Red Carpet Outrage: Black Media Denounce ‘Back of the Bus’ Treatment

This stock photo shows the red carpet. (Credit DepositPhotos)

Black-owned media outlets say they’ve been “relegated to the ghetto” of Hollywood red carpet events for far too long. Now after years of frustration, they are banding together to demand an end to what one insider equates to being forced to ride on “the back of the bus.”

Outlets such as the Black Tree TV, Electronic Urban Report (EURweb), Hip Hollywood and the Christian-themed L.A. Focus newspaper generate millions of online views each month from predominantly black audiences.  But representatives from those outlets say they are often overlooked by Hollywood executives and publicists when it comes to being granted access to marquee talent.

“As urban press, we’re pretty much relegated to the ghetto of red carpets, which means literally at the end of the line,” EURweb founder Lee Bailey told Urban Hollywood 411. “It’s like an analogy of having to ride in the back of the bus.”

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A legendary radio broadcaster in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles , Bailey launched EURweb in 1997. The site currently generates up to two million page views a month, Bailey said. But he believes it would do much more traffic if given more access to top Hollywood talent.

“When we don’t get the access to the big stars, we don’t get as many clicks,” he explained.

Financial Impact

Fewer clicks mean fewer advertising dollars, according to Lisa Collins, publisher of L.A. Focus.

“The fact that we don’t get access is a reflection of the fact that they’re not respecting the black consumer,” Collins stated. “And if they’re not respecting the black consumer, then we don’t get a piece of those advertising dollars and our businesses are run on advertising.”

Jamaal Finkley founded Black Tree TV in 1997 [the same year EURweb launched]. The company has 1.2 million subscribers on its various YouTube channels and generates about 17 million video views a month, Finkley said.  Despite those massive viewing numbers, he insists he still has to fight for advertising dollars from movie studios and television networks.

Black Tree ran story after story on the Disney-Marvel blockbuster Black Panther and on director Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time because Finkley believed in the films and wanted to support them. Yet he said Disney ignored Black Tree when it came time to divvy out advertising dollars. In fact, he admitted the movie studio did not purchase a single ad with Black Tree.

“As far as we’ve been able to track down, there’s only been about $160,000 [advertising] dollars spent on black media,” Finkley said about the promotional campaigns for the two Disney films. “When you look at that, it doesn’t reflect our impact on the box office.”

Disney did not respond to a request for comment.

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While Finkley praised Disney for taking steps to provide more coverage opportunities for multicultural media outlets, he believes race may be one of the reasons that the Mouse House and other studios limit the advertising dollars they spend on black media outlets.

“You’ll see outlets like Ebony, Jet, Black Enterprise, Black Tree and EURweb struggle because we’re not getting the same media buys that white, similar outlets, like a Collider or Young Hollywood, or what have you, are getting annually, while we’re pushing even greater audiences than these outlets.”

These complaints are not new. But as a growing number of black films thrive at the box office, questions about alleged advertising inequity and an unfair playing field when it come to access are getting louder.

Red Carpet Politics

“I would like to see a greater respect and value placed on multicultural media,” said longtime Hollywood publicist James Ward. “Everyone understands black Twitter. How do they think Black Twitter gets their news? It’s from these outlets. So there’s power there.”

Ward said he has seen firsthand the politics of red carpet positioning.

Red carpet arrival lines have carefully placed sheets of paper listing the name of each media outlet. Those placeholders are designed to let talent and their handlers know who’s on the other side of the velvet rope.

But with dozens of photographers, reporters, producers and bloggers covering premieres and award shows, the outlets positioned at the end of the red carpet – or even in the middle – usually don’t get great interviews. In terms of which outlets are positioned where, that’s where the politics come in.

“It’s usually photographers start the line, to get the photos out of the way,” Ward explained. “Then you move on to the big broadcast outlets like Access Hollywood, Extra, ET, E!, etc. Then it goes into AP Television and other wide-reaching video outlets. From there it’s a hodgepodge of everything else.”

That hodgepodge often ends with black or Latino-owned radio, online and print outlets, he noted.

“By the time the talent is walking down the carpet, they’ve done 15 or 20 interviews already. They’re tired or the premiere is about to start and they get dragged off [by handlers], and these people at the end of the carpet don’t get to speak to them,” Ward said.

How Artists Come Into Play

Still, there are a few artists who make it a point to speak to every journalist credentialed to cover their events.

“Tom Cruise usually – one film that I worked on, he took the time to know every journalist [on the RSVP list],” Ward noted. “Talk to the media, and they’ll say that he does that all the time… He will not allow himself to get pulled and rushed in.”

Several journalists said director Spike Lee, Star Wars actor John Boyega and a handful of others also do their best to speak with everyone who covers their events.

“Kevin Hart always stops. Will Smith always stops. The Rock always stops,” said freelance film reporter Jaleesa Lashay. “Denzel Washington will always give you some type of acknowledgement. You may not get an interview, but he’ll still acknowledge you and he’ll try to stop as well.”

But the majority of well-known actors, directors and producers only grant interviews to outlets at the front of the line, then they breeze into their events.

Ward said this puts multicultural media outlets –  and others on the end of the arrivals line – at a disadvantage.

He attributes the problem to studios and publicists at the big Hollywood PR firms placing a higher value on white-owned media.

“The argument is that ‘the reach is bigger.’ But not necessarily. If we want to pull numbers, some of these outlets that are put at the end – traditionally African American and Hispanic media – have higher numbers or the same numbers as some of the general market outlets that are further up along on the carpet,” he noted.

According to Collins, who previously worked for Billboard magazine, this so-called red carpet marginalization has been happening for decades, long before the explosion of online outlets.

“I started with Billboard in the mid ’80s and it’s been going on longer than that… It’s always been a critical issue.”

How the Conversation Started

The racial inequity issue in Hollywood came to the forefront during the 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy, after no people of color were nominated in the acting categories. The issue was further fueled backstage at the SAG Awards in January 2018, when film reporter Lashay asked This Is Us actor Sterling K. Brown if he noticed the lack of journalists of color in the press room.

“Are you aware of the disparities between the opportunities given to black journalists in comparison to our white counterparts? And do you think there’s any plan in Hollywood to make sure that the media room starts to reflect the diversity that we’re beginning to see in the industry?” she asked.

Brown looked around the room and graciously responded, “You got a point.” The actor then admitted, “I’ve never paid attention, and shame on me.”

Lashay said she posed the question out of frustration.

“I was like, I’m going to hold these actors accountable,” she said.

While some have questioned if it was wise to put Brown on the spot for a problem that wasn’t of his making, Lashay said she has no regrets.

“At the [SAG Awards] after party, I bumped into Sterling,” she said. “He took a moment to thank me for bringing that to his attention. It was very genuine. So, I definitely didn’t have any regrets.”

A Black Media and Marketing in Hollywood Panel took place on Saturday, Apri 28, 2018. (Credit: McKenzie Jackson)
A panel titled “Black Media and Marketing in Hollywood” took place in April. (Credit: McKenzie Jackson)

Questions about red carpet representation garnered more attention in Los Angeles on April 28, during a panel discussion at the African American Film Marketplace. Panel participants included publicist Ward, If Loving You Is Wrong actress Edwina Findley, Los Angeles Activist Rev. K.W. Tulloss as well as representatives from Hip Hollywood, EURweb, L.A. Focus and veteran entertainment journalist Tanya Hart.

Possible Solutions

The lively discussion ended with the panelists pledging to start a campaign to raise awareness.

Among their proposals: Banding together to form a coalition, launching an outreach effort that targets publicists and executives and starting an education program to inform artists about the importance of speaking to as many journalists as possible on the red carpet.

Small steps, that in Bailey’s opinion, could make a significant difference.

“We want audiences and executives to know that the problem exists,” he said. “That will go a long way toward fixing the problem.”

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