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Media variety holds sway; Ethnic minorities inform themselves

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A vigorous gathering of ethnic media organizations, journalists,
publications and academic programs at Columbia University recently gave
evidence of a new world of communications by and among the various American
ethnicities. This now-termed "ethnic journalism" spans from American
Indians to Asian- and Arab-Americans and features largely the Hispanic and
black publishing communities.

Indian Country Today was represented at the event as the national newspaper
of record on Indian affairs. It was our pleasure to serve in various panels
and help frame the issues of a collective journalism that is at once
critical and fair. Connection and collaboration between ethnic media and
national mainstream newspapers and other outlets, a desired focus of the
gathering and one that can yield benefits to all involved, was energized by
the interesting news of the unexpected reach and formative power of the
ethnic media.

This revelation came with the new survey released for the conference on
June 7 by respected pollster Sergio Bendixen's public opinion research firm
Sergio Bendixen & Associates, subtitled "The Giant Hidden in Plain Sight,"
which provides exacting evidence on the heavy reliance by ethnic-identified
Americans upon their own information outlets.

Some 29 million ethnic-identified Americans - almost 13 percent of all
Americans - are primary consumers of ethnic media. Another 22 million
ethnic-identified adults consult their own media on a regular basis. The
combined 51 million adults reached by ethnic media represent about
one-quarter of the entire U.S. adult population.

This personalized context in American journalism has interesting
potentials. It is neither a small market nor a negligible portion of the
electorate. In 2004, the Hispanic vote, which jumped to 40 percent for
Bush, helped achieve the Republican's win in the presidential contest. In
2002's South Dakota senatorial race, our own support of Sen. Tim Johnson's
campaign helped move the 524 American Indian votes that put him over the
top.

Beyond the sense of "a specialty media," said Bendixen, "ethnic media has
great impact." Besides, who can better know and report the history, culture
and popular pulse of a particular people better than their own journalists
and commentators, trained independently in the profession but with the
added benefit of homegrown cultural competency?

The collective audience of the wide range of ethnic media represented at
Columbia was impressive. "The cutting edge of journalism isn't the blogs,
it's the ethnic media," conference organizer Sandy Close, executive
director of New California Media, told the assembly.

Bendixen's cutting-edge, trend-spotting survey used 10 different languages
to interview members of 14 racial subgroups. The national sample of 1,895
respondents included six Spanish-speaking subgroups, Arab-Americans, blacks
and American Indians. The 114 American Indians were considered a large
enough sample to draw statistically significant conclusions, although the
poll allowed a generous margin of error of 9.4 percent. In all cases the
poll showed people valued their own ethnic journalistic outlets, some
groups such as Hispanics relied more on print, while Arab- and
Asian-Americans, for example, relied heavily on the Internet.

Beyond the impressive numbers of the multicultural media, the energy of the
gathering was patently positive and engaged. Reporters and editors, media
consultants and planners from publications and programs as diverse as The
New York Times, the Sacramento Bee and "60 Minutes" to the Spanish language
daily La Opinion, the Black Publishers' Coalition (Insight News Group),
Caribbean American Weekly, Asian Journal, Aramica, Link-TV and this
newspaper, among many others, were clearly stimulated by the mix of talent
and experience.

Working journalists, entrepreneurs, political consultants and academics
generated useful information on markets, opinion trends and the resilience
of cultural connections in the general American audience. If perhaps a
sense of common purpose was not quite palpable, a common sympathy and
mutual affirmation was in evidence. All out of the mainstream, strongly
culturally- or racially-identified Americans have felt the marginalization
that comes with that positioning in America in the form of racism, bigotry,
dismissal and disregard.

And just as most of us wrapped around the comfort zone of our own prided
ethnicity, noted essayist and commentator Richard Rodriguez spun it all on
its head. Rodriguez - always brilliant - reminded everyone of the
in-between people like the "blaxicos" (Los Angeles juveniles'
self-identification as the offspring of blacks and Mexican-Americans), and
of the brutal hostilities that exist between black and Hispanic gangs in
the streets, in prisons and in schools. In a humorous and sharply literate
cautionary note, Rodriguez imparted to ethnic media representatives an
independent critique and perception of our common theme, if not politically
correct, truthful.

In the context of American Indian issues, it was refreshing to talk with
other journalists as people who understand and engage in serious thinking
in an effort to comprehend the repetitive themes of history in covering the
trends and events of our day. In our experience, to study the trends in
media coverage of Native and other minority or ethnic-based issues is to
discover that the general tenor of the discussion is negative.

It was good to hear that perception, one we often hold up to the light,
reaffirmed by journalists thinking without particular political axes to
grind. Several offered to us their opinion that the stereotype of Indians,
always overtly racist, remains so today. Several concurred with our
perception that there is an increased directness in the attack on many
important tribal issues, i.e., Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's the "Indians
are ripping us off" comment, which managed to insult and demean a whole
population.

To properly report on Indian issues, history is doubly important. Without a
deeper-than-normal understanding of the continuity of the various tribal
histories over time and space, over land and social and cultural relations,
Native imaging and true human reality are easily dehumanized and
ill-presented. Claims with reasonable legitimacy and even compelling human
dimension are easily dismissed or disregarded, while public policy is
formulated based on noisy polemics rather than factual information and a
realistic assessment of public positions on an issue.

Three remarkable organizers - Sandy Close, founder of New California Media
and executive director of Pacific News Service; Arlene Morgan, associate
dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and director
of the school's Workshop on Journalism, Race and Ethnicity; and Juana Ponce
de Leon, Independent Press Association, teamed up to gather a powerful
circle of voices and interests from the ethnic media world for the highly
energizing conference, sponsored in part by Bank of America, Comcast and
the Open Society Institute, among myriad other institutions that have shown
interest in the project.

We extend our appreciation to these superb organizers, their foundation and
corporate sponsors and the many participants who shared generously from
their own experience in matters of journalism, communications, public
policy and public perception.

The court of public opinion constitutes the most substantial contemporary
arena. In our estimation, the public contest for hearts and minds is the
crucial test that will tell if tribal political and economic successes will
be sustainable. There are many avenues to join in that discussion and all
are needed to influence policy. This ethnic media conference, which so
deftly identified the heretofore "hidden giant," itself reveals a great
emerging field of action. We are happy to engage it.