The Root: Unapologetically Black
March 6, 2017
BOB SCHIEFFER: With us this time, Danielle Belton. Since May of 2016, Danielle Belton has been managing editor of TheRoot.com, the premier news, opinion and cultural site for African-American influencers. Prior to that, she was the associate editor of The Root. She’s also the founder of the award-winning pop culture meets politics blog The Black Snob. Before The Root, she served as editor for the blog for eight years. And she is everywhere. Whether it’s NPR or Time or The New York Times or MSNBC, you will find Danielle Belton. She has been described – and this is one of my favorite parts, Danielle – as “a cultural Rosetta Stone for a racially bewildered country.” That was the author Cintra Wilson who I believe said that to you.
DANIELLE BELTON: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, let’s talk about The Root. What is it and why is it?
MS. BELTON: Well, The Root is the premier source for – basically for black news and opinion. It was started by Don Graham and Henry Louis Gates back in 2008, when there were very few voices or places on the Web that kind of cultivated how African-Americans and other black people were thinking and feeling about politics and culture. And, you know, there were lots of sites that catered to entertainment, but not to, like, hard news and opinion. And so the site kind of developed out of that. We’ve always had a strong kind of historical slant because of Professor Gates’ interest in DNA and history and genealogy, so we’ve always done work in that area as well. But we’ve been primarily a source for politics and cultural opinions and voices.
And so it’s been quite – I feel like it’s been very necessary. The Root came about in a time of great transition in this country, with the election of President Barack Obama, and it was a period where people were just really excited to just talk about these deep-seated issues that have long affected our country around race, around gender, around identity. And The Root has been a major player in those discussions.
MR. SCHIEFFER: So what does The Root offer that people won’t find on other sites?
MS. BELTON: I think what you won’t find is that – there’s really an unbridledness. Like, we really let loose in our opinion how we think and feel about race and culture and politics on The Root. It’s very unvarnished. It’s very unpolished. We say what we feel. And we embrace wholly what it means to be black.
Now, I grew up during a time when people were very concerned about how black people appeared to other white people and the wider culture. There was this real fear that if you didn’t speak the right way or behave the right way, you somehow harmed the whole race. The Root doesn’t believe that. It’s called respectability politics. Like, we basically don’t believe in respectability politics. We believe that we should accept ourselves fully as who we are and be unvarnished in that and unapologetic in it, and that’s really what sets The Root apart.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Do you – do you think that the digital age has opened a door for ethnic media?
MS. BELTON: Oh, definitely. I mean, the reality is, is that the internet really democratized the media space for everyone. So you had people that originally had no access to major outlets on the East Coast, who had no access to major studios, to major newspapers and news organizations, you know, that came from nowhere. Like, I’m a good example of that. You know, I got my start at two small-town papers in Bakersfield, California and Midland, Texas. And I realized, you know, I wanted to be an East Coast writer. I wanted to be a major player. I wanted to, you know, write for sites like The New York Times and The Observer and all these other publications, but I couldn’t get seen by them. And so I started my own blog, and like, boom, it just kind of took off from there. So it does have this effect where we’re all somewhat equal on the internet to a certain extent. You know, if you can get your voice out there, if you believe strong enough in your talent and your abilities as a writer or reporter or researcher, musician and artist, whatever, if you can get it out there to the masses by using social media or using a blog or a website or a podcast, like, you can really just change your life overnight.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, you really made a success of that blog – what, about 2 million readers when you were there? You were there, what, eight years?
MS. BELTON: Yeah, it grew really fast. I was – even I was surprised. Like, you know, I always joke that to do anything worth doing, to put yourself out there, you have to be a little bit delusional. Like, you basically have to decide, like, I have the answers; like, my opinion matters and people need to hear it. And it’s like, well, why does your opinion matter? Why do people need to hear it? Like, who are you? (Chuckles.) Who are you to, like, impose your beliefs and opinions on other people? But I, you know, truly believed in myself and my ability. I truly believed that if other people read my writing, they would see that it was good and would share it with others, and I would get to where I wanted to go in my career. And I just embraced that fully, and like, you know, whenever I fell down or something bad happened or I messed up, you know, I just dusted myself off and just got right – threw myself right back into it.
And I really have to credit my professors at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, my alma mater, who basically told me how horrible journalism was and that it would be hard and that it would be difficult to get recognition and to get out there; and so if I wanted to do it, you had to really, really, really want this. And so they really prepared me for the competitiveness and the at times brutality of trying to make a career in media, because believe me, you know, I ate a lot of Top Ramen.
MR. SCHIEFFER: (Laughs.) What are your – your readers and viewers, what are they – what’s on their mind these days?
MS. BELTON: You know, a lot of it is about Trump. They are quite – they run the gamut of emotions, but it’s all about Trump. So it’s everything from anger to disillusionment to grieving – (laughs) – to disappointment. Like, they’re basically going through all the stages of grief, our readership has been going through. And some have decided to take this moment as this is a time to resist, a time of action, we need to be proactive and get on things, and we need to march, and we need to protest, and we need to call our congresspersons and let them know how we’re thinking and feeling, and stand up to the administration. Other people are like, we need to work with the administration, we need to figure out how to get in the room and maybe be an influencer. While, you know, others are just like basically curled up in a ball in the fetal position – (chuckles) – completely freaked out. So it really runs the gamut.
And you do have people who are very much like, well, we’ve seen this before. Like, I’ve had many conversations with my father, who represents a certain segment of our readership population that’s just like, we’ve been through this before when we’ve had presidents that maybe we didn’t like or disagreed with, and so everybody should just calm down.
So it’s the gamut, but it’s all about Trump right now. That is THE hot topic, what’s going on within the administration and without it.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, what do you make of the administration thus far? He’s been in office now, what, about five weeks. Where do you see this going?
MS. BELTON: It is uncharted territory. Like, you know, so many people have said this and so it’s not a unique thing to say, but this really is the most unique, unusual presidency that I – modern presidency that, you know, I feel like the United States has ever experienced. Every day it’s something. And it doesn’t matter how big or how small, it gets blown up and examined and dissected.
Like today the big thing was over Kellyanne Conway’s feet being on the couch in the Oval Office while she was trying to take a cellphone photo of these administrators from historically black colleges and universities who were visiting Trump. So they were like posing for this photo op and her feet, you know, with her shoes on, were on the couch. And people just had this huge visceral reaction to it; like, oh my God, it’s so disrespectful, she’s disgusting – you know, like people just went in. And I feel like some of that is because a lot of it does feel unusual to people and strange and foreign and upsetting, and then some of it is just because everyone’s just really, really sensitive right now because of the unprecedented nature of this presidency where a lot of people feel like the bar of civility has been lowered to such a degree that something as innocuous as, like, Kellyanne like trying to get her footing to take this photo by kneeling on the couch turns into a controversy, because like literally everything this administration touches turns into controversy. Like, again, every day it’s something. It’s amazing.
MR. SCHIEFFER: You know, I must say you scooped me on that. I hadn’t – I hadn’t heard about that, but that is a little bit unusual. I mean, I remember in the George Bush administration, the last George Bush, that he did not allow anyone to come into the Oval Office unless they were – if it was a man, unless he was wearing a coat and tie. President Obama was pretty strict about that, too. I don’t recall any, you know, people there that looked like they had just come in from doing yardwork being in the Oval Office. But I think that is kind of unusual to see that.
MS. BELTON: No, it was definitely strange. It was a surreal photo to see it. I believe AFP is the agency that took the photo and put it out. And it kind of dropped this morning, and on Twitter it just blew up. My favorite tweet about it was a response tweet, to Kellyanne’s feet being on the couch, was of an old photo of President – of former President Obama moving around the same couch in the Oval Office with the tagline, you know, now I’m taking this back, or like I knew she didn’t have any training, like make it a joke about the whole thing. But people really are just completely flummoxed by it.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, we have learned this is not – this was not a campaign where you could make predictions about anything with any certainty.
MS. BELTON: No.
MR. SCHIEFFER: And now it seems to be continuing on.
Well, let me bring in my colleague Andrew Schwartz here. Andrew?
H. ANDREW SCHWARTZ: Thank you, Bob.
Hi, Danielle. Thanks for being here with us today.
One of the things you said earlier in this podcast was that – you mentioned that the writing and the multimedia in The Root is unpolished. It might be unpolished, but it’s very smart, it’s very sophisticated. It seems to me that it writes not just to an African-American audience, but to a Millennial audience as well.
One of the questions I wanted to ask you was, you know, there’s been multiple moments in history when black movements have revolutionized music. In fact, you know, on this podcast my friend Aaron Neville has – I got to give him a shout out because today’s Mardi Gras day in New Orleans – Aaron gave us music for this podcast. So big shout out to Aaron. I learned a lot about music and African-American culture living in New Orleans and listening to Aaron and Art Neville and Cyril Neville talk. Do you think the same opportunity now exists for media?
MS. BELTON: Oh, totally. Like, there’s already so many different ways that the voice from the black community has altered media just in how people talk about things online. Like, the level of influx of verbiage and slang and idioms and metaphors that come from black culture have popped up in mainstream media, and it’s been fascinating to watch. Like, the amount of – like watching news organizations try to figure out what shade is so they could use it in a headline – (laughter) – to be able to say that, you know, Donald Trump shades CNN. And it’s like, the only reason why the word “shade,” you know, exists is because of black gay subculture. It’s black gay slang that came up out of that subculture into mainstream black culture into social media, which made its way into wider media, and like now it’s everywhere.
Like so many things and ways that black Americans consume media and distribute media and how they talk about media ends up influencing the media itself. When I think of the fact that, like, African-Americans are overrepresented on Twitter, and so often things that trend or that pop up really high in searches on Twitter are basically being driven by a black audience influencing what’s going to be on the news. I can think of a few years back when protests first started around both Trayvon Martin and around Michael Brown’s death that you had this influx of black people on social media, you know, basically calling out CNN, calling out MSNBC, saying why aren’t you reporting about this, why aren’t you reporting about this, this is happening right now, you need to get your cameras there, we want to see what’s going on because we’re hearing that something bad has happened and that people are gathering in the streets demanding justice. And, you know what, lo and behold, like people – like, CNN went to St. Louis. CNN went to Florida. Like, they went there and actually covered these stories, and they became national stories.
In the past, when a(n) unarmed black person was killed by the police – because I can remember this happening quite a bit when I was growing up – it wasn’t national news. You know, people didn’t talk about it. People didn’t realize that it was an issue. But the reason why it’s talked about now and the reason why it’s an issue is because of the influence of African-American media consumers.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, what do you think about viral digital movements? And will we see more of them? How might they evolve?
MS. BELTON: You know, I think we’re going to continue see viral digital movements as long as social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, remain a prevalent voice, until they’re perhaps replaced by something else even more expedient and easy to use. As long as those two are the – these are the two premier mediums, I really feel like we’ll continue to see these kind of viral movements pop up around images and words and what’s going on in the press and what’s going on in our world.
How will it evolve? You know, I have no idea. Like, that’s one of the things that’s brilliant about being part of the information age that, you know, we live in. Like, some of it people have been able to predict, but large swaths of it we had no idea this was going to happen. And so it’s amazing to kind of watch it all unfold and see what the next iteration is.
MR. SCHWARTZ: But within that, you know, what’s – so what’s your editorial mantra for The Root these days?
MS. BELTON: (Laughs.) Our mantra is to be unapologetically black. So that basically just means embracing blackness in full, loving ourselves, talking about the news that matters to our community, the news our community needs; being both someone who, like, lifts things up and shows black excellence, but also at the same time having a critical eye and a critical voice. So it’s a – it’s a lot of things. It’s really multifaceted. You know, you have to be all these different things at once because black culture is all these different things at once. Black people are all these different things at once. There’s this tendency to see the black community as a monolith, but it’s not. There’s actually quite a diversity of thought and art and culture. And so The Root tries to reflect that.
MR. SCHWARTZ: These days the news is so compelling and journalism is so compelling, and niche journalism like what you’re doing and what some of the Millennial journalist sites are doing, like Mic, has become as exciting as movies or as exciting a popular music. I mean, are you seeing that trend from where you sit?
MS. BELTON: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, there is a real hunger for information. And I feel like, again, that is a part of that democratizing effect of the internet, and the fact that it’s so readily available. You know, it’s so easy to get information now. Like, I joke all the time – at least once a day – that I don’t remember how I got information before the internet. Like, I do remember. Like, I went to a think called a library and read this thing called a newspaper. But, you know – (laughs) – like, I had to, like, go to a building and I had to know how to use microfiche, you know? Like, who used microfiche anymore? (Laughter.)
You know? Like, we live in this amazing time where it’s like I want to see this movie or I want to hear this music or I want to read this news article, and it’s all just a few clicks away. So, yeah, like, I feel like in many respects the digital age has created this environment where the written word – which has always been powerful, which people have always been drawn to – we can read an ever-wider audience than ever imagined how. We’re international now. You could write, like, a local news story for, like, some local TV station, like, in Des Moines, and it could end up all the way in China, where people are reading about it. So it’s really – it’s really amazing.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Right. What do you think the power of newsletters are in media these days? I mean, they’re so old, they’re new.
MS. BELTON: (Laughs.) Yeah, exactly. You know, I feel like, you know, newsletters are fascinating. Because I subscribe to, like, several different newsletters. And I kind of use them as a way to kind of gauge, you know, what’s hot and what’s trending online. But, you know, it’s really amazing to see things like newsletters and podcasts – like things that seem to be somewhat rooted in something that’s part of old media. Like, to me, podcasting is just radio.
MR. SCHWARTZ: It’s on-demand radio.
MS. BELTON: Yeah, it’s on-demand radio. I met this young woman a few weeks back who works in traditional radio. And she’s, like, I’m on X-amount stations. I had no idea who she was, and I felt bad, because I had to admit to her, like, I don’t actually listen to the radio. (Laughs.) But, you know, I can name people who do podcasts. So it’s – like, it’s the same way with newsletters – (laughs) – where you have, like, the curated news that people will easily share through email and read to try to decide, you know, what they’re going to read for the day and to get the news out. Like, it’s fascinating how the digital age can take something that’s traditionally always been part of our media and really flip it, and take it to that next level and make it even more accessible.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, let’s talk about the Oscars. This year’s Oscars was a much different show than the show last year. And it suddenly had all these great stories about African-Americans. I have to tell you, I think the best movie I saw of those nominated with “Hidden Figures.” But, you know, be that as it may, why do you think that happened, that all of a sudden we had all these movies about African-Americans, whereas before it was a much-different story?
MS. BELTON: I think the reality is – which a lot of people don’t realize – it usually takes seven to 10 years for a project to finally go from idea to fruition in Hollywood. So a lot of these ideas that we saw, you know, come to fruition that became films that we saw nominated for Oscars this year, these films were put – were created – or people started working on them almost nearly a decade ago, which makes sense when you think about it. Like I – you know, it feels weird, because I often attribute this to a lot of things that have happened post-2007, 2008. But really the election of Barack Obama, I feel like, inspired so many different people directly and indirectly, both in politics and in art. So you had lots of people who thought, you know what, if this man can become president, you know, I can get this idea off the ground. I can make this TV show happen. I feel like this is the time and the right environment for it.
So you have people who have been working on things for a decade, maybe even longer, and finally the right conditions existed to get it greenlit or to get the funding it needed or get the support it needed, or for the right people to emerge to support it. Because I really feel like for President Obama’s election, had this sort of, like, zeitgeist – like, this effect on the culture that was quite profound, where anything felt like it was possible. So you didn’t feel like you had to accept the same noes that you might have accepted in the past. It really was revolutionary, I think, in that way. And so I attribute some of it to that, the fact that I feel like you have these ideas that people have been working on for years, and they finally have the right environment to actually see them come to fruition.
MR. SCHWARTZ: That’s really interesting. I mean, and I think you see that reflected in our larger culture too. I mean, I think that of the five documentaries nominated for Oscars this year, three of them were by African-American directors about African-American issues. One of them, of course, the O.J. Simpson documentary, won.
MS. BELTON: Yes. It’s incredible to watch. And the fact that it’s happened, you know, in such a short amount of time. Like, I feel like we have these really short memories. So we think like, oh, it’s always been this way. Like, literally, like, two years ago, like, the saying Oscars so white was coined because there were, like, no black people nominated for anything. And now we just have this influx of black art and black media. Because you’ve always had people trying to do the work. They haven’t always historically been able to break through.
And I feel like the fact that people are now able to break through – your Ava DuVernays and your Issa Raes – is because of the power of black media consumers using social media, using their voice, letting them know that, you know, we’re out here, we want this product, we want this media, we want these types of films and TV shows, and it actually finally happening on a much wider and a larger scale than in the past.
MR. SCHIEFFER: You know, as we were going through talking about the things that we would ask you about today, someone came up with the thought that a lot of the hashtags, including @BlackLivesMatter, have been created by black women. I thought that was very interesting.
MS. BELTON: You know, it doesn’t surprise me. I’m a black woman, so I’m going to – I’m going to speak up for us. Like, we’re amazing. I personally – I don’t know any other experience, so I love being a black woman. But I also don’t know what it’s like to be anybody else. But I think it’s pretty great. I think we’re really smart and really funny. I think that we’re really intuitive and creative. And I think what ends up happening here – like, I think this was a conflation of a lot of different things. So you have, like, these women who have always been brilliant and always been funny and always had these great ideas. But, again, they didn’t have the democratizing platform of the internet.
Now that we have the internet, like, women who otherwise would have been marginalized, that you would have never heard from, are able, like, just to hop on Twitter and be like, hey, I got this idea. I’m just going to put it out there. And then people can jump on it. Like, one of the best examples of the term fleek, or something being on fleek – which is like something on point or something being really attractive or cool. Some woman, like, on Twitter just came up with it. You know, she made a little video that got posted to YouTube and all these different places where she’s talking about her eyebrows being on fleek. You know, now she’s trying to start a makeup line, you know, a few years later, after creating that catchphrase.
You know, and it’s just been amazing just to watch. Like, #BlackLivesMatter, you know, came from Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. And, like, basically that came out of pain. And, you know, they’ve been – they’ve worked as organizers and activists for years. And out of that pain and anguish over what had happened to Trayvon Martin, they came up with a phrase that people still use today as a rallying cry around social injustice. So, yeah, it doesn’t surprise me. Black women are awesome. So, I’m saying that as a black woman, so I’m biased, but I think we’re great.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I think you are too.
MR. SCHWARTZ: You will get no argument here.
MS. BELTON: Oh, thank you. (Laughs.)
MR. SCHIEFFER: What do you think about the way the mainstream media has covered the whole Black Lives Matter movement? And what do you think we could do to improve on our coverage?
MS. BELTON: You know, I feel like the result has been kind of mixed. On one hand, the coverage has been very helpful because it’s brought to light several systemic issues around race that affect African-Americans in the United States. So I feel like it’s been good in that respect, in bringing awareness. It’s been bad that I feel like – and this is just media in general. So it’s not like it’s, like, a special criticism. This is – you know, this is a criticism anyone could have about the media. It’s very – it bleeds – if it bleeds, it leads. So if it’s a peaceful protest, nobody cares.
You can have the largest peaceful protest – like, I went to a protest that Reverend Barber in North Carolina had a couple years back that was, like, the largest peaceful gathering protesting a government, like, in decades. Like, it was – it was huge. And, like, it got zero coverage. But, you know, someone, like, breaks a window and, you know, turns over a couple cop cars, then you get the cameras there. Everyone’s really, really interested in what’s going on.
And so, you know, it creates, like, this messed up narrative where, you know, if people express anger about what’s happening to them and lash out, by destroying property or by targeting – like, turning over cop cars and breaking windows – like, the media’s interested, but at the same time they’ll push – you’ll have this narrative, like, emerge where it’s like, well, why are – you know, why do – violent protests don’t work. But it’s like, you only showed up to cover the protest because it turned violent. Like, if it literally had just been a peaceful protest, a lot of times, you know, it just doesn’t get the same coverage. And that is inherently messed up.
The fact that – how Black Lives Matter protests were covered differently from, say, the women’s march that happened after Trump’s inauguration, where people went on and on – oh, it was so peaceful and it was so wonderful – like, there had never been a peaceful protest involving people of color. And there’s been, you know, hundreds across the country that have been peaceful, that have been massive. And they just don’t get the same kind of attention. And I feel like a lot of that just has to do with the fact that they’re just – you know, a lot of newsrooms are still overwhelmingly white.
MR. SCHIEFFER: It’s a point well taken. So while we’re asking for advice, how do you think we ought to cover the Trump White ouHouseHouse?
MS. BELTON: (Laughs.) How should you guys cover it? I think with a critical, honest eye. Like, basically what people need – and what people have always needed – is the truth. They need real facts in order to make decisions about the world around them. And I’ve always felt like the job for us, as members of the press, is to present people with those facts, and to present people with what’s actually happening to them, to the money that goes into the tax dollars that they spend, what goes into the government that they elected. They need to know what’s happening. It’s our job to take the dark places and cast light. So people can see what’s going on.
So, while this is a tricky kind of situation because I don’t know if in recent history we’ve ever had a president this combative with the press – like, I mean, I think – you know, most presidents don’t particularly care for their press coverage, but this one seems extra-sensitive about it. So it’s a much – there’s a lot – there’s a bit more risk. Like, I keep waiting for the day, like, they actually get somebody hurt by singling out particular journalists or slandering them in their efforts to try to protect themselves or fight back or whatever they think that they’re doing in order to push their agenda. But we have to be strong in this and continue to focus on, you know, bringing light to those dark places by focusing on the truth and what’s happening in the world around us.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Well, you know, Danielle, Bob always says that as journalists, you know, even though journalists are being labeled as the opposition party or the enemy or whatever, it’s journalists’ job to keep asking questions, and just keep asking the tough questions. And I think that’s what you’re suggesting here too.
MS. BELTON: Yes. I mean, definitely. You know, the reality is that, you know, most people – they have very busy lives. You know, they don’t have time to go to a town hall. A lot of times they don’t call their congressperson or write them. They really do rely on the press to be that voice, to ask those tough questions about what’s going on. So, I mean, asking questions is a crucial job.
MR. SCHWARTZ: Through the prism of that, how do you navigate through what’s news and what’s opinion, because so much of that is conflated these days?
MS. BELTON: I think what’s key is, you know, like, we deal with opinion at The Root. We also deal with straight news at the same time. I think it’s important to make clear designations of what is what. Like, if you have an opinion, you put your opinion out there, you have a take on it. But your take still needs to be backed up by facts. Like, you still need to have sources. You still need to say where you got your information from. You still need to – you still need to carry that – the same burden that all journalists have always had to carry. You know, you can’t just say because I’m writing opinion, you know, I’m just – I’m just going to throw it all to the wind and just put anything out there. Because that’s the danger.
You have a lot of people who give opinion that isn’t sourced, that isn’t backed up with fact, that doesn’t follow any journalist standard. Because I feel like that’s even more dangerous, in some respects, because you have some people who do have a hard time distinguishing the difference between opinion and just straight news. I feel like that has a lot to do with how cable news networks have had to make serious decisions – you know, a lot of it has to do with their bottom line – in order to cultivate a large enough audience so they can get the advertising money that they need. And a lot of that means, like, having a take.
There’s nothing wrong necessarily with having a take. The issue more so is while lots of news consumers are savvy enough to be able to distinguish the difference between someone having a take, versus this is just, you know, unpolished – this is just the facts. You have lots of people where it’s just the murky middle – they can’t tell. And that’s where things get really, really dangerous. And I think it’s really important to be clear, you know, when you’re giving an opinion versus this story is straight news and we’re reporting it straight.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Well, Danielle, it was really fun to talk to you. And we want to wish you the best.
MS. BELTON: Aw.
MR. SCHIEFFER: I have to say, talking to you, you live up to your press releases.
MS. BELTON: Aw! Thank you for having me. This was a lot of fun.
MR. SCHIEFFER: Thanks a million. And we’ll see you next time.
For Andrew Schwartz, this is Bob Schieffer.