CNN’s Head of Integrity and Inclusion Previews Juneteenth Special, and Discusses On-Air Diversity

By Mark Mwachiro 

CNN on Monday, in a dual simulcast with sibling Warner Bros. Discovery network OWN, will mark the Juneteenth federal holiday with a concert special titled Juneteenth: A Global Celebration for Freedom. This concert special is in its second year and will air worldwide live from The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles at 8 p.m. ET.

The concert will feature artists across the entertainment and music industry spectrum, including Chloe Bailey, Miguel, Kirk Franklin, Davido, Jodeci, SWV, and more.

Produced in partnership with Live Nation Urban and Jesse Collins Entertainment, the concert will be musically directed by Grammy and Emmy Award-winner Adam Blackstone and The Roots co-founder and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Questlove.

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We recently spoke with Johnita Due, CNN’s executive vice president of integrity and inclusion and a 20-year veteran of the network, who explained to TVNewser, among other things, why it was important for CNN to air this concert and what it means to have to OWN as a simulcast partner. Due also addressed how she, as a senior executive, is keeping her team focused on the task at hand amid the recent leadership changes.

*Note: This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.

Why is the Juneteenth, A Global Celebration of Freedom special worth watching?

Let me tell you this event, our Juneteenth global celebration for freedom, is significant because it is the only event that is global.

Recognizing the significance of the holiday, and you are aware of the history of Juneteenth? In 1865, the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas, were informed that the Civil War was over and that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed two and a half years later.

It is a holiday that pulls everyone together in that quest for freedom. We all know now that it was named a national holiday in 2021. Still, even before then, we (CNN) were brainstorming and trying to develop ideas about how to showcase and highlight how significant this holiday is. What it means, not just for our country, but what it can mean around the world in terms of that it’s a global celebration of freedom. That’s why we’re approaching it this way as the broadcaster of this amazing event.

What does Juneteenth mean for you and CNN as a whole?

That is such a wonderful question. I have to tell you I was raised by civil rights leaders. For us, all of our holidays and our celebrations are focused on trying to figure out ways to make a difference in society, but we actually didn’t grow up celebrating Juneteenth.

That’s why this has been particularly exciting for me. To tap into the cultural experiences of friends, colleagues, and our audience members around me to learn more about the holiday.

That’s why when we talk about Juneteenth, we say it’s “celebrate and educate.” The education piece is extremely important because there’s a lot for people to learn, not just about the past but the present as well, in terms of the quest for freedom. But there’s so much to celebrate – that’s the piece of education. Because oftentimes, we don’t see the progress, we don’t see the achievements; we don’t see the celebrations.

So for us, it’s an opportunity to promote all of the joy and the sort of service, the call to action to ensure that we’re all doing what we can to continue on this journey.

This is the second Juneteenth special airing on CNN; what were the takeaways from the first one, and will this be an annual event?

Let me just tell you the major takeaway for all of us who participated and witnessed it was that there’s so much pride at what Black American culture has to offer, and it just fills you with such a sense of pride and inspiration. So we’re tapping into that this year because we want to continue to share that with our audiences.
Like, as I said, this is about celebration, and of course, there’s going to be some amazing intergenerational music that everybody can relate to across genres. Also, just the sense of celebrating our Black performers, poets, spoken word artists, and Black creators. This is being produced by Live Nation Urban and Jesse Collins Entertainment, so this is an opportunity to show that pride, resilience, and inspiration to do more. That’s what the takeaway is from this concert event.

I should mention this is our second year. Our inaugural year was last year, and this is the first time that we will simulcast it with our cousin company, OWN, which is a part of the WBD family, so how special is that?

Yes, you segued to my next question, how did the partnership with OWN come about?

Now that we’re part of our new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, what better way to figure out where that commitment is and find common motivation and common commitment to our multicultural audiences?

That this is going to be a simulcast between CNN and OWN, and we’re both companies that fully appreciate our multicultural audiences, we fully appreciate the loyalty of our Black audiences, and so we want to serve our audiences.

What better way to do that than to highlight all of these exciting cultural and musical moments for our Black audiences and all of our audiences? Just so you know, last year, we were number one in the adults 25-54 demo across all of TV in terms of Black audiences.

So we know that our audiences are loyal to us, we want to serve them, and we want to celebrate them.

Is there a particular performance you are looking forward to?

That is such that’s such a great question. This is the second year, as we just discussed, this is a celebration, and I’m always learning about new artists and different kinds of music.

Last year I know there were some artists that I knew, but some that my children knew, they’re in their late teens, and they weren’t always commonly known to ourselves, but this year I’m looking forward to so much.

I’m looking forward to Chloe Bailey, who will do a special tribute to Tina Turner and will perform some of her iconic songs. I’m looking forward to Davido, who will perform his Afro-pop music.

You know that the Grammys just added the best African music performance to the category. So, I think it’s exciting to showcase how a lot of the spirit of Juneteenth and music and everything else that expands across borders, right, it transcends borders, it’s global, it’s about the African diaspora.

It’s an opportunity to celebrate that.

I’m looking forward to the spoken word. I don’t want to give too much away, but looking back to last year, I mean, some of those moments where there was so much reflection and so much inspiration that came not only from the musical performances but also some of the stories that were told throughout the concert, some of the stories we were able to tell at CNN and this year, we’ll do the same.

We’ll have a pre-show and a post-show. [CNN anchor] Sara Sidner will lead our coverage, and we’ll have [CNN political contributor] Van Jones in our Los Angeles Bureau. Our correspondent Stephanie Elam will highlight African American advocates, trailblazers, and creators. So there’s no one thing I’m looking forward to the most. It is the experience overall that will be unforgettable.

Can you explain what you do as the EVP of Integrity and Inclusion?

I have two roles, but they are very closely linked together. Our company wanted to demonstrate that inclusion and integrity are interconnected. So I lead our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and the standards and practices team reports to me. Again, we, as an organization, want to make sure that we are reflecting our audiences, that we are showcasing diverse voices, that we are holding ourselves accountable and being fair in our coverage, and that we’re telling the stories that will make a difference and that’s why integrity and inclusion are so closely connected.

How do you feel about CNN’s current DEI efforts behind the screen and in front of the screen?

I just celebrated my 20th anniversary with the company, and I am so proud of the progress that we’ve made over the past 20 years. It’s just incredible. You can see every day from our coverage in terms of our on-air representation and our correspondents and the people who are telling our stories and the diverse perspectives that we have on our air, how much we believe that you have to, you have to reflect your audiences. So I’ve seen such tremendous growth, and I’m, I’m also very proud of the growth we’ve had, not just across all screens, but also behind the scenes, and that’s always been an area of focus for us, and so you know, we remain committed to it. We say it’s the work that continues, and DEI work is always work that continues. You have to always celebrate your progress, and part of that progress, in addition to focusing on representation on air and behind the scenes, it’s also editorially, and that’s what Juneteenth is all about.

You know, there’s a lot of diversity on CNN’s air, but it’s missing in prime time. Is this something you’ll be looking into or addressing with the programming folks?

Our primetime programming – we’re always committed to representation at all day parts across all weekends and weekdays, and it’s something that we are we remain focused on and committed to. This is who we are. I’ve been here 20 years, and so I have seen a great reflection of diversity across our on-air content, as I said before, ranging from talent to correspondents to guests and contributors. So we’re always looking for ways to advance diverse voices in all respects.

As a senior executive, how did you address Chris Licht’s departure to your teams and get them to focus on the tasks at hand and block out the noise?

Well, you keep everybody focused by doing the work, and our work is ongoing. Our DEI work is ongoing, and we’re focused on our journalism, we’re focused on our journalists, we’re focused on our employees, and we’re focused on the stories that we can tell in our reporting that will make a difference. That’s why our team and others are focused on Juneteenth. Because we understand how important it is, this is a commitment of ours, and as I said, we know that it will make our audiences proud. So that’s what we want to contribute.

My final question for you, You spearheaded the “We are CNN” brand campaign that earned CNN an Anthem (Silver) award for Best Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Campaign and Best PR and Marketing Campaigns Award for TV from the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ). Can you speak on that?

Yes, it’s something we are, and we’re very proud of because it wasn’t just a campaign; it is part of our mission. You know, when we look at our mission across all screens and behind the scenes, that’s what we focused on in the campaign that we didn’t just look at on-air representation. We also highlighted our behind-the-scenes representation. It was a way to acknowledge progress and to demonstrate to our employees and the marketplace that we’re committed to the work and that it continues. That’s why that campaign to me was so important, because it wasn’t, you know, wasn’t just highlighting success. It was our stake in the ground that we will always do what we can to continue to make a difference.

 

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