When the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) announced in January 2019 that it was reversing its decision to give the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights award to the legendary scholar/activist Angela Davis, many longtime advocates for Palestinian rights noted immediately that the decision was a clear (and sadly predictable) response to concerns about Davis’ anti-Zionist and pro-Palestinian views.
In retrospect, however, the entire Davis/BCRI story (which ended with the BCRI reversing course a second time and re-offering the award to Davis) is perhaps exemplary of how public discourse on Palestine/Israel is slowly but steadily changing. As we have seen in recent months with the case of Marc Lamont Hill and the more recent acrimonious debate over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s comments on the influence of the pro-Israel lobby, space continues to open up for a more honest and detailed discussion of Zionism, the US-Israel alliance, and Israel’s ongoing denial of Palestinian human rights. Prominent individuals working within the long tradition of Black-Palestinian solidarity have played central roles in this process.
As these developments have begun to have an impact on the Democratic Party and to sharpen the tensions between “moderates” and “progressives” within the party, establishment media outlets are starting to pay attention. Questions that may have been off-limits in the past, thanks to the ideological limits of the US media system, are now finding their way into daily news coverage.
Angela Davis and US establishment media
There is still much progress to be made, however. The Davis/BCRI story was heavily covered by progressive news outlets (The Nation, Colorlines, In These Times, Democracy Now!, and others), influential outlets based outside the US (the Guardian, Al Jazeera, Ha’aretz), and local and regional media in Alabama (Birmingham Times, WBRC6 in Birmingham), but there was minimal coverage coming from the most influential establishment news outlets.
In particular, I noticed at the time a striking lack of coverage of the story from National Public Radio (NPR), whose flagship programs (Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and others) ignored the story entirely. NPR did publish on its website one story picked up from WBHM, its affiliate in Birmingham - a detailed story that mentions her scholarship and a range of her political views while also including critical perspectives from Marc Lamont Hill, Jewish Voice For Peace (JVP), and others. Audiences not tuned into WBHM, however, would not have known about the article unless they specifically searched NPR’s website (as I did).
I was also reminded that when Davis visited St. Lawrence University (my employer) in 2017 to deliver a prestigious annual lecture organized by the University’s Philosophy department, local and regional coverage was minimal. The University’s press release announcing the lecture was picked up by the Watertown Daily Times (the largest newspaper in northern New York), but the region’s public radio station, North Country Public Radio, did not cover the visit. (I reached out to the station for comment, and an NCPR representative said she did not recall whether there had been any discussion of whether to cover the story. St. Lawrence University is the station’s license holder.)
All of this led me to wonder: what are the larger patterns in terms of how Angela Davis has been represented in establishment media in the US? Davis is, after all, both a legendary political activist and a prolific author whose work has influenced generations of scholars and activists working on a wide range of issues including mass incarceration, black liberation, feminism, political radicalism, anti-imperialism, democracy, and transnational solidarity. But is the self-evident value of her perspective and her wisdom reflected in the way she has been incorporated into establishment media coverage?
While answering these questions fully would require a much larger project, I decided to begin by taking a closer look at NPR’s Angela Davis coverage. Why NPR? First, NPR is a key member of the “establishment media”: it has built its reputation on the basis of a heavy presence in Washington, devotes significant resources to covering national politics and “inside the beltway” stories, and relies heavily (too heavily, I would argue) on official sources. Second, NPR functions as a kind of cultural gatekeeper for its listeners; its programs signal the things that one “needs to know” in order to be able to move within educated, “liberal” (in the US sense of that term) circles. Finally, its wealth of cultural programming and its emphasis on audio storytelling also give it the privilege of being able to go into more depth on many issues than establishment newspapers typically can.
In carrying out the research for this piece, I used the search engine provided at NPR’s website (www.npr.org), which appears to aggregate NPR’s national stories as well as selected stories from local affiliates. I also filtered the results by checking the “heard on air” box, since I was especially interested in learning how often NPR’s listeners were given the chance to hear from Davis herself.
My search (which you can replicate by clicking here) turned up 45 results stretching between 1997 (a story about the lawyer who defended Oklahoma City bombing suspect Terry Nichols) and 2018 (a story about Aretha Franklin’s funeral). Upon closer examination, six of the 45 results were irrelevant as they referred to other people named Angela Davis. I removed those from my results, leaving a total of 39 stories that fit my parameters.
I then went through the 39 stories and did some initial content analysis, trying to identify the basic patterns in the data. Based on what I found, I created six categories, each of which represented a particular way that NPR brought Davis into its programming. Some stories fit into more than one category. Here are the six categories along with an example of each:
Group 1 (12 cases): Stories where Davis’ name appears briefly as an example within a larger narrative. The story isn’t about Davis, and she is not quoted or discussed in detail. Example: In a 2006 interview with Noland Walker, co-screenwriter of a documentary film on the Jonestown massacre, Walker references how the People’s Temple emerged at a time of “revolutionary ferment” in Northern California (“They were friends with Angela Davis, they were friends with Dianne Feinstein, they were friends with Harvey Milk, and there was all of this kind of possibility that people felt in the air…”).
Group 2 (8 cases): Profiles of a specific individual who is connected in some way with Davis. Example: A 2011 remembrance of influential scholar Manning Marable includes a quote from Robyn Spencer, Marable’s first graduate student at Columbia University: “He was irreverent, in some ways. He took historical actors that people think are larger than life, he brought them down to Earth. He would call Angela Davis 'Angie'…”
Group 3 (22 cases): Stories that include a brief/generic reference to Davis’ political radicalism or her political actions in the distant past. Example: In a 2014 story from NPR’s Here and Now program on a Congressional bill supporting the creation of a Women’s History Museum in Washington, the host interviews Rep. Carolyn Maloney and mentions that the process will be “sticky” because “some people” will want to include people like Davis, Sarah Palin, and Michelle Bachmann in the museum.
Group 4 (13 cases): Stories that reference Davis’ hair or general physical appearance. Example: 2008 saw several stories about Barry Blitt’s controversial New Yorker cover image during the US presidential campaign. In an episode of NPR’s Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan describes the image as showing Barack Obama “bumping fists with wife Michelle, who looks like Angela Davis with a '60s Afro and an AK-47.”
Group 5 (2 cases): Davis herself speaking to NPR about her work. Example: In a 2006 Weekend All Things Considered feature about blues singer Mamie Smith, Davis (who wrote a 1999 book on Blues Legacies and Black Feminism) introduces herself as a professor at UC-Santa Cruz, discusses Smith’s music and legacy, and puts it into a broader social/cultural context.
Group 6 (4 cases): Stories that include a soundbite of Davis’ voice or a quote from Davis drawn from another (non-NPR) source. Example: During a broadcast of NPR’s Fresh Air, film critic John Powers’ review of Ava DuVernay’s documentary film 13th includes a clip of Davis’ famous early 1970s remarks on the role of violence in struggles for justice.
Analysis: key patterns in NPR’s coverage
So, what does it all mean? As I worked through the various NPR stories referencing one of the country’s (indeed, one of the world’s) most venerated radical political and cultural figures, I identified a number of patterns. As I will discuss in this section, these patterns reveal a great deal about NPR itself, particularly its role in cultivating and maintaining a cultural consensus among the nation’s centrist elites while policing the boundaries of “acceptable” political discourse. Beyond NPR, these patterns also tell us something important about the American tradition of seeking to reduce radical, systemic critiques to historical footnotes and objects of cultural fascination.
Based on its coverage, NPR seems to view Angela Davis as primarily a cultural figure whose significance derives primarily from something that happened nearly half a century ago. The NPR archive contains numerous references to Davis as a “1960s activist.” She is presented as a memorable character in a specific chapter of American history that can now be viewed safely from a distance, and NPR listeners need to know her in that sense, as part of their general historical knowledge. Even her politics are brought into the picture primarily through art, film, memoir, and other cultural forms. Political radicalism, it seems, is something to be consumed visually or through historical narrative, not something that belongs in discussions of contemporary news and politics.
There is a striking absence of references to Davis’ actual, post-1960s work as a scholar-activist, particularly her work on mass incarceration and prison abolition. Davis’ formative contributions in the latter area include 2003’s Are Prisons Obsolete? and 2005’s Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire, as well as innumerable articles and public lectures on the subject. NPR has provided some coverage of mass incarceration issues: see, for example, this 2018 Fresh Air interview with author Julian Adler and Judge Victoria Pratt or this 2014 Diane Rehm Show interview with author Marie Gottschalk. As influential curators of what liberals like to call “conversations,” NPR appears to have left one of the most important radical voices on mass incarceration out of the room.
The main exceptions to this pattern are: 1) two interviews of women of color connected with the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (director Shola Lynch and producer Jada Pinkett-Smith), both conducted by NPR studio host Michelle Martin (herself a woman of color); 2) the review of Ava DuVernay’s 13th, referenced above; and 3) a 2007 episode of NPR’s long-running Latino USA program in which host Maria Hinojosa speaks with Davis about Black-Latino relations. (Note: I was unable to locate any transcript or online recording of the program, which is only summarized on the NPR/Latino USA website.) If not for the efforts of these women of color - journalists, artists, activists - would there be anything in NPR’s archive about Davis other than relatively superficial references?
To the extent that Davis’ political views are referenced at all, even superficially, her views on race and her feminism are foregrounded, whereas her views on capitalism are virtually erased. Even here, her views are presented in a way that subsumes them within a larger, less threatening, narrative of cultural progress. As anyone who has read her work will know, Davis would strongly disagree with any attempt to address issues of race or gender in isolation from her commitment to an anti-capitalist politics.
While there is no denying that Davis’ hair has political and cultural significance (both “then” and “now”), for NPR it seems to function as a “myth” in French cultural theorist Roland Barthes’ sense of that term: a device designed to drain the item of its full historical and political context and fill it with a new meaning that is more palatable to and useful for the ruling class. In this case, repeated references to Davis’ hair and appearance (e.g., on a 2013 episode of the quiz show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me or a 2014 Code Switch discussion of the hairstyles featured in the musical Annie), even when presented in discussions about race, serve to signify generic, decontextualized notions of “radicalism” or “militancy.” Meanwhile, to complete Barthes’ mythological process, such references assist in what Barthes would call the “ex-nomination” (literally the un-naming) of the actual structures that Davis has spent most of her life seeking to dismantle: capitalism, white supremacy, settler colonialism, and the prison-industrial complex.
Finally, to return to where we began, one would never know from listening to NPR’s national broadcasts that Angela Davis has ever articulated a position on anything to do with Israel, Zionism, or Palestinian rights. This is a glaring omission given that Davis is widely recognized in progressive and radical circles as one of the most eloquent, outspoken, and powerful supporters of the Palestinian cause. Her 2016 book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, features solidarity with Palestine as a prominent theme and seeks to connect the Palestinian struggle with the Ferguson uprising and other contemporary movements. If NPR seeks to present a range of relevant views on issues, why wouldn’t it want to hear from Davis? Here it is worth noting that even when NPR was providing sustained coverage of Ferguson and the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter, Davis was never interviewed on the subject. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Davis’ commitment to a transnational, solidarity-based notion of intersectionality provides the best explanation for her striking absence from NPR’s airwaves.
Looking back, looking ahead
Taking the broadest view of the data reviewed here, arguably the most troubling finding is that according to NPR’s own archive, Angela Davis has never been interviewed by a national NPR reporter or host for a report on a flagship NPR news program - or if she has, her comments were never aired. Of the 39 stories reviewed, only one (the 2007 Latino USA program) featured words from Davis gathered directly by an NPR journalist, while one additional story (the 2006 feature on Mamie Smith) featured testimony gathered by an independent producer as part of a series on recordings selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. These two stories are valuable, and they feature important elements of Davis’ work as a scholar and activist, but they pale in comparison to the missed opportunities represented by Davis’ absence from the most widely-heard NPR broadcasts.
Some might argue that NPR’s avoidance of Davis derives from the fact that she is simply not a relevant source for contemporary news coverage. Yet NPR regularly interviews scholars as experts on current social and political issues, including other scholars who have written books on the issues that lie at the center of Davis’ work. The writings and ideas of Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, have been featured prominently on NPR in recent years as social movements have pushed issues of racial justice back to the forefront of public debate. Similarly, on the issue of Palestine, the absence of Davis’ radical critique of Zionism stands in sharp relief when compared with the regular appearance of “establishment” voices, particularly those who are relatively sympathetic toward Israel.
On the whole, one is left with an overwhelming sense of how the relative absence of Davis’ voice from the NPR airwaves over the past decades symbolizes the narrow walls surrounding political discussions in this country. Yet the winds of change are also blowing. We are living in a moment when factors such as the Trump presidency, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, the inspiring mobilization of young activists for social justice across a range of issues, and the growing threat of climate catastrophe are poking holes in those walls and perhaps even beginning to pry them open altogether.
In particular, the growing visibility and influence of women of color, from the leaders of Black Lives Matter to the wave of insurgent candidates elected to Congress in 2018 to inspiring new voices in the arts and pop culture, may be opening up a space for a more detailed look at Davis and her deep structural analysis of contemporary realities. Such changes are long overdue, and we must continue pushing establishment media outlets to accommodate this kind of radical analysis.
At a time when socialism is enjoying a resurgence and the structural flaws of capitalism are coming under greater scrutiny, when the evils of mass incarceration are being openly discussed, when even US support for Israel is on the table for debate in Washington, there is no better moment to seek out the prophetic voice of Angela Davis. Will NPR step up to the plate and help its listeners access Davis’ vital, radical perspective? Or will it go down the tired path of engaging with radical critics only after those critics have passed fully into history?