SPJ launched the Fellows of the Society program in 1948 and has named three or more Fellows every year since. Roland Martin is among the 2022 recipients of this, the organization’s highest honor.
When Roland Martin decided at age 14 that he would establish a career in journalism, he also decided he wouldn’t limit himself to just one medium.
Turns out it was a smart move.
Thirty years into his career, Martin has been a newspaper, website and national magazine editor, television and radio host, podcaster and, most recently, CEO of Black Star Network.
“This was my mindset in high school and in college: I’m gonna learn all the disciplines,” said Martin, an aggressive journalist known for covering issues in African American communities with audacity, nuance and compassion. “I’m never gonna be unemployed. I’m never gonna allow someone to have an excuse that I can’t do this.”
Martin attended a communications high school in Houston that exposed him to several media platforms. While attending Texas A&M University, he met one of his mentors, Paula Madison, then news director at KHOU-TV in Houston.
“Roland was our news intern and immediately was a standout in the newsroom,” said Madison, who would later become principal owner of The Africa Channel. “His reporting skills, personality and dedication to the Black community have always been elements that I’ve admired and loved in him.”
Martin spoke with Quill about his distinguished career.
As a commentator on news network shows and when interviewing some sources on camera, you can come across as abrasive. Why do you take that approach?
My editorial voice was honed very early. I was writing columns that were in your face when I was in high school. I was writing them in college. For me, it was also mission-driven and standing up. A lot of that also comes from being in the Black press, where we’ve been disrespected and disregarded and ignored and mistreated and treated as second class. And I’ve had to get in folks’ face, you know? Man, just sometimes you got to go there.
You have some good sources, especially in Black communities. I would just worry about driving some of them away.
You know, Bernice King got pissed at me for a column I wrote, and she was like, “If y’all could walk a day in our shoes … .” This was at the March on Washington 50th anniversary. I said, “Bernice, you see all those people?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “You see all those dignitaries?” I said, “Every single one of them knows I will kick their ass at any moment.” I said, “Bernice, there’s going to come a day when you’re going to want me to kick somebody’s ass for you.” I said, “My motto has been, ‘If you do good, I’m gonna talk about you. If you do bad, I’m gonna talk about you. At the end of the day, I’m going to talk about you.’” This was a Saturday. The March on Washington anniversary was actually that Monday. Her brothers filed a lawsuit against her in a Georgia courtroom on that day. Story came out on Tuesday, and I left her ass a message. I said, “Remember, I told you, you’re gonna want somebody to kick somebody’s ass? Amazing how quickly that day came.” So that’s also part of the piece. People who are like, “He’s a son of a bitch,” they also know, “He’s gonna be a son of a bitch and get the person I don’t like,” because what it boils down to is holding folks accountable.
There’s widespread distrust of the press, but in the Black community in particular, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for you.
That’s not just a Black thing, because a lot of Black journalists don’t get the access. It’s the people who trust your integrity, your credibility, your character…and you also have respect for them and respect for the attorneys. And they see the work, which means you’ve got to do the work. And when the people see the work, then they say, “You know what, I can roll with that.”
How important is it for newsrooms to have diverse staffs?
I’m going to speak to that from two vantage points. First, I’m gonna speak on it from the perspective of what I call mainstream, white media. Then I’ll speak from the perspective of Black-owned media. We are determinants of how people perceive things, view things and how we receive stuff. We can push folks this way or that way. The reality is it is still an overwhelmingly white industry. It is one that still is dominated and dictated by the perspectives and the views of white men. And even when you have non-white men in charge, we have been trained by these same folks. So, our thinking has been shaped based upon how they trained us. When I get somebody Black who’s worked in mainstream media who comes to work on my show, they think white mainstream media first and not Black. I tell them, “You got to wake up Black,” and they’re like, “What do you mean? I’m Black.” I say, “No, no, no. You ain’t waking up Black. Yes, you’re Black. But you don’t look at the story through a Black prism. You look at it through a mainstream prism.” When we fail to properly cover Black people and Latinos/ Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans, then what happens is America now has a corrupted or shallow view of who a community is, and they are grossly uninformed.
And you said you’ll address the question from the perspective of Black-owned media?
Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET, said advertisers force Black media to focus on health, beauty and entertainment stuff, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s all they actually will spend money on. Black media then goes, “That’s the only thing we can output.” All of a sudden, it begins to go around. When you actually step back right now and look at Black-targeted and Black-owned, you have this enormous amount of attention that is focused on entertainment, reality shows, celebrity gossip. Not much news. I’ve been saying that we have news deserts like we have food deserts. We have a food desert if all you are surrounded by are liquor stores, convenience stores and fast-food establishments. Well, that’s what your body is going to crave. Your body ain’t craving a green apple. It’s not craving water. It’s craving a soda, it’s craving other things. Therefore, when new things are introduced, your body is like, “What the hell is this?” Your brain is like, “Man, what the hell is this? I’m not eating no damn arugula. I’m not eating a salad.” Because, again, you have been conditioned. Well, we have conditioned Black people to be so focused on entertainment. So, when you watch “Roland Martin Unfiltered” — not much entertainment. And [when] people ask me why, I say because if y’all want this, go over there. I got no problem. Go over there.
You learned several media platforms in both high school and college before you started working professionally. Did you think back then that you would be using them all in your career?
I remember being at a workshop at Columbia University, one of the first on multimedia convergence. We’re sitting in a room, all these journalists from all around the country, and they say, “Hey, if you’ve worked for television, raise your hand.” Some raised their hand. I raised my hand. They said, “If you’ve done radio, raise your hand.” I raised my hand. “If you’ve done newspaper, raise your hand.” I raised my hand. “And if you’ve done magazine, raise your hand.” I raised my hand. They were looking at me like, “You’re the only one to raise your hand on all four platforms.”
When we had that workshop, I was already doing web stuff. I launched a website at the Dallas Weekly. That was in 1998. I launched a website at WVON Radio. I was at a media fellowship at [University of California, Berkeley] where Evan Williams presented this thing called Odeo. It was one of the first podcasting platforms. So, I came back, and I launched the first Black news audio podcast at the Chicago Defender in 2005 and launched the first Black news video podcast in 2006. And you’ve got to remember, I was at Black America Web, Tom Joyner’s website, and I was the executive editor of his website. That was 2001, 2003. When this [streaming opportunity] came around, I already had been doing digital for 15 years.
Your first paid internship was at the Houston Defender, a Black-owned newspaper. What was that experience like?
I got a chance to interview then-Congressman Craig Washington. I covered the Houston Economic Summit, interfaced with President George H.W. Bush. And so, here I was. I said, “Wait a minute. I’m interviewing and talking to all these major newsmakers with this Black paper, and it’s not the Houston Chronicle. It’s not the local television station.” And what was also great is that everything I’m doing today, Sonny [Messiah Jiles, Houston Defender CEO] saw that in my eyes, in my work ethic in 1990. She would literally talk to me as if I were a future publisher and ask me different things about the paper. I saw the power of ownership and the power to set the agenda as opposed to the whole notion that you have to go through mainstream media. You could do great stuff everywhere. I understood that very early on, so I wasn’t locked into this notion that you have to work at ABC, NBC, CBS — and that’s how you know you achieved greatness.
One of the things that’s changed since we’ve been in the business is sources, particularly politicians, who tell lies to journalists like it’s no big deal. And we’ll print them in the name of giving them an opportunity to respond to an allegation or criticism against them.
We have to stand unapologetically on truth. The problem — and this is a dynamic difference between print, digital and television — [is that] the television video system is designed to let you have your say: “And, we’ll leave it right there.” No. It’s, “Oh no, I can’t. I don’t want to come across as too abrasive because I’m gonna get criticized by Republicans or liberals if I interrupt. Therefore, I’m not gonna fact-check immediately.” Secondly, many of these anchors are grossly unequipped to fact-check in real time because they’re not well-read. So, the problem is, when the lie is told, they can’t actually correct it. What drives me crazy is the next day: “Yesterday so-and-so was on our show, and we did a fact check.” No! No! No! No! You now have allowed the lie to sit for 24 hours, and they achieved their goal by lying in your face on the show. My whole deal is, you’ve got to be vigilant: “No. You’re not going to lie to me.”
I think it’s something we have to unlearn. Journalists are truth tellers, and we can’t allow sources to use us to spread their lies.
All I know is this space right here, this is a no lie zone. You ain’t lying here. Now you can lie the other 22 hours of the day. We created this, “Oh, we have to get both sides.” Some shit don’t have both sides. There is no both sides of the truth. You can have your opinion. You can disagree. You can disagree about gun control, but you cannot disagree that 30 people were shot and killed. And that’s the mistake that we make. We, in media, have allowed the lie to fester. And then what we do is we reward the liars by keep going back and talking to them. We’re caught in this, “Oh, you know, they call us back real quick or they give great quotes. So, let’s keep them.” Naw, doc. That’s the problem. We willingly allow lies to be told and then we wonder why folks don’t trust the news media.
You’ve been accused of tipping off Hillary Clinton’s campaign to a question that would be asked at a 2016 town hall featuring her and Bernie Sanders. You were one of the moderators, and your question ended up in email accounts of Donna Brazile, then vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and some Clinton staffers. Can you explain how they got your question?
It’s very simple. I reached out to multiple African Americans to get their thoughts on what questions they’d like to have asked. I reached out to activists, to professors, and some sent me this really long, convoluted question. We went back and forth, and Donna was one of the people I had communicated with, telling her we need some Black questions asked. That’s what we need. And Donna chose to share the question with the campaign — not at my behest. I didn’t send it to anybody. I was pissed off. I was not happy at all about it.
What are your latest projects?
We launched the Black Star Network, Sept. 4, 2021. And probably by fourth quarter this year, we’ll launch a 24-hour streaming channel, as well. We’ve got fi ve shows on Black Star Network. We’re literally shooting promos or intros today for a sixth show. Then we’ve got two other shows in development. You’ve got that, and my book, “White Fear: How the Browning of America is Making White Folks Lose Their Minds.” That comes out in September. So, a lot is going on.
Feature photo by LaNisha Cole
Rod Hicks is director of ethics and diversity for the Society of Professional Journalists. Follow him on Twitter @rodhicks.
Tagged under: Black Star Network