When I came to Washington 41 years ago, I thought I was, as the saying goes, “picking in High Cotton.” That’s because I was assigned to be the White House correspondent for the Chicago Daily Defender.
During those days the few Black reporters on the White House beat represented Black owned or non-commercial media outlets — The Defender, Johnson Publishing Co., The Washington Informer, The Afro, Sheridan Broadcasting Network (SBN), American Urban Radio Network (AURN), Pacifica Radio, NPR.
Funny thing back then, the corporate media outlets could never seem to find any “qualified” candidates for employment, period, certainly not for the prestigious White House beat.
Me, I was following in the footsteps of my friend, the legendary Ethel Payne, who may be the last Black reporter by herself to have had a major impact on public policy from a perch in the White House press gallery.
Miss Payne worried John Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson in particular, about everything related to this country’s civil rights policies and more, and because of the national tender-spot about race in those days, she was able to shame those powerful leaders into addressing some of the nation’s neglected problems.
Of course she stood on the shoulders of Alice Dunnigan, the brave first Black reporter credentialed to cover the White House and Congress. Back in the 1950s, she represented Claude Barnett’s Associated Negro Press (ANP).
Without Black writers like Dunnigan, Payne, Barnett, Alfreda Madison, Don Agurs, Ron Ellison and others before me, the world would likely never have known the lies, tricks and buffoonery employed by white folks to keep the Black man in his lowly place. They exposed the powerful with their persistent questions about this country’s failure to deliver on the promises of the American dream to the downtrodden. They (we) held presidents accountable for their policies and conduct in office.
Now, Donald J. Trump and his “Coon-servative” minions — such as Omarosa Manigault Newman, Ben Carson and, recently, Kanye West — have turned the Black presence into a clown show.
I had a so-called White House “hard pass” for 28 years. But I was booted from the corps because I did not attend the ritual daily briefings often enough. At least that’s what they told me. I stopped attending those snore-fests because as one very influential White House reporter told me once, it’s a “news-free zone.” Now, it’s all about having one’s face seen (enhancing one’s “brand”) on cable TV during the regular press briefings by the White House press secretary.
I did have some memorable adventures there though. One January night I stood for hours in frigid weather outside of Blair House with reporters Glenn Ford and Tamu White, waiting for a promised and delivered interview with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Another time with Tamu White, she and I literally hid in the bushes until Mayors Marion Barry and Richard Hatcher walked up for a meeting with President Jimmy Carter, so we could complain to them that the president hadn’t called on any Black reporters in his just-concluded press conference. At his next press conference, Carter called on three of us.
But now, the president and the elites in this country have no shame about their wicked policies, and most Black journalists now represent, not the Black Press, or the “progressive media,” but rather corporate-sponsored outlets, and they are assigned the same stories their white colleagues are assigned. They are not assigned to dig for policies concerning the police murders of innocent Black people, or about race discrimination in housing, in education and employment, or about the disproportionate rates of Black incarceration, or the wealth gap. Plus there are these occasional sideshows when these Black characters show up and fawn over the narcissistic egomaniac who occupies the Oval Office.
And even with Black journalists like April Ryan, sometimes backed up by NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe, raising cane at the White House Press conferences and briefings nowadays, there is no follow-up national outrage, certainly not among the general public, about the scandals exposed.
But my searing memory is from maybe 10 or 12 years ago. It was on one of my last days in the News-Free Zone. I overheard a Black correspondent tell a colleague how hard it was for her to find day care for her children, even though she was paying $1,000 a week.
I thought I would come out ahead if I took care of her children, because I did not even earn $1,000 a week as a credentialed White House correspondent, and unlike Alice Dunnigan, for whom a statue has been dedicated at The Newseum, and Ethel Payne, who was commemorated on a U.S. Postage Stamp in 2004, I can only take my White House memories and $1, and I can get a “senior coffee” at the Golden Arches fast-food restaurant at 17th and Pennsylvania Avenue, a block from the News-Free Zone.