Media Follies June 28th, 2001 by Michael I. Niman
Juneteenth is Buffalo’s best festival, hands down. It’s a national celebration of African American pride and the end of slavery, begun in Buffalo in 1976. It was an alternative to the bicentennial events of that year which celebrated the American revolution despite the fact that it was followed by 90 years of slavery. This year’s Juneteenth Parade included just under 100 marching units and step teams who, undeterred by rain, marched 18 blocks down Genesee Street to Martin Luther King Park, ground zero for the Fest. Unlike the obscene show of military force that comprised most of last month’s Pan-Am Centennial kick-off parade on Chapin and Lincoln Parkways, Juneteenth was a people’s parade featuring music and dance. Lot’s of music and dance.
The festival in the park featured over 100 vendors, most selling African art and world music otherwise difficult to find in Buffalo. Food wise, beyond than the usual gaggle of fried dough and sausage vendors that degrade most area festivals, Juneteenth featured ethnic fare from restaurants such as Auntie’s (the best Jerk Chicken in town) and family reunion bar-b-que units such as the one run by rib smoking champions, the Kirkland Family.
The date for Juneteenth is set in stone, the first teenth weekend in June. In years past, Allentown Arts festival organizers set their festival on the same day, giving Buffalo two major concurrent events, one black, one white. This is the eternal problem of Buffalo. It’s two cities: one black, one white. This year the fests were a week apart, allowing people to enjoy both events to their fullest. In reality, however, it’s still two worlds. White faces were all but non-existent at Juneteenth, and black faces were few and far between at Allentown, especially among the arts and crafts vendors.
When both fests were on the same weekend, the mainstream Buffalo media would refer to the weekend as the “Allentown Arts Festival Weekend” while wrapping their weather forecasts (let’s hope for good weather for…) and banter (are you heading down to…) around the Allentown fest. Juneteenth was lucky to get a passing mention despite the fact that it’s a culturally rich homegrown Buffalo event that’s since gone national. By comparison, the Allentown Art Fest has wandered from its creative roots, devolving into just another, albeit huge, commercial event pockmarked with schlock crafts and corporate logos.
Not much has changed. To the mainstream media, Allentown was still “our” big event. Juneteenth, despite being a week later, was still relegated to a cultural perimeter. The Buffalo News gave it eight column inches in the “City” section. End of story. Allentown got a cover story in The News’ Gusto entertainment insert, complete with a full spread inside. One week later, on the eve of the Juneteenth, the Gusto cover story was not about Juneteenth, but was about the Americanarama alternative country music festival, an event held outside of the Mohawk Grill. It gets worse. The Gusto made no mention of the Juneteenth. Not under music, not under dance or art or community. Nada. Not even under the heading of “Fairs and Festivals” where they listed five strawberry fests and one lawn fete.
I’ve been speaking lately with a number of local elected Black officials. On the subject of print media, the story is usually the same. There’s not much hope in the Black community for The Buffalo News. Not much has changed since the landmark 1994 Alt Press expose charging that the Buffalo News had the third whitest newsroom in the U.S., based on The American Journalism Review’s study showing that only 3% of The News’ writers were black. At the time, The News claimed its writers were 5.6% black. Still pathetic. During the ensuing seven years, News editors mouthed all the right rhetoric, but took no corrective action. Most recently it was a “hiring freeze” that prevented them from recruiting at national meetings of black journalists.
Quite frankly, the black community has given up on the mainstream Buffalo media, with most of the political leaders I spoke with identifying The Challenger, Buffalo’s leading black newspaper, as the newspaper of record in the black community. The bottom line is that the Western New York community is ruptured along lines of “race” and the mainstream media is part of the problem, not part of the solution. For its part, the “Alternative” media has followed suit, with the Alt, Artvoice and Blue Dog Press staffs being primarily white, and The Criterion, Fine Print News and Challenger, primarily black. Only The Buffalo Gazette seems to be establishing itself as everyone’s media.
It’s beginning. Governor Patacki’s recent announcement of support for the construction of as many as three Seneca Nation Casinos in Western New York has the pro-casino crowd salivating. There’s a lot of money to be made, and lost, at casinos. The issue will be hot, and the development contracts lucrative. It’s the type of high rolling environment that traditionally corrupts journalism. Watch for some of the sleaziest biased “reporting” we’ve ever seen over the next few months. With the story hardly out of the gate, WKBW’s AM Buffalo team has already begun the orgy of casino worship, giving Niagara Falls' Mayor Elia free reign to evangelize from the alter of casino worship while quickly disposing of Casino opponent, State Senator Sam Hoyt, with his nasty tales of crime, corruption, suicide and poverty. The AM Buffalo team then took to interviewing each other about how nifty a casino would be. In their make believe world, we can all be wieners. I mean winners. Why not? It’s Tee Vee!
And speaking of Sam Hoyt, in a stab at comic relief, the invite for his upcoming fundraiser promises that as entertainment, one can “watch Al Gore lose a debate to a half eaten bratwurst.” Here reality is stranger than fiction as Gore failed to triumph over debate opponent George W. Bush, the human equivalent of a half eaten bratwurst. But let’s not forget, it’s the same party that gave us both Gore and Hoyt.