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Sunday, December 02, 2007,9:51 PM
Tony Brown 2
Tony Brown
television commentator; newspaper columnist; film director; film producer; activist

Personal Information

Born William Anthony Brown, April 11, 1933, in Charleston, WV; son of Royal and Catherine (Davis) Brown; divorced; children: Byron Anthony.
Education: Wayne State University, B.A. 1959, M.S.W. 1961.
Politics: Republican.
Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Army, 1953-55.
Memberships: National Association of Black Media Producers, National Association of Black TV & Film Producers, National Communications Council, Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans (CEDBA; founder).


Talk show host, syndicated newspaper columnist, film director, television and film producer. Detroit Courier, drama critic and city editor; WTVS-TV, Detroit, MI, writer, producer, and program host; producer and host of PBS's Tony Brown's Journal, (known as Black Journal until 1977), 1970--; Tony Brown Productions, New York City, president, 1977--; screenwriter, director, producer, and distributor of feature film The White Girl, 1988; commentator for National Public Radio Network program "All Things Considered." Founder and dean of School of Communications, Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1971-74; WHUR-FM Radio board chair; launched Black College Day, 1980, Buy Freedom Campaign, 1985, and Buy Freedom 900 Network, 1992.

Life's Work

As the host of America's first and longest-running minority affairs show, Tony Brown has established himself as a leading voice on black issues. "Admirers have called him television's civil rights crusader and a champion of black causes," Keith Thomas wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "Critics have labeled him self-centered and cocky." Whatever one thinks of Tony Brown, few will dispute that through his work as a television journalist on Tony Brown's Journal (known as Black Journal until 1977), he has made major strides in helping to promote and solve the problems facing the black community.

Brown has not limited himself to one medium, however. Through the years he has taken many different avenues in an attempt to achieve black equality--as a syndicated columnist, educator, civil rights activist, lecturer, and movie producer. Yet it is his role as an independent businessman that has had the greatest impact. For Brown, the only color of freedom in America is green. "The formula for freedom is as follows," he said in a 1987 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California: "Wealth (consumer power) equals power and power equals freedom in all of its societal forms: political freedom, educational freedom, social free-Zdom and economic freedom."

Brown's steadfast approach to achieving equality began at a very early age. He grew up in a poor section of Charleston, West Virginia, where he was raised by family friend Elizabeth Sanford and her daughter, Mable Holmes. Brown realized early on that money could break the cycle of poverty that surrounded him in the community. After raising some money by selling soda pop bottles, Brown bought a hen and a rooster to start his own little poultry farm. It wasn't long before he was peddling eggs and chickens to his neighbors. "I was first on the block to buy my own wagon," he told Thomas. "But more importantly, I was doing something good for myself and for my community. We were all profiting." This sense of dedication to the black community stuck with him.

Even though Brown knew that money was a key to greater success, he also realized that without an education his achievements would be limited. "I learned early in life," he told Jessica Skelly von Brachel of Fortune, "that all I was going to have was what I was willing to work for." So, when he graduated from Garnet High School, excelling in athletics and academics, especially drama and English, Brown decided that he would have to attend college. After a two-year stint in the army, he enrolled in Detroit's Wayne State University. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology in 1959, and then a master's degree in psychiatric social work two years later.

It wasn't long before Brown abandoned his role as a social worker to take a job in the communications industry as drama critic for the Detroit Courier. It was during this time that Brown began to take an active role in the civil rights movement in Detroit. He served among the coordinators of the "March to Freedom" with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963.

After working his way up to city editor of the Courier, Brown left the newspaper to take a job at Detroit's public television station, WTVS, where he learned the industry through public affairs programming. He eventually became the producer of C.P.T. ( Colored People's Time ), the station's first series geared toward a black audience. From there he went on to produce and host a community-oriented program called Free Play.

In 1970 Brown was hired to be the executive producer and host of Black Journal, a minority affairs program funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The show, which began in 1968, was being produced in New York City at WNET-TV and broadcast on public television stations across the country. The unique format of the program used interviews, commentaries, documentaries, dialogues, and surveys to explore social issues from a black perspective. Bettelou Peterson commented on the program in the Detroit Free Press, noting, " Black Journal is the only regularly scheduled program on any network produced by and for blacks with an uncompromisingly black point of view."

Even though the program had achieved success with critics and other members of the broadcasting industry before he arrived--it won an Emmy, a Peabody and a Russwurm--Brown was concerned that its content did not reflect the national black community. He immediately set out to expand the focus and outlook of Black Journal. "We can't sit here in New York and project this struggle which is national and international," he told Charlayne Hunter of the New York Times. "The brother in California wants to know what the brother is doing in Chicago or New Orleans."

Almost immediately after Brown joined the show, the program became the subject of great controversy and criticism. But his approach was obviously having some success: after only one year under his direction, the program expanded from an hour show once a month to a half-hour show every week. Having more time made Brown more determined to produce a program that spotlighted the positive aspects of black life. "In all our programs we want to show blacks how to work for themselves," he told Peterson. "To be respected we must have something to be respected for. We should have learned long ago, we can't depend on anyone but ourselves."

To reinforce his belief in self-sufficiency, Brown committed himself to make it easier for other blacks to enter into the television industry. Besides insisting that the majority of his staff be from the black community, he sought out white production companies that would help train young blacks who were interested in entering the business. In 1971 he became the founding dean of the Howard University School of Communications to give blacks a better chance of succeeding in the communications field. The annual Careers in Communications Conference, which he initiated while at the university, has proven extremely successful in securing jobs for blacks in the industry. His philosophy, as quoted by Walt Belcher in the Tampa Tribune, centers on the idea that the "salvation of the black community is up to blacks who have succeeded."

Throughout the early 1970s, Black Journal, which Brown continued to host and produce, was gaining national prominence by bringing even more controversial issues to its audience. Although the program drew praise from many blacks and whites, there were many politicians, industry professionals, and even leaders in the black community who attacked Brown's provocative journalistic approach. His first confrontation with other minority leaders came when he decided that Black Journal was going to set up a bureau in Ethiopia to cover events in Africa. According to Hunter, a leading black newspaper "attacked the move" as an effort of the U.S. government "designed to make U.S. Blacks feel that Ethiopia's [autocratic] leadership [was] worthy of support." Even though Brown was pained by the attack and eventually moved the bureau to a more politically neutral location, he defended his right to differ with other black leaders.

Unfortunately, the attention that the program received almost led to its demise only a few years later. When the CPB announced the programs that it intended to fund for the 1973-74 season, Black Journal was not on the list. Even though the program was not totally financed by the CPB, it needed the funds to stay on the air. James D. Williams, a member of the Advisory Committee of National Organizations to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, thought both the program and the host were influential in the CPB's decision. "Tony Brown had become a thorn in the side of the establishment with his often bitter attacks against what he described as racism in public broadcasting," Williams wrote in Black Enterprise. It was also clear to Williams that higher powers were also influencing the CPB's decision. "It was no secret that powerful forces in the White House were critical of Black Journal over what they regarded as its anti-administration attitude."

However, feeling pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus, the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the Urban League, and other groups and individuals, the CPB reinstated funding for Black Journal. This protest also forced the CPB to strengthen its commitment to minority programming by providing more financial support for other programs and by allowing minority leaders to have more of a say in the type of programming that should be offered. The future of Black Journal was not as secure as many had thought, however. At the same time that the CPB was reinstating funds to the program, the Ford Foundation had eliminated its substantial contribution saying that it had decided not to fund any specific television programs. The 1973-74 season offered viewers about one third of the programming that had been offered during the prior season.

Brown eventually grew tired of the limits public television placed upon his show. In 1977 he renamed the program Tony Brown's Journal, negotiated a deal with the Pepsi Cola Company for sponsorship, and moved it into commercial syndication. The move proved to be successful at first. " Tony Brown's Journal, " Essence magazine wrote in 1980, "is now syndicated to 85 cities and reaches a larger nonwhite audience than Face the Nation, Issues and Answers, or Meet the Press. " Even though the program had great ratings and he was enjoying equal success with his Tony Brown at Daybreak program that was being broadcast in Washington, D.C., on WRC-TV, Brown grew frustrated by the limited number of stations that carried the Journal and the odd hours they chose to broadcast it. In 1982 he moved his show back to public television.

It was also during this time that Brown began to verbalize his disgust with the portrayal of blacks on television. He called the very popular television drama The White Shadow-- about a white basketball coach at an inner city high school--a disgrace and an insult to black people. According to Jet magazine, Brown said that the show "implies that Black people symbolically live in the shadow of White people, and that some patronizing White liberal traditionally will, and has always, come to 'Save' us." Black Enterprise revealed how even very popular sitcoms were not immune from his criticism. "If you can't tell the difference between the old [steretypical] Stepin' Fetchit character or the Amos 'n Andy genre and JJ on [the 70s comedy] 'Good Times,' it's because there is none."

Even though many people accused Brown of being a cynic, his relentless drive to promote the black experience continued. In 1980 he organized a national celebration, "Black College Day," designed to emphasize the need to save and support Black colleges. His one-man campaign was so successful that the following year U.S. president Ronald Reagan signed a contract guaranteeing that his administration would implement a federally-sponsored program to help black colleges.

Brown's dedication to bring about equality for the black community took an economic turn in 1985 when he formed the Council for the Economic Development of Black Americans (CEDBA). The major thrust of CEDBA, the "Buy Freedom" campaign, asked black consumers nationwide to patronize black establishments that displayed a "Freedom Seal." According to Kenneth Maurice Jones of Black Enterprise, "In displaying the seal, businesses indicate that they've agreed to a five-point program that stresses courtesy, competitive prices, discounts (when possible), employment opportunities as a result of increased sales, and active involvement in community affairs." Brown called the campaign a simple "self-help" program, not a racist boycott.

In 1988 Brown tried to capitalize on the power of the entertainment industry by releasing his first motion picture, The White Girl. As writer, director, producer, and distributor of the film, Brown sought to tell the story of a black college student who gets sidetracked because of her addiction to cocaine. "I wanted to deal with two destructive trends in society, drug addiction and self-hate," Brown told Jacqueline Trescott of the Washington Post. "My premise is that one is largely responsible for the other. In my film the message is obvious. Yet every film makes a point and this one is, if you don't love yourself you will hurt yourself." Once again, Brown's self-help approach for the black community was met with some resistance.

The first obstacle came when Brown asked the Motion Picture Association for a rating. The movie, which contained no nudity, sex or gratuitous violence, initially received an R rating. After appealing the board's decision, the movie was given a rating of PG-13 without further editing. The second blow came when critics panned the movie. Washington Post 's Hal Hinson called it "harrowingly amateurish" and "a serious deterrent to movie-going," while Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune considered it a "moderately inept anti-drug melodrama." Caryn James of the New York Times did give Brown some credit, however, noting, "Mr. Brown's use of a crew that was 80 percent black is more significant and effective than anything he has put on screen."

Brushing off the criticism, Brown continued his fight for equality. In 1991 he faced his biggest confrontation with many of his fellow civil rights leaders. During the controversial confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Brown put himself in the minority by supporting the conservative Judge Thomas (who had been accused of sexually harassing Anita Hill, a member of his staff at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission) and lambasting his critics. Brown had criticized traditional civil rights organizations in the past and continued to publicly denounce the liberal philosophy of some of the most influential groups and their leaders, many of which advocate government intervention and public assistance as a means of improving the status of blacks in the United States.

Around the same time, Brown announced his decision to leave the ranks of the Democratic Party to join the GOP (Grand Old Party--the Republican Party). In an article he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, Brown justified his decision to join forces with the Republicans: "They initiated the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed blacks citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which extended the right to vote to former slaves, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1986." More importantly for Brown was the Republican platform that suited his concept of self-help and economic empowerment. "The color of freedom is green," he wrote. "True freedom can come only from an intelligent and humane use of the free market system. And the party of green enterprise, despite all its potentially reversible shortcomings, is the Republican Party."

Tony Brown is a major force in the black community. He continues to work for social issues through his economic programs, the latest being the "Buy Freedom Network," a 900 phone number that will direct callers to minority-owned businesses that sell the products they want. But it is very unlikely that Brown will ever give up the talk show that puts the important social issues of the black community in front of the American public. "I've never gotten the recognition other television hosts have gotten because I don't go for the cheap thrill," Brown told Thomas. "My shows deal with very serious subjects. I'll leave the sensational and sleazy subjects for the other folks."


Emmy Award nomination, 1972; Communicator for Freedom Award, OPERATION PUSH, 1973; Frederick Douglass Liberation Award, 1974; National Urban League public service award, 1977; Solomon Fuller Award, American Psychiatric Association, 1989; NAACP Image Award, 1991; Black Emmy Award; Economic Empowerment Award, Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
posted by R J Noriega
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