy. And so, that being the governing ideology of the country, it is reflected in its media organs. 

And so, Black outlets provided an essential and necessary and…unfortunately, they were not able to counter this…I mean, they tried their best obviously, but it is difficult to overwhelm a campaign of propaganda that has gripped the minds of a demographic majority in the country. And these racist misconceptions were important, not simply because they were discriminatory, but because they drove policymaking. 

It affected people’s assumptions about what was worth doing; whether it was worth defending Black rights, whether Congress was going to pass legislation securing Black men’s right to vote. And you know, that’s also true to this day; these underlying ideological assumptions about race continue to shape policy agendas.

KEW: So we know that the Black press plays a significant role countering racist ideology. Do we have a sense of the roles the Black press played in reflecting black America back to itself in a positive light?

AS: If you look at, I mean, you know, everything in these Reconstruction papers in New Orleans, it’s not all…there’s a lot of society stuff, you know what I mean? Like ‘so-and-so went to this ball.’ And so there’s a lot of depicting this complex, elegant social scene that is occurring, you know, among Black folks who live in cities, ‘cause obviously, you know, in the South right after Reconstruction, a lot of the population is rural. But there is this important role they play in, you know, mirroring Black society back to itself and promoting artists and intellectuals who are in the process of creating a Black American culture, and providing…not just describing their events or their art but, you know, providing them with a medium for communicating those things to the Black community. 

Outlets like The Crisis, for example, these outlets are sometimes publishing fiction, they’re sometimes publishing poetry. So it’s not just a question of politics, obviously. And I think, you know, that’s also true of the Black press today. It’s really not the case that, you know, all Black reporters work in political news. In fact it’s probably…there are probably more Black reporters writing about, you know, culture than politics based on, you know, anecdotal observation. But yes, obviously the Black press plays a significant role in sort of the cultivation of Black culture.

KEW: So they’re doing a lot of work in terms of countering and trying to fight the racist world that they are experiencing in Jim Crow, but also creating a story of who they are as a people.

AS: Right. And it’s also, you know, this is like an elevation of Black genius that occurs. I mean, in some ways the cultural production in America is a lot more integrated than it was even when I was a child, in terms of like, there are so many more black crossover artists than there used to be. It used to be a huge deal. Even in the eighties and nineties, if a Black artist crossed over—I remember Prince, there was a period in which he cultivated the impression that he was biracial (he’s not biracial) because he understood that white audiences found that fascinating. 

I mean, even to this day, but less so than when I was growing up, you know, there’s a kind of, almost…it’s a de facto segregation of, you know, there are people who are famous and who are renowned for their artistic ability in Black communities that white people are not—or the rest of the country is not—yet fully aware of. And, you know, that Black media in general is speaking more broadly than simply like reportage still bears a significant role in elevating Black genius in that way.

KEW: At its best, the Black press reflects the nuances of a community, telling the stories of people who have different visions of freedom…and different ways to get there. Adam works in that tradition, and so I wanted to know who he considers his predecessors to be and what he hopes to emulate from their work.

AS: You know, my road was paved, in part by individual people. Ida Wells is obviously for me—and for a lot of other people—sort of the patron saint of Black journalism, not only because of her rigor, but because of her prose style. She was brave, and she was willing to go against the prevailing ideological consensus of her time. 

Another Black journalist I admire a whole lot during the sort of Reconstruction, Redemption era, is T. Thomas Fortune. And he’s an interesting person because he is closely tied to Booker T. Washington, who financed a number of his projects. And Fortune is like, you know, the closest you would get to like a radical leftist at the time. I like him because he’s sort of a hotheaded figure. He’s just a very interesting figure who has been sort of forgotten, but whose sort of radicalism is a blueprint for later Black activist groups.

KEW: These days, while there are still Black-led media outlets in the U.S., legacy outlets are slowly diversifying. According to a 2018 survey by the American society of news editors, 40% of participating newsrooms have become more diverse since 2001. And according to Adam, some of that integration took place fairly recently. 

In 2008, the American Society of News Editors noted an overall decline in the number of journalists working in news that year. But the percentage of journalists of color slightly increased. One reason Adam notes for that increase was the need for qualified reporters to cover Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

AS: And there were reporters who simply were sort of…for lack of a better term, culturally illiterate in some of the things that they were going to need to pay attention to. And so I think, you know, they staffed up. I would say that newsrooms got a lot more integrated than they used to be, and that change had a significant impact when Donald Trump showed up because those people were already in those newsrooms and could say, ‘Hey, you know, you may think that there’s something ambiguous here, but this has pretty clear implications to me.’

It is a significant cultural occurrence in journalism, but there’s also individually, I think, you know…an outlet like The Atlantic…you know, it would be silly for me not to discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates, my former colleague, who, in a significant way, because of his excellence, he persuaded both The Atlantic and other legacy outlets to take more chances in terms of cultivating Black talent in this particular arena, which to this day is largely dominated by white men. So someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates brought in, you know…there are a lot more Black people who are probably reading The Atlantic now that they know that The Atlantic is interested in Black life. 

And now, if you look at a magazine like The Atlantic, you know, The Atlantic is a pretty big tent. It has a lot of different people with a lot of different ideologies. You have someone like Vann Newkirk doing an award-winning podcast about Hurricane Katrina, and you have someone like Clint Smith, who wrote a bestselling book on the way that Americans remember slavery at historical sites. You know, you have someone like Hannah Giorgis, who’s writing a cover story on the production of Black television over the past five decades. 

So it’s not just a question of having one marquee Black name at a publication which was a significant improvement from the status quo, but it’s a question of, you know, outlets are now investing. They’re not just trying to find that one token who is going to, you know, be like the face of their magazine so they can seem diverse. There is an improvement—I’m not going to say it’s perfect because it’s obviously not—but there is more of an open-mindedness to a diversity of Black writers than I think there was at a different period of time.

KEW: In one of our episodes this season, we follow W.E.B Du Bois to the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris and his realization upon returning that educating the white world on Black achievement wouldn’t end racist policies or practices. And so I’m wondering, do you think Du Bois is right? And, if so, then does the press—specifically the black press—have a role in moving us toward a more free and racially just world? 

Serwer: Sometimes people can assume that knowledge is self-actualizing. That is, you give people information and then, you know, people are going to act on that information the exact way you would expect them to, but scientific and historical…like, factual conclusions? They require political action to realize the conclusions that they might point towards. It’s not simply a question of, you give people the facts and then that’s the end of the story. You have to convince people that a particular kind of problem is meant to be solved in a particular kind of way. 

I think the work of education is important, but one of the reasons why I think the backlash to teaching American history—warts and all—is so misplaced is that, while I think there are certain obligations that stem from it, it’s not necessarily the case. You could see someone who’s conservatively inclined make a different type of argument. I do agree with Du Bois that knowledge is not enough. It’s not sufficient. You also have to convince people that something is the right thing to do. 

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. And I’m speaking with journalist Adam Serwer about the history of the Black press, and the roles Black journalists play in today’s media landscape. 

As a historian who relies on…who looks back at reporting—including opinion journalism—to understand the world and how people understood it, I think your instincts make complete sense in terms of thinking about the future. How do I help people understand what’s going on in this moment? So objectivity and impartiality are seen as the foundations of journalism, but there’ve been a lot of recent public conversations about how those rules impact Black journalists in particular. And I wonder, how do you see those rules shifting as the media landscape changes? Or do you see them shifting? 

AS: I mean, I think…I’m not necessarily against the idea of striving for objectivity; if you wanna do that, that’s fine. I think it’s important that people recognize that objectivity is culturally shaped. So what you think is objective may, in fact, simply be, you know, a fish not perceiving the water, so to speak. People don’t necessarily think that when they say ‘objective’ they mean how white people think of it, but every once in a while you’ll find something that people say that, in the case, that’s exactly what they mean. 

So, for example—and I won’t name names—but there was a media critic who asked whether Black women could objectively cover Michelle Obama. You know, this again…this would not have been a controversial article…30 years ago. There would have been some Black columnists who complained about it, but it would not have been like ‘What are you talking about?’ Like, the reaction was just like, ‘Are you what crazy? What kind of assumptions are embedded in that question?’ The assumption is that how white people say things is the objective way to see things, and that still continues to shape the lens of objectivity in American journalism in part because white people are the demographic majority in the United States. 

But I think there are other ideological axes that are relevant. I mean, I think there was a time when journalism was a very working-class, blue-collar profession. I think it is no longer the case. A lot of prominent journalists at elite publications, including myself, have degrees from elite universities and I think that affects our perspective. You know, there’s nothing wrong with striving for objectivity inherently, but objectivity is by necessity culturally determined and often by its relationship to power. And because Black people in America tend to have a different relationship to power—not, I mean, obviously Black people are not a monolith—but I think, you know, there is…they provide a different perspective regardless of their political leanings.

KEW: We rely on the press to hold those in power accountable, whether they are individuals, corporations, or the government. But the political polarization of our media sources makes it hard to tell what the role of journalists is anymore. 

AS: I think the role of all journalists is to tell the truth. It just so happens that America’s history means that telling the truth, for Black journalists, often means overcoming assumptions that are incorrect, but nonetheless widely held. And I think that that is, you know, there’s a lot of extra labor that goes into that kind of thing, both in the journalistic product, but also institutionally in the places where we work. 

I think, you know, that role is not necessarily fundamentally different than it used to be. I think our society is different in a lot of ways, but some people don’t want to take it on. Some people want to just, you know…it’s not something that you necessarily have to take on, but I think there is no question that most people, they see a responsibility to make sure that the truth is told in a way that does not dehumanize or otherwise flatten who Black people are in such a way…and you know, that’s true whether or not we’re talking about the stories that people write or the way that people write them. But also the way that things, such things…editorial decisions are made internally about how stories are framed, which is also, you know, significantly important.

KEW: When you are writing about race and white supremacy in America, do you have an imagined audience? And if so, who do you imagine your audience to be and how much do you take them into account?

AS: So I’ve never been asked this before, but yes, I do have an imagined audience. My imagined audience is someone like 20, 30 years from now who’s like, ‘What happened? And why is it happening?’ I think, in opinion journalism, it’s very tempting to try and say, ‘Well, I’m going to try to convince someone who does not agree with me to adopt my perspective.’ And that is not what I try to do. I try to follow Du Bois’s example of write the truth, even if the truth seems out of touch with the times, because the important thing is making sure that the facts are there and the truth gets told. The real story. And I think, you know, that’s something again that historians and journalists have in common, in terms of a search for facts, for the way that events unfolded. 

Since the Trump administration, since the Trump campaign, my imagined audience has been someone in the future who is trying to determine what the America of this era was like, why people did certain things the way that they did them. And that’s, you know, that is my way of making sure that I’m telling the fullest story possible and also avoiding the temptations to shade my argument a particular way. 

KEW: From your writing, your articles and then your book, The Cruelty is the Point—and from the larger writing of journalists of the past I would say 5, 6, 7 years—we can see that Black journalists seem to be able to anticipate the events of Trump’s America through January 6 in ways that maybe white journalists in some legacy media largely could not, or would not. And so I’m wondering, do you have any thoughts on why that may have been the case? Were journalists seeing, knowing, thinking that their peers weren’t able to? 

AS: Yes, I do. I think it is really just a question of historical memory. I think that, you know, if you’re raised in a Black family, your parents and grandparents have memories of some period of backlash. You know, maybe your grandparents remember, you know, the thirties and forties, maybe your parents remember the sixties and seventies. If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ve met someone who’s even older than that. But either way you have this understanding that these…you have this understanding within the people who are closest to you, who have this historical memory of progress and backlash. 

Whereas in American politics, the story of America is primarily told. There’s no sense of steps back in the popular narrative. But I think, for African-Americans in particular, that understanding of that steps back—that backlash—is very prevalent in the historical memories of our parents and grandparents. You know, it’s not some—just because I can imagine someone taking this out of context—it’s not some magical thing that’s encoded in DNA or anything like that. It is simply memory. It is a different type of memory. And it is a type of memory that, you know, if you ask Eric Foner, he would also know, you know what I mean? It is not a question of race; it is simply a question of who remembers what and why do they remember that thing? 

KEW: And I think—as a historian—I think it’s probably like a combination of the memory and being willing to do the work, right? To sort of look to the past, to understand what actually happened, as opposed to what people think may have happened. And so I think that’s really important, and I think you’re right because I think historians had…historians of the U.S.—particularly those who understood earlier periods of backlash; Redemption after the Civil War, the backlash…consistent backlash of Jim Crow era, and then even the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement—could also see in this moment what was happening in ways that other people may not have been able to see or may not have wanted to see because it made them uncomfortable, or they thought it could never happen here. 

AS: If you even remember that Martin Luther King was very unpopular when he was assassinated, you probably had some inkling of, you know, what could happen post-Obama. 

KEW: But, you know, and so…I think you’re right, but I also think that that’s not common knowledge. I think that, you know, and some of that is memory, but also it’s being open to the kind of education or the kind of history—that more accurate history—than the sort of cookie-cutter version of history that a lot of people get and actually really prefer to the actual history that’s more complicated. 

AS: Yeah. I mean, look: We are currently witnessing a massive historical backlash to, you know…I think after Barack Obama was elected, you know, people wanted an answer to the question—you know, after Ferguson in particular—were searching for an answer to the question, ‘Well, we have a Black president. How is it that race is still such an important factor in American life?’ 

And so they started, you know, reading history. And it turned out the history that actually happened was very different from the history that they were taught. And I think that this radicalized a certain portion of the college-educated, white American electorate, in particular. And so what you see, I mean…you see Republican-controlled states and districts all across the country essentially banning books, banning ideas. And that is because they understand that your historical memory affects how you see the world. And so if you sort of think, ‘Well, we used to have some problems, but now everything’s fine,’ that will give you a very different political perspective from actually, you know, things are not fine. 

They were never fine, and every time they get a little bit better, there is a huge backlash trying to drag things back to the way that they used to be. And that…I think what we’re essentially seeing—and it’s not really all that new either—is a strong resistance to a re-evaluation of history that places a failure to do right by Black Americans at the center of the nation’s problems.

KEW: Even in this moment of backlash, Adam is still excited about how the Black press could function in the future. And he told me that his ideal version of what the Black press could do isn’t that different from how it has operated historically.

AS: I think there is a way in which, you know, magazines that—or outlets that sometimes come from a particular cultural perspective—can be read and enjoyed by people who are not necessarily from that background. If you had a newspaper, like The Forward, for example…you know that is a publication that is Jewish. It comes from a Jewish perspective; they always find the Jewish angle on everything. I sometimes affectionately rib them for writing things like ‘What does it mean that Kendrick Lamar is a Black Hebrew Israelite?’ You know what I mean? Like always find a local angle. That, I think there is like a tremendous amount of value to that kind of cultural perspective in journalism that, you know, says like ‘We are from this community and this is how we look at things, but also we are doing interesting work on the world.’

KEW: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics. His book, The Cruelty is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump’s America, is out now.

Episode Resources

The following resources were utilized in the research and creation of this episode:

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart