“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
A New Golden Age of Journalism
The press is under siege, but it hasn't stopped great journalists from doing their job.
Last week, Luke O'Brien, a writer for the Huffington Post, penned an article which revealed the person behind the Twitter handle @AmyMek (real name: Amy Jane Mekelberg), an account dedicated to peddling racist garbage predominantly aimed at Muslims. O'Brien's story itself quickly gets muddled in minutia (albeit interesting minutia), revealing various details about Mekelberg's life. As one can imagine, the article was met with scorn from Mekelberg's many fans, but things took a distinctly violent turn over the past few days, with O'Brien receiving death threats online. Over the course of Donald Trump's presidency, rhetoric against the mainstream press has become increasingly malignant.
Political criticisms are touted as un-American and there's a rapidly growing sentiment that our freedom of the press is under siege. But, while direct threats against journalists are frightening, there's an argument to be made that we're entering a new golden era of American journalism.
Here is an example of what I received after Mekelburg orchestrated a harassment mob against me. pic.twitter.com/qIThLoU9Cl
— Luke O'Brien (@lukeobrien) June 5, 2018
A Brief History Lesson:
The rise of newspapers in this country runs directly parallel to the adoption of our two party system in the late 18th century. Following the end of George Washington's second term, political groups rapidly began sponsoring papers to curry favor with the general public and to support their candidates. In this way, the press is directly responsible for stoking the fires of American partisanism. Still, these early papers were little more than pamphlets, and there were no pretenses surrounding unbiased reporting. These political newspapers were essentially used as a means of smearing the competition. The press as we know it began with the invention of the Linotype Machine, a device that rapidly industrialized the newspaper business by allowing papers to be printed at astonishing (for the time) speeds. It's important to remember though,while freedom of the press was baked into the fabric of the constitution, there were no rules prohibiting newspapers from distorting the truth, or in some case, outright lying in their publications.
In the late 19th century, the yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer pushed us into the Spanish American War. Throughout the early 20th century, the news slowly became more and more fact-based, eventually reaching what many consider to be the "Golden Age of Journalism," that brief period during the Vietnam War when the press core took on the U.S. government and won. Unfortunately, this period was little more than a blink, an exception to the rule of American media. In the decades following journalism's golden age, the 24-hour cable news circuit coupled with the Internet, rendered print newspapers obsolete.
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