Honoring the Founder of 'Jet' and 'Ebony'

Roland Martin, executive editor of The Chicago Defender, talks about his recent column criticizing media diva Oprah Winfrey for her absence from the funeral of Ebony and Jet publisher John H. Johnson.

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ED GORDON, host:

When Oprah Winfrey did not attend the funeral of John H. Johnson, Chicago Defender executive editor Roland Martin wrote a column asking why. That set off an examination of proper etiquette among the black media elite. Johnson, who died earlier this month, was the founder and publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. After Martin's column ran, Winfrey called, and that prompted a second column, and more debate. We're joined now by Roland Martin, who is also a regular on our Roundtable.

Roland, welcome to the program. I should note before we get started we have placed calls to Ms. Winfrey's office, and offered her an opportunity to speak with us about this situation. That being said, you had to have anticipated, when you put the column together, a firestorm. Did you think it would grow to this?

Mr. ROLAND MARTIN (Chicago Defender Executive Editor): Not necessarily. First of all, the column spoke to not only not attending the funeral but also not releasing any kind of statement over a two-and-a-half-week period. The specific column dealt with black media individuals and their response to John H. Johnson and his legacy.

GORDON: Yet, to be fair, the original column, while talking about black media, did specifically--and one, without reading it intently, could assume that you were speaking specifically about Oprah Winfrey.

Mr. MARTIN: Oh, no, no, absolutely. First of all (technical difficulties) I said that Time Warner's Dick Parsons; Earl Graves of Black Enterprise; Ed Lewis of Essence; Kathy Hughes, Radio One; Suzanne de Passe, de Passe Entertainment; and others that went down the line--Bob Johnson, BET--these individuals either spoke about Mr. Johnson, releasing a statement, and/or attended the funeral, and, then, yes, I then zeroed in on specifically Oprah Winfrey, primarily because here was a media titan in Chicago who died, and here was a media titan in Chicago who had not said a thing over a period of two and a half weeks.

What I didn't do was simply just write it off the cuff. We called her representatives for six--six different times over a two-and-a-half-week period and got several different responses. And then, of course, when she called me the day the column ran, she said, `Well, I was in Hawaii.' I said, `But, Oprah, your staff told me you were in Santa Barbara, California, at a staff retreat.' And she said, `Well, no one got word to me that someone was seeking a statement.' I said, `We called six times.'

GORDON: We should note that this story, the column and aftermath made national news, was covered on many programs across the country. Talk to me about the phone call you received.

Mr. MARTIN: Well, yeah, I mean, got a phone call and she said, `Roland, this is Oprah,' and we--and she said that she was furious with the column and that it wasn't true and it wasn't sound and that she, indeed, sent a note and flowers to Johnson Publishing Company. You know, again, just as I had wrote, you know, I was told that the folks at JPC had not heard from her at all, and I also wrote that, as well. And so she began to explain her views, that I didn't know her heart, that this was where she stood, and she--although she said, `I did not know him personally, I did have great respect for him and what he did.'

And so--and then it was about a 15-minute conversation and, as I told her, I had no problem at all writing a follow-up column in the same location as the original column, giving her perspective on this particular issue, and teasing it on the cover, as well, and then running it on our Web site. And so as opposed to waiting for the next day to actually run it, I went ahead, wrote the piece, put it on our Web site, called her back, and said it was on our Web site. I didn't want to wait until tomorrow.

But the broader issue really dealt with not just, obviously, Oprah, because I also told her--she said, `Well, other folks didn't attend or speak out,' and I said, `You're right, and I also wrote about those folks.' I spoke about the fact that President George W. Bush made a statement about Peter Jennings, who died on August 7th, but has said nothing about John H. Johnson, who died on August 8th. That was a previous column. But, obviously, because it wasn't Oprah, it didn't get as much attention as this particular piece did.

GORDON: All right. Well, Roland Martin, thanks for joining us. We should note that Oprah has said that as her new season starts she will give a salute on her program to John H. Johnson.

Roland Martin is the executive editor of the Chicago Defender. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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