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August 09, 2005

A Lost Pioneer

If you’re going to die, be sure to pick a time when a big-name celebrity isn’t doing the same thing.

This is no slight against Peter Jennings, who I thought was a good anchorman and a better reporter. Besides, I think he’d agree with me on this one.

A true media pioneer died a couple days ago, and his passing barely got a mention on the various news programs and newspapers I monitor. John H. Johnson was the founder and CEO of Johnson Publishing Company, known for Ebony and Jet (the latter combined with his initial publication, Negro Digest – a.k.a. Negro World) magazines as well as sundry interests in television production, cosmetics and fashion.

One cannot overestimate the importance of Ebony and Jet. Before their publication, there were no national magazines oriented towards the black population – and, therefore, no magazines on the racks to offer a racial and ethnic balance to the white-oriented publications of the time. In other words, prior to Johnson the only representations of black society were created and managed by white people.

This is no mean feat. He had to acquire national distribution for his magazines and secure big-name advertisers. Nobody was really selling to a national black audience at the time, and magazine distributors were well known for their, let me politely say, conservative and self-rewarding attitudes. This was all virgin turf, and in the 1940s our nation was hard-pressed to accept the possibility of financial opportunity in the black American markets. Their worldview was shaped by Amos’n’Andy and minstrel shows, both of which, for the record, continued into the 1960s. He couldn’t even buy a building for his headquarters in Chicago’s South Side – his white lawyer fronted for him.

It comes as no surprise that in the early 50s Johnson Publishing was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. In fact, many believe it was Jet’s coverage of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 that put that publication on the map.

Today Ebony and Jet have a combined circulation of two and three-quarter million, and that doesn’t count Ebony Jr. or their book publishing. John H. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

As for Peter Jennings, the man took some very strong positions against the direction television network news has been heading – a tough role to play in today’s world. He continued to pilot his broadcast even after he left the anchor chair, even while he was dying of cancer. I hope his employers at Disney will respect his efforts.

Posted by Mike Gold at August 9, 2005 01:21 PM

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What always inspires me about people like Johnson is the sheer devotion they had to their goals.

For instance, think about how bloody DARING it was for him to start Negro Digest back when he did?

He was not a rich man (I think he had to, like, sell his parents' furniture or something), but he believed there was a market for what he was selling, and he went out to meet that need.

Bold and daring.

An impressive man.

Posted by: Brian Cronin at August 12, 2005 04:11 AM

You can't be 62004 serious?!?

Posted by: Max Ballstein at August 14, 2006 09:56 PM

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