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Politics Over Paycheck? The Life of a Black Host on Fox News

Black folks are, by and large, understanding when it’s time to get that paper. Whether it’s Barack Obama getting $400,000 to give a few speeches, athletes trying to sell $500 shoes—heck, even strippers on the pole—when it comes to jobs, most black people won’t bat an eye as long as it’s legal, profitable and isn’t a violation of core principles of decency.

In fact, there are only about three jobs in existence that, if announced at the cookout, would lead to significant side eye, conceited GIFs or a quick flash from a cellphone camera:

  1. Working in Donald Trump’s White House;
  2. Working for the Milwaukee, Ferguson, Mo., or Tulsa, Okla., Police Department;
  3. Or working at Fox News.

These are the places that are forever perceived, for good reason, as purveying direct violence, whether rhetorical, political or physical, against the African-American community. Yet logic dictates that inside these organizations, there have to be people just making a paycheck like anybody else would. I mean, not everybody working at the Death Star was evil, right? You figure the entire staff of Hydra didn’t want to rule the world; some just needed good health care, didn’t they?

With that in mind, we spoke to an employee of a perceived “Evil Empire,” Eboni K. Williams of Fox News. Williams was recently promoted from regular contributor to co-host of Fox News’ newest show, The Specialists, which debuted this month, airing Monday through Friday at 5 p.m.

In the wake of massive scandals about sexual harassment, racial discrimination and “fake news” charges, we asked Williams what it is like to be one of the few black faces at Fox; how she tries to be an advocate for the issues that matter; and if she’s been formally uninvited from every family barbecue until Trump leaves office.

The Root: Tell us a little about yourself. I know you’re a lawyer, you were first runner-up in North Carolina for Miss USA a few years ago and you’re the first black woman to co-host a show on Fox News in prime time. But that’s all résumé stuff; how did you get to where you are now ?

Eboni K. Williams: I’m a trial lawyer by trade, I was a loud mouth in school and teachers always paid attention to me when I raised my hand. Plus, my mom was incarcerated for a year when I was 3 years old, so I saw some personal reasons for good legal counsel. Trial work was rewarding; I loved my work as a public defender and a private attorney. But then I started thinking about media. The benefit of media is that it’s fast; I could make a difference. I could tell a judge, or I could tell Bill O’Reilly in front of millions of people.

TR: You would be speaking to millions of a certain kind of people—conservative, mostly older, white people whose politics and information levels are often at odds with mainstream America. It would be one thing if you were an African-American conservative, but you’re not; you’re pretty moderate or center left. Why did you make the choice to go to Fox News?

 

EKW: I went to NABJ [the National Association of Black Journalists conference] in Orlando in 2013 trying to break into this industry—I thought a lot about who are we making content for. We make content for us as black people because what white people think about us doesn’t really matter, right? But what white people think of us matters a lot, particularly when you’ve got 12 in a box [a jury].

That was the summer of George Zimmerman’s case. The prosecutors were really poor in their ability to humanize young Trayvon Martin. I felt like, if those jurors had a more normalized concept of black people, in particular in those kind of environments, it would make a difference. For the first two years I was on Fox, I wasn’t paid. If I had been on MSNBC or CNN, it might’ve been more comfortable, but it wouldn’t have necessarily fit in with my mission. I wanted to get in front of audiences that usually don’t see us.

TR: What has been your gender and race experience internally at Fox News? Have you been directly involved or seen some of the behavior that led to lawsuits?

EKW: Ultimately, those have not been my personal experiences. I do recognize that both of those issues, both race- and genderwise, even if I have not experienced those specific instances, we [at Fox] do have a problem. What I see as my role, as a current employee in the midst of these horrific challenges and circumstances, is to make change. I have gone to human resources and given them very plainspoken ways in which they can improve upon those dynamics, and ways to make it easier to report those instances.

 

I never had that experience with Bill O’Reilly—but I will not, nor will I ever, suggest that my experience with Bill O’Reilly is reflective on everyone’s experiences. He treated me as a professional—moody, but as a professional—but I don’t for one second kid myself to think that is Bill O’Reilly in his totality.

TR: You’re now a co-host on The Specialists, which airs Monday through Friday at 5 p.m. Eastern time. This is a very high-profile position and a first at the network. The perception among many is that black folks working at Fox News are either co-signing some of the worst rhetoric at the network or are powerless to do anything about it. As a contributor and now host, how do you feel when the network consistently gives a platform to racists whose beliefs aren’t challenged?

EKW: How does it feel? My answer is, it feels like shit, but I have decided that for me, it has some value to correct the record on occasion. My experience has been that the longer I am in front of the Fox News audience, the more I get that opportunity [to correct the record]. A gentle but consistent reminder of what the facts really are.

TR: What do you say to the people who say you’re wasting your time? That you’re not going to change any minds, especially in the era of Trump?

EKW: I wouldn’t dispute that I can’t drown it all out. What I still have some belief in is that I will still be able to have some impact for some people. So am I going to magically change all this discourse and change their entire viewership into sympathizers of Black Lives Matter? No. But I do think that there is a portion of the viewership—it’s not just me; it’s Juan Williams, it’s Richard Fowler—by seeing a few black voices that speak about an authentically black experience, that there will be some viewers that will change. Especially when these people are determining real consequences [like on a jury]. That’s where that little bit of incremental movement might matter.

TR: Since joining Fox News full time, what’s your public relationship been like with the African-American community?

EKW: I mean, you just caught me between watching the One and Not Done ESPN doc on John Calipari and switching to the Miss America pageant. That’s pretty much me. There are those who knew me all along when I was on TV One and Aspire; they are completely lovely; they express pride and pleasure because they know what I’m trying to do.

Fox’s black viewership is hovering around 1.5 percent; if you don’t watch Fox News and you haven’t seen me on, then you really have no context. I would implore those who have never seen me on, before they make presumptions—and I understand that some of those are completely legitimate—that black folks should be able to choose where they work. I’m not saying “Rah-rah, Fox News, turn it on!” Just remember to check out the bigger picture, the bigger landscape. At least you can have a more informed conclusion. I get this hour Monday through Friday to pitch my thoughts, my analysis and my pitches that more accurately reflect my and our experiences.

 

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Trump leaves three words out of his Saudi Arabia speech

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President Donald Trump gave a highly-anticipated address to Arab and Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia during his first trip abroad on Sunday. One phrase candidate Trump repeated countlessly on the campaign trail was missing: "radical Islamic terrorism."

Trump stressed the need to build a coalition to address a "crisis of Islamic extremism," but neglected to use the charged keystone of his campaign trail rhetoric in his speech to 50 Middle Eastern leaders.

Before his victory and after taking office, Trump repeatedly bashed former President Barack Obama and then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for not using the phrase. As a candidate, Trump argued that Obama's insistence not to use the term to refer to terrorist attacks committed in the name of groups like the Islamic State or Al Qaeda showed he wasn't well-equipped to fight terrorism.

In the past, American presidents, diplomats, and foreign policy experts have argued that it hurts the US' goals abroad and undermines Muslim allies.

On Sunday, Trump largely stuck to the script, closely following the prepared remarks that the White House sent out before his speech, refraining from riffing like he so often did at campaign rallies.

"This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations," Trump said at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh. "This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil."

Announcing a new center to combat the financing of terrorism, Trump emphasized the need for nations to collaborate to "honestly" confront "the crisis of Islamic extremism and the Islamist terror groups it inspires." He also used the phrases "the Islamists" and "Islamic terror of all kinds."

The White House has characterized the trip as an effort to strengthen ties between the US and Middle East, and "reset" relations with the region.

National security adviser H.R. McMaster has also urged the president not to say "radical Islamic terrorism," arguing that militant groups like ISIS endorse a twisted view of Islam and that the phrase ultimately hinders US goals, according to CNN.

He also seemed to suggest that Trump would not be using the phrase during his speech. "The president will call it whatever he wants to call it," McMaster told George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" on Saturday.

"But I think it's important that, whatever we call it, we recognize that [extremists] are not religious people," he continued. "And, in fact, these enemies of all civilizations, what they want to do is to cloak their criminal behavior under this fall idea of some kind of religious war."

 

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NAACP Removes President, Vows To Fight Harder Against Trump

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After three years in the position, NAACP President Cornell Brooks was voted out by the organization’s national board on Friday, as they pledge a “systemwide refresh” and “strategic re-envisioning” to best position the historic civil rights organization to “confront the realities of today’s volatile political, media and social climates.”

In a press release on Friday, the group announced that Brooks will remain at the organization until the end of his term on June 30th, and Board Chairman Leon W. Russell and Vice Chair Derrick Johnson will manage the organization on an interim basis until a new leader is named.

“Our organization has been at the forefront of America, making tremendous strides over the last hundred years,” Leon W. Russell, chairman of the Board of Directors, said. “However, modern day civil rights issues facing the NAACP, like education reform, voting rights and access to affordable health care, still persist and demand our continued action.”

 

“In the coming months, the NAACP will embark upon a historic national listening tour to ensure that we harness the energy and voices of our grassroots members, to help us achieve transformational change, and create an internal culture designed to push the needle forward on civil rights and social justice,” Derrick Johnson, vice-chairman of the NAACP Board of Directors, said.

The NAACP Board said that everyone will have a place at the table, including its staff, the new movements for social change, local organizers helping to rebuild neighborhoods, the faith leaders and other traditional and historic African-Americans organizations that provide much needed services to their communities, social justice advocates tackling income inequality, the millions of marchers who have taken to streets for women rights and immigrant rights, the activists who are fighting for equality for the LGBTQ Americans, business leaders and philanthropists lending private sector support, and the long-time civil rights guardians who have spilled blood so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today.

The organization also announced that it will go on a listening tour for the first time in its history.

“As the organization reimagines ourselves, it is determined to be formed in the likeliness of the people whom it serves – and to do so, the Board will work to see, meet and listen to them,” the statement said.

“These changing times require us to be vigilant and agile, but we have never been more committed or ready for the challenges ahead. We know that our hundreds of thousands of members and supporters expect a strong and resilient NAACP moving forward, as our organization has been in the past, and it remains our mission to ensure the advancement of communities of color in this country,” Russell said.

 

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Republicans already giving Trump's budget a cold shoulder

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President Trump's budget hasn't been released yet, but that's not stopping some of Capitol Hill's most important Republicans from giving it a cold shoulder.

Trump's blueprint for the 2018 budget year comes out Tuesday, and it's certain to include a wave of cuts to benefit programs such as Medicaid, food stamps, federal employee pensions and farm subsidies.

The fleshed-out proposal follows up on an unpopular partial release in March that targeted the budgets of domestic agencies and foreign aid for cuts averaging 10 percent -- and made lawmakers in both parties recoil.

The new cuts are unpopular as well.

"We think it's wrongheaded," said Rep. Mike Conaway, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, when asked about looming cuts to farm programs. "Production agriculture is in the worst slump since the depression -- 50 percent drop in the net income for producers. They need this safety net," said Conaway, R-Texas.

Trump's budget plan promises to balance the federal ledger by the end of a 10-year window, even while exempting Social Security and Medicare retirement benefits from cuts. To achieve balance, the plan by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney relies on optimistic estimates of economic growth, and the surge in revenues that would result, while abandoning Trump's promise of a "massive tax cut."

Instead, the Trump tax plan promises an overhaul that would cut tax rates but rely on erasing tax breaks and economic growth to end up as "revenue neutral."

Mr. Trump is also targeting the Medicaid health program that provides care to the poor and disabled, and nursing home care to millions of older people who could not otherwise afford it.

The House had a bitter debate on health care before a razor-thin 217-213 passage in early May of a GOP health bill that included more than $800 billion in Medicaid cuts over the coming decade. Key Republicans are not interested in another round of cuts to the program.

According to a Washington Post report, Mr. Trump's budget would follow through on those proposed cuts in what the Congressional Budget Office estimated could off Medicaid benefits for about 10 million people over the next decade. 

"I would think that the health care bill is our best policy statement on Medicaid going forward," said Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the program.

Details on Mr. Trump's budget will not be publicly released until Tuesday, but Mulvaney has briefed Republicans about what's coming and his staff has provided targeted leaks to the media.

According to the Post's report, people familiar with the budget plan said the White House will also call for giving states more flexibility to impost work requirements for those in different anti-poverty programs. 

Mr. Trump's full budget submission to Congress is months overdue and follows the release two months ago of an outline for the discretionary portion of the budget, covering defense, education, foreign aid, housing, and environmental programs, among others. Their budgets pass each year through annual appropriations bills.

Mr. Trump's earlier blueprint proposed a $54 billion, 10 percent increase for the military above an existing cap on Pentagon spending, financed by an equal cut to non-defense programs. Those cuts rang alarm bells for many Republicans, who were particularly upset about proposals to eliminate community development block grants, slash medical research and eviscerate foreign aid.

Mr. Trump's GOP allies rejected such cuts when wrapping up long-overdue legislation for the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30. There's little sign they will have a change of heart now, especially with Trump's administration in turmoil and his poll ratings at historic lows.

"The budget's a starting point. We'll go to work from there," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Republicans controlling Congress have delayed action on their companion budget measure, waiting for Trump to go first. This year's budget debate, Republicans hope, would grease the way for a major overhaul of the loophole-cluttered tax system. But House conservatives also want to embark on a round of cuts to benefit programs and are open to Trump's suggestions for cuts to mandatory programs such as federal employee pensions.

Presidential budgets are mere suggestions, and the White House has discretion to assume higher economic growth rates of up to 3 percent or so under Trump's agenda of tax changes, loosened regulations and infrastructure spending.

Tuesday's budget will also include proposals such as paid leave for parents after the birth or adoption of a child, a $200 billion infrastructure plan that Trump officials claim could leverage, along with private investment, up to $1 trillion in construction projects, and funding for Trump's oft-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

 

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‘Know who you are rolling with,’ VSU graduates are told

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Deron Bennett gets hooded by Octavia Bryson during Virginia State University’s commencement Saturday at the VSU Multi-Purpose Center.

Virginia State University graduates were told in no uncertain terms during commencement last Saturday to “Get Out.”

These words came from a fired up Jeff Johnson, a media and messaging strategist who delivered the keynote address at the ceremony held in the university’s Multi-Purpose Center.

VSU valedictorian Stacey Elder

VSU valedictorian Stacey Elder

Mr. Johnson, the managing principal of the Baltimore-based strategy firm JIJ Communications, referenced the blockbuster film of the same name by writer-producer-director Jordan Peele several times during his speech to drive home the necessity of African-Americans to succeed without selling out.

“In the last two years, we’ve seen more content on the small and big screens produced by those who look like us,” Mr. Johnson told the graduates and their families.

The communications expert then singled out the film not only for its financial and critical success but for having a message relevant for African-American graduates about to enter the workforce.

“As you go out into the world, know who you are rolling with,” he told the audience. “Chris didn’t know who he was rolling with,” he said about the film’s main character, an African-American who had a white girlfriend whose parents were wealthy.

He went on to explain that Chris couldn’t identify with his girlfriend’s values, cultural background and, more importantly, family history.

“Who you talk to, hang with and be around have a lot to do with your success,” he said. “Are you aware that there is a system set up to use your mind, body and talent without your control over it?”

He then encouraged the graduates to take time to identify their true value, to master their craft and gifts and to seek a mentor so they won’t fall under the temptation of selling out for a paycheck.

“I like money,” Mr. Johnson said as the audience laughed. “I get excited every time the check clears. But you don’t have to sell your soul to get it.”

Mr. Johnson did not hold back in citing companies and institutions that he said he considers to be sellouts.

“I’ve been on BET and I watched them do it (sellout),” he said of the Black Entertainment Network that was co-founded by Sheila Johnson and her former husband, Robert Johnson, but sold for $3 billion in 2001 to the media conglomerate Viacom.

“I’ve seen people turn their backs for six figures,” Mr. Johnson told the crowd.

He was equally frank in his criticism of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. The historically black institution invited U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to be their commencement speaker last week despite petitions signed by hundreds of students, alumni and supporters of the college urging the university’s administration to rescind the invitation.

Earlier this year, Mrs. DeVos, who was appointed to the cabinet post by President Trump, called HBCUs “real pioneers when it comes to school choice,” failing to realize and acknowledge that most of the colleges were the only option for African-American students because of segregation.

During her commencement address May 10, Mrs. DeVos was interrupted by persistent boos from the crowd, while about half the graduates stood and turned their backs on her. Bethune-Cookman’s president, Dr. Edison O. Jackson, was widely criticized by students, their family and alumni, for inviting Mrs. DeVos on such an important occasion.

“You don’t stand for a legacy when you invite folk who don’t believe what you believe or support you,” Mr. Johnson told the VSU graduates and their families.

He ended his address with gentle words of hope and a charge to the graduates to pay back the blessings they have received thus far.

“It is my hope that you will be the freest human beings — whether black, Hispanic, Asian or white. Get out, but go back in and build up.”

With 624 degrees conferred on Saturday, VSU officials elected to have a morning and afternoon ceremony to accommodate the graduates, their families and friends in the new facility. Mr. Johnson performed double duty, offering the keynote address at both.

VSU also recognized two outstanding students — valedictorian Stacey Elder of Richmond, who had a perfect 4.0 GPA in earning a bachelor of science degree in management, and Aicha Camara who was this year’s winner of the annual Reginald F. Lewis Prize that is awarded to a senior in the VSU College of Business. Ms. Camara was presented with a plaque and a check for $1,000.

Retired Lt. Col. Darryl W. Sharp Sr. received the Virginia State University Alumnus of the Year Award.

“We are proud to call you grads, scholars and Trojans,” VSU President Dr. Makola M. Abdullah told the graduating class. “In the words of The Temptations, ‘Get ready ’cause here they come!’ ”

 

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