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74 Interview: Journalist Roland Martin Talks His New Digital News Platform, Giving Voice to the Voiceless & Being a School Reformer Since Childhood

By Mimi Woldeyohannes | September 4, 2018

Roland Martin (Rob Kim/Getty Images for ColorOfChange)

See previous 74 interviews: Civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

A digital pioneer and former host and managing editor of TV One Cable Network, multimedia journalist Roland Martin has given a platform to voices long underrepresented in the media. He has received numerous accolades, including the Journalist of the Year award from the National Association of Black Journalists, for his authenticity, convictions, and perspective on issues, particularly those impacting African Americans. And, as a longtime education advocate, Martin has championed school choice efforts in black communities.

His daily current events program, NewsOne Now, provided a unique outlet for news, analysis, entertainment, sports, and culture with a distinctly African-American point of view. Now, he is launching a new daily digital news show, #RolandMartinUnfiltered, with hot-button issues such as voter suppression and education at the forefront. Martin spoke to The 74 about this new platform upon its debut; the lack of consistent and in-depth coverage of news affecting marginalized communities; and education reform in communities of color. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The 74: How did your new daily digital show come to be — and why did the streaming unfiltered approach appeal to you?

Martin: I’ve always been an early adopter of the digital space. When I ran the Chicago Defender, I launched the first black news audio podcast in 2005, and one year later, I launched the first black news video podcast. I’ve also launched numerous websites such as BlackAmericaWeb.com with founding editor Tom Joyner. I’ve always understood not only the power of the digital world but also where we were going in terms of the future and the role the digital world would play. As someone who attended the Jack Yates Magnet High School Program, a magnet school for communications based in Houston, I’ve been waiting for the day where you had broadband capabilities to be able to do exactly what we’re doing right now. Even when I was on NewsOne, we were doing things on the digital side, and I even proposed that we should livestream the show.

Over the last four years, I continued to support digital live-streaming platforms. For example, when Meerkat, Periscope, and Facebook Live launched, I was one of the first people to sign up. I also very much understand the back end and more technical side of how media works. When I was informed that NewsOne was being canceled, I immediately thought about getting on the phone with some people to launch a new digital show. The last day we aired my previous show was Dec. 21, and later that day, I had a pitch meeting with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and 24 hours later, they came on board as the first underwriter of #RolandMartinUnfiltered. So, for the last eight months, I’ve been working on fine-tuning what this new show would look like and what our focus would be.

I believe shows like this are needed because my show was the only national television show that spoke directly to the interests of African Americans. There are still many stories and issues that aren’t covered on cable news, and the material that I covered on NewsOne Now didn’t necessarily get amplified. That’s why I felt that there was a need for this type of show and an opportunity to elevate other voices who otherwise wouldn’t have the platform to discuss pertinent news related to their respective communities. Digital shows give us the flexibility to broadcast remotely and do many more creative things.

You have one of the broadest and most engaged social media followings of any journalist on social. How did that factor into your decision to launch the show, and how has that shaped your thoughts on what topics to focus on?

I had to build up my following across all social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Periscope, etc., before I decided to launch my digital show. At the end of the day, it’s all about the gatekeepers. In media, we’ve always had gatekeepers. It used to be the major newspapers, and the problem was that many of the people who ran these operations didn’t look like me, understand my thought process, or even relate to my culture. Now, I tell people that when you see individuals like Paul Butler, Angela Rye, Shermichael Singleton, Monique Pressley, these are individuals who I put on television, who learned how to hone their voice and do television by virtue of the shows I provided. As for topics to focus on, take, for instance, the viral video of the young African-American girl who was removed from her school after officials complained about her hair. Her father needs a place to talk about this incident, and it shouldn’t just be every now and then. There needs to be a more consistent space to address these issues. These are the type of stories that I’m looking for. And I’m not looking for just news, I’m also looking to provide comedians, musical artists, entertainers, etc., an opportunity to shine. We also need to have segments that are teaching people about saving, investing, credit, etc. News and information that people can use and can keep them informed, entertained, and empowered.

You certainly picked a lively time to launch a news program. Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing will be dominating the headlines during your launch week. The midterms are just two months out. What do you think is being undercovered right now?

What is being grossly undercovered is voter suppression. In 2013, when I won the [National Association of Black Journalists] journalist of the year, I was nominated because of my work focusing on voter suppression. Five years later, we’re still dealing with this same issue. There needs to be a stronger focus on what Republicans are doing to suppress the vote, specifically the black vote, all across this country. The closing of voting locations in Georgia is a huge issue. When you look at the ballot initiative to get formerly incarcerated individuals the right to vote back in Florida, an initiative that plans to change the competition in the state, I’m working with people to ensure this issue gets the attention it deserves. Every four years, people talk about education in presidential debates, but networks barely discuss it in depth and with consistency. I want to be able to highlight this issue. Not just because of my strong belief for school choice, but also, to highlight what’s working in schools, innovative teaching, and individuals who are making things possible and are raising the stakes for education. We have to use our power in media to be able to elevate those types of stories.

You’ve traveled the country talking about increasing educational options for African-American families. What in your background has made you such an outspoken education advocate, and what role may education coverage play in your show?

I embraced school choice starting in the third grade, when my brother, sister, and I attended an elementary magnet school. I also attended a magnet high school that specialized in communications. I understood what parental choice was at a young age. Everything that I do today, I’m able trace it all back to being able to have many years of intensive study and communications training throughout my K-12 educational experience. I don’t know what my life and my career would be like if I wasn’t able to attend that magnet school. It amazes me that people want to condemn charter schools but want to praise magnet schools at the same time. It doesn’t make sense! I’ve also always understood that the most important thing is what works, and I’m not wedded to just one educational delivery system. I view education as one large pie, where each slice of the pie can be used to represent traditional schools, magnet schools, online schools, vouchers, charter schools, home schools, etc. The point is that education makes up all these delivery systems, and what I find the most interesting is that when we have the conversation about postsecondary education options, all these different delivery systems exist, but no one seems to complain about that! There are four-year public and private colleges, community colleges, online programs, specialized certification training programs, technical programs. Not only that, but some of these programs are government-funded. For example, students who receive Pell Grants are able to use federal funds to pay for a private [college]. So it amazes me that we still have these silly debates about school choice versus traditional public schools. To me, what matters the most is what works. I’m so thankful I was able to go to the school of my choice.

Being a strong education advocate comes naturally because of the way I was raised. Although my parents never went to college, they were fierce education advocates and strongly believed in the value of education. We always had to go to the library and check out the maximum number of books. They read the paper, watched the news, were extremely engaged in the community and emerged to be avid community activists. Now, my wife and I are raising six of my nieces where we’re trying to do the same exact things my parents did for me.

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In your education events and tours, you’ve had numerous opportunities to interact with various stakeholders. What would you say is most on people’s minds when it comes to the current state of education? What is the greatest barrier to a high-quality education?

I’ve never understood why education was always made to be theoretical and not literal. My field of study was communications; if I never got to work with an actual camera and learn how to troubleshoot any of the problems I would potentially encounter, then I would’ve only acquired a theoretical understanding of a camera, instead of a literal understanding of it. We have a massive one-size-fits-all approach across the country, when in fact, not only might you have different schools adopting different models, but you may also even have different teaching methods coexisting within the same school. Finally, some of my siblings became educators, and the things I would most often hear them complain about was the lack of creativity and flexibility. The education system doesn’t always allow these two concepts to be embraced.

You have been a champion for school choice for a while. Now that we have an administration that supports the same approach, with a president whose comments have been perceived as very hostile to marginalized communities, how do you navigate school choice advocacy efforts?

This administration supports school choice, but then it requires us to ask more clarifying, follow-up questions, such as: What kind of choice? Do you support accountability as well? Do you support choice conceptually or realistically? What other elements of education do you support? My position on the issue of choice doesn’t have anything to do with who’s in the White House. I’m not one of those individuals who’s not going to support choice because people may think I’m endorsing the Trump administration. I just want all kids to get an excellent, high-quality education. Moreover, as a black man with six nieces, I would like to see more black charter management organizations, African Americans taking control of education for their children, and I want to make sure I’m doing all I can so my nieces, along with every child in our country, can have improved opportunities to get educated.

In 2016, the NAACP called for a moratorium on charter school expansion and for the strengthening of oversight in governance and practice. However, the president of the organization has recently seemed to soften that stance. How do you view that policy and that stance on the issue?

I have many friends in the NAACP, and I’ve made it clear that I don’t agree with their call for a moratorium. I do, however, believe in a moratorium on schools and school systems failing our children. I want a moratorium on the number of black students who can’t read, write, or do math. We live in a country where many schools continue to fail our children, yet people still want to villainize charter schools. Charter schools only comprise 6 percent of all schools in America, yet somehow, charter schools continue to be the main problem people want to focus on, as opposed to the other 94 percent of schools in our education system.

With the midterm elections approaching, everyone keeps talking about a blue wave. Do you think education is factoring into this year’s races? If the Democrats take the House, how might that shape education priorities?

I do think education is playing a role in the midterms because this issue tends to be more localized. I’m a huge fan of the teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia, etc., because teachers finally realized they have a voice that goes beyond the unions, and I’m enthused by the number of teachers who are running for office this year. Former National Teacher of the Year Jahana Hayes may be the first black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress, and I love it! There are too many people in office who don’t know anything about education and don’t even care about education but are now writing education policy, and that, to me, is incredibly frustrating. Education issues won’t always be broadcasted because executives in media, anchors, etc., typically send their kids to private schools. Therefore, education isn’t a point of focus in the media because they’re not dealing with public school problems every day. That’s also why you won’t hear real, thoughtful education questions come up in debates, town halls, etc., during presidential election years: because these issues surrounding public education don’t affect the higher-ups in the media world.

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There’s already rampant speculation about which Democrats might run for president in 2020. Any thoughts on who should run? Who might have the edge? What the Democratic Party needs to be competitive?

To me, we can’t focus on 2020 until we focus on 2018. However, I do think we’ll have somewhere between 12 and 14 Democrats [elected to] the Senate and House, along with a few governors and mayors. Mayors are the most intriguing to me because I think they have a totally different perspective on this nation than other individuals.

What do you think our political leaders don’t understand about how the current education system is working for families?

Our current political leaders don’t understand that parents don’t care about school [choice] fights. All they care about is if their child will receive a quality education. Parents also want to know if our political leaders will provide educators with the tools they need. It amazes me how often politicians talk about deregulation and red tape for businesses but fail to have these meaningful discussions when it relates to education. American politicians will part the Red Sea for big businesses but won’t do the same for education.

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