“‘Network Refugees.’ Isn’t that a bit confrontational and risky?” “Not really. It isn’t meant to be. It’s meant to be a declaration of truth; where we come from, why we left, and where we’re going. Essentially, who we are.”
This is how conversations often start when we are asked about Network Refugees, Inc., our nonprofit film and documentary production company that we recently formed. Network Refugees is dedicated to the telling of stories about people of color and the issues that affect us. In addition, we offer those who may not have had our backgrounds and experiences the opportunity to learn under our tutelage. Currently, we are shooting two documentaries, financed from our personal savings and by a small seed grant from the Soros Foundation. We are also acting as executive producers on three additional projects, working with independent producers who’ve come to us for help.
Network Refugees was formed, essentially, as a way to put our “money where our mouths are.” As journalists of color, we consistently find opportunities to complain about the lack of diversity on and in network television news. After a combined 30-plus years’ experience in television news, we looked around our privileged settings and saw that things hadn’t really changed since we entered this business. In fact, although our individual careers had been very successful, there still weren’t many others like us.
At 33 years old, I am the younger member of this team. During my 10 years in network TV, I found very few mentors, despite the long presence of black journalists in television news. Those mentors whom I did find were either black women or whites. There were black males in front of the camera, but only a few who worked in production. And those who did developed what I like to call the “only-one syndrome”—the only black producer on staff—a person who became terribly put upon to represent the race, cover black stories with insight, but without connection, and to mentor any and all black underlings on the show. Additionally, this “only-one” producer is fighting to cover good stories that are not about race and worrying about the same political and production concerns as every other producer. Often, mentoring younger blacks becomes either too time consuming or too threatening. There is a very real belief that there’s only room for one or two successful blacks on a staff, who are regarded as exceptions to the common refrain, “We just can’t find any qualified blacks.” Therefore, for that “only-one,” the up-and-coming black hire is more likely a replacement than a comrade.
Being black can make other aspects of the producer’s job difficult as well. When I covered news stories about racial bias, I was told to be aggressive in my pursuit of the perpetrators. However, as I investigated further, inevitably I found racist circumstances that mirrored what I knew to be happening in my own backyard. Yet I would continue to pursue these stories, hoping that my colleagues would begin to understand the similarities between the racism that we covered and that we experienced at work.
I was a production assistant with a newsmagazine show during a winter blizzard in New York. The executive producer had given the staff permission to leave while the roads were still passable. Two colleagues and I were sitting in the show’s library and began to watch TV; we had a long commute home and wanted to know if the storm would let up. Our supervisor walked in and remarked, “Is that all you people do is watch TV? Why don’t you go home and do that!” One colleague spoke up and asked, “To which people are you referring?” Her response—“Oh, you know.” She was right, we did know, because we were all people of color—two blacks and a Latino. Her comments made us feel that the behind-the-scenes situations in the newsroom sometimes echoed the more racially infamous stories of the day, à la Denny’s and Texaco.
After witnessing this kind of hypocrisy, I would move on to the next show and the next network hoping that perhaps the next situation would be better. Moving was possible because I was considered a “safe diversity hire.” “Safe” means that I graduated from an Ivy League college, was smart, professional enough, and able to work in an environment that was largely white. I was young enough to hire cheaply and ambitious enough to do what I was told.
I was 44 years old when I met Gregory three years ago. I was among the highest paid producers in this business, black or white, and increasingly dissatisfied with the success my brains and ambition had brought me. In network television news, success is measured by the details of one’s personal contract—the salary amount, the job title, and the specific job description one is able to negotiate. My job title was senior producer of special projects, and my job description was to make documentaries and mentor young talent. I had received numerous awards. Best of all, I got paid to do something I absolutely love—producing stories for television.
Someone once told me that we blacks who were privileged to have good jobs must “not only do our work, but do race work” as well. That meant we are to set a good example by succeeding more than our white counterparts whenever possible and always by succeeding beyond the expectations of our white bosses. It also meant that we should challenge the “system,” but work within it.
My definition of “race work” was to do as many stories as I could with positive—i.e., visibly working, articulate and law-abiding—black characters, and to mentor young talent, black and white. One summer day, while I was in the throes of writing and editing a documentary, a network executive asked me to produce another documentary on Amy Biehl, a young white Fulbright Scholar who was murdered in the black township of Guguletu, near Cape Town, South Africa.
While her murder was horrific, I objected to doing a story immortalizing Amy when neither my show nor any other network newsmagazine had bothered to notice the thousands of black people who had been killed in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid. After hearing my objection, the executive firmly stated that the documentary should include “a parallel character”—a black South African whose story would unfold along with Amy’s. That sold me.
We filmed Amy’s family for several months as they came to terms with her life and her death. We also filmed the story of Maria, a black woman who was working as a maid for a white family. The family had never learned her last name even though she’d been there for 16 years.
In the first screening, the executive and seniors complimented our efforts and asked us to put in more about Amy and take out some of Maria’s story. We grumbled, but beefed up the Amy section of the first act and moved Maria to the second and third acts. After the next screening, one senior took me aside and gently explained that Amy really was the only part of my story that “America could relate to” and that, after all, Maria was “passé” and needed to be dropped altogether. I called that decision racist and reminded the senior that I hadn’t gone to South Africa to “just do a story about a white girl.” The white correspondent and the white associate producer supported me. We also pointed out that our commitment to doing a parallel story was one of the reasons the Biehl family had agreed to work with us in the first place.
Maria stayed in the story. The night the documentary aired we received 100 telephone calls. Ninety-eight were about Maria—offering so much money that a trust fund had to be set up; two calls were about Amy. America had spoken.
I felt good. I told myself I was making a difference, story by story. But I had won the battle and not the war, because what was considered worthy of being a story was rapidly changing. By the mid-1990’s, network news divisions had fully adjusted to corporate ownership and a profit-driven culture. It became increasingly difficult to get stories with minority or poor characters on the air. Our target audience narrowed to white, middle class, and suburban, an audience that supposedly suffers from race and social issue fatigue. The difference I was making was disappearing.
The end came for me in a careless, almost offhand way, during an informal staff meeting one day. Brainstorming about story ideas, the senior producer leading the meeting mused that we really needed to do more stories with cute kids because “audiences just love that.” She went on to describe these child ratings-magnets as “blond, blue eyed….” I felt a chill deep inside me. Before my eyes, my craft was being redefined to exclude me and others who look like me. I looked at the faintly bored faces of my colleagues—all white. They were all still in the game. I wasn’t.
I was powerless. Well paid, well thought of, yet powerless. Now, of course, this revelation was far too disturbing for me to immediately embrace. Denial was more pleasant and much easier. It took three more years and the threat of losing my exclusive documentary status to make me leave and go independent. Strangely enough, I got a lot of support from a young man I had recently met and begun to mentor. His name was Gregory Branch.
The end came for me in the guise of a great and rare story assignment. I was sent, along with four others, to Somalia to do a story about what had happened in this chaotic nation with no central government since the Americans pulled out after Operation Restore Hope. What we found was incredible.
The country had splintered. The south was governed by fear in the form of local warlords. Disease and famine were conspicuously present, and the area was in economic shambles. Many of the folk we talked to didn’t speak much English, so we relied on Western aid workers to be our translators and guides. However, when we traveled north we encountered a totally different and unexpected set of circumstances.
A northern area of Somalia, called Somaliland, had broken off from the south and formed its own nation, without any real help from Western governments. It was the African version of the American Horatio Alger tale. Residents of the north had pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, relying largely on livestock trade with Saudi Arabia and money sent by Somali expatriates in the West. Somaliland now has an infrastructure and services that might rival many aspiring developing nations. Unlike their southern brothers, they were able to stabilize the population, stop the fighting, and repatriate Somalis from abroad to rebuild. We encountered many government officials and dignitaries who had either lived in America or had been educated there. Most people spoke English. The mayor of a major port city who is a former Seattle resident engaged me in a conversation about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls! I knew we’d found an original, compelling news story. Furthermore, it had an American angle—absolutely vital when doing a foreign story for American network television news. We decided to present it as Somalia north and south; a tale of two countries.
We returned home and edited the story. We had two screenings by executives who promptly, in my opinion, gutted it. They threw out the original and positive story of the north, saying it simply wasn’t interesting. In the end, we were allowed to devote a tiny amount of time to Somaliland. The remaining 12 or so minutes were devoted to the south and the all too familiar pictures of sick, emaciated, starving people and kids with automatic machine guns. Our reporting had been largely discarded, and our work had been used to perpetuate the prevailing negative stereotypes of Africa and Africans.
The final blow was that the story was slated to air in mid-August, when most viewers are either away on vacation or not watching TV. We had found a compelling tale with an obvious American connection and risked our personal safety for a story that would hardly be seen.
However, I did not leave network television right away. I continued to find other stories about people of color. One came from my uncle. We were sitting next to each other on a plane to West Africa. I was stopping in Senegal, he was continuing on to Ghana. He began to tell me about a friend he was going to visit who is the first woman to become chief of her people, a rarity in Africa.
I was extremely intrigued. I learned more about her people, her village and her culture, but getting her to talk about herself would be difficult. When I went to visit her, at first she wouldn’t tell me everything, but what I learned was enough to convince me that her life needed to be documented.
Eventually I told her story to Claudia, who was by now an independent producer. She loved the story, so I asked her if she would produce it. Still working in network news and having learned what executives considered marketable, I knew that a story about an African woman chief was not. Claudia agreed to work on the story, but only if I joined her. A few months later I resigned, and Network Refugees was born.
Network Refugees’ Story
We are now independent, freelance producers of stories about people of color. The independent arena has not been the “land of milk and honey,” though. In our attempt to raise money from grant-making foundations, we’ve learned that they can be as Byzantine and impenetrable as any large corporation or television network—a big reality check. So we take freelance jobs to fund our own projects.
We are, however, happy in a way we’ve never before been. Work has become so fulfilling that it has ceased to be “work”—separate and distinguishable from “play,” or “home,” or “love.” We have empowered ourselves to make a living doing what we believe in, not trying to adjust our beliefs in order to make a living. And we now know that this is the best we can do.
Gregory M. Branch, president of Network Refugees, worked at ABC, CBS and NBC News. His work won an Edward R. Murrow Award, an award from the National Association of Black Journalists, and received an Emmy nomination.
Claudia L. Pryor, vice president of Network Refugees, worked as a producer and senior producer for ABC and NBC news. Among her awards are a George Foster Peabody, an Alfred I. DuPont (gold baton), an award from the National Association of Black Journalists, and more than 10 Emmy nominations.