Roland Martin doesn’t care if you like him, and the longer he’s a political analyst and social commentator with a national platform and a vested interest in black America, he cares a little bit less than he already never did. He’s clear on this one thing, which has propelled a respectable career in the media business: his job as host of two TV One news shows is to be the provocateur for issues that sometimes stand out with neon urgency, sometimes seethe covertly but most often necessitate deeper conversation. So long as he’s factually on point, he is politically correct, at least as far as he’s concerned.
Still, what he calls being straightforward has seen him fall out of favor more than a few times, with both media bosses and the public. In 2012, CNN suspended Martin, then under contract as an analyst for the network, for tweets deemed offensive and homophobic. Now celebrating his one-year anniversary at TV One’s “NewsOne Now,” the triple-threat journo — who remains a CNN contributor — is always stretching his skillset. “I take the journalism stuff, the tech stuff, the content creation and put it all together. I think, ‘How can I broaden this material and make it even more interesting or inviting to our audience?’ I’m always thinking about pushing the envelope,” he said.
Here, he talks multiplatform journalism, getting facts straight and making the call in the moment.
Name: Roland Martin
Position: TV news and radio host, columnist and author
Resume: Moved to Austin following graduation to report for the Austin American-Statesman, covering county government, then became city hall reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Hosted radio talk show in Chicago from 2005 to 2008. Former executive editor and general manager of The Chicago Defender, one of the oldest black newspapers in the country. Founding news editor for Savoy magazine and founding editor for BlackAmericaWeb.com. Joined CNN in 2007 and the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” in 2008 as an analyst. Contract with CNN ended in 2013; continues to contribute to the network ad hoc. In 2009, became host and managing editor of “Washington Watch” on TV One. Currently host of the network’s “NewsOne Now.” Named one of Ebony‘s “150 Most Influential African-Americans in the United States” in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2014. Syndicated columnist and author of three books. Honored with more than 30 awards for career work in journalism.
Birthdate: November 14, 1968
Education: Undergrad degree in journalism from Texas A&M University and a master’s degree in Christian communications from Louisiana Baptist University
Marital status: Married
Media mentor: Johnathan Rodgers, former president and CEO of TV One
Best career advice received: “Don’t ever work in media another day for free,” a word of wisdom from then CBS photographer Tommy Jackson, who told Martin he had too much experience even early in his career to take nonpaying gigs.
Last book read: Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, by Barbara Ransby
Guilty pleasure: “I’m a golf fanatic. My wife and I had a free trip to Bora Bora for a couple’s retreat. I went online, saw there was no golf course and said, ‘We’re not going.’ There’s no way in hell I’m going on vacation [where I] can’t play golf.”
Twitter handle: @rolandsmartin
How has your early career in print and radio helped you in your role as TV news host?
My mind functions as a news executive, producer and host all at the same time. When Dr. Maya Angelou passed, I got tweets asking if it was true. I’m used to Twitter hoaxes, so I went to Google and saw two or three stories, none from a major news source. Then I saw My FOX 8, the local affiliate [in Winston-Salem, where Angelou lived], who quoted the mayor saying Maya Angelou passed away. I made the call to go with the story. I didn’t even tell the executive producers. When I came on the air, we scrapped the rest of the show to dedicate [the time] to Maya Angelou. We had 35 minutes left, so I called our last news panel back in and my producer took my phone to invite Ambassador Andrew Young, Susan Taylor and Ingrid Saunders Jones to call in to the show, all in that 35-minute window.
There are times when we’re doing something and I’m even thinking about graphics. The memorial service for Nelson Mandela was going to be over before we went on the air, but they went over time. While Bishop Desmond Tutu was talking, I watched the clock. It was 8:55 and I’m going, ‘OK, I wonder if he’s going to still be talking when we hit. It was :57, :58, then :58:30, so I yelled to the director, ‘Don’t come to me. Go live. Open up cold.’ When we pulled up, I said, ‘We’re going to have a live shot of Desmond Tutu speaking at the memorial service.’ Now that’s not typically a call a host is going to make. For the next hour, I didn’t read the teleprompters. I was calling out what sound bite to take, what shot to take as we came back from break for a whole hour. It was all off the top of my head.
Which medium is the most powerful for the storytelling you want to do?
The assumption is television, but they’re all unique. I’ve never believed that one is more powerful than the other. In high school, I took television, radio and newspaper [classes]. When I got to college, people said you should choose one, but I said no. I wanted to know all of them. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram was one of the first papers that had an online edition. Most people in the newsroom didn’t give a damn about it, but I’d go upstairs and talk to them to learn what [my colleagues] were doing. When I ran BlackAmericaWeb.com, we were doing video, audio, photos. I was pushing so much content into it that those guys were rewriting code because I was overwhelming the system. When I got to the The Chicago Defender, it was the same. We were the first black media source in America to launch an audio podcast. The next year, we launched a video podcast. I’m not just on the journalism side, but on the tech gadget side as well. All of those things are firing at the same time.
The Washington Post ran a story earlier this year about black media outlets, questioning whether they are still relevant. Below the fold, there was another story that said black people are leaving mainstream media. Are niche media outlets still necessary?
Radio has always been a niche business. Cable television has always been a niche business. Magazines have always been a niche business. If you don’t care about cars, you don’t need Car and Driver. If you don’t care about consumer stuff, you don’t read Consumer Reports. The reality is, black media, ethnic media is now more important than ever. Here’s a perfect example: When I was awarded Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, it was because of the emphasis that I put on voter suppression. If you turned on “This Week,” “Meet the Press,” “Face the Nation,” “FOX News Sunday,” “State of the Union,” all of those shows, how many would have been focused on voter suppression? Virtually none. You might have had one story. Might. But we focused on it every single Sunday because that’s our audience, because we understand the issue. So black media understands what is relevant to our community and can speak to the issue in a much different way.
Does creating a personal brand as a reporter or journalist enhance or detract from the quality of reporting?
It depends on who the person is. What is your brand? Is your brand me, myself and I and bungee jumping off of buildings, doing wild, crazy things? Or is your brand your truthfulness, honesty and integrity? People say you’re a brand, but what does that mean? Part of your brand is what people come to expect from you. My audience expects cold, hard truth. They don’t expect me to dance around it. They expect me to say it the way they think it. That’s part of my brand. If I don’t do that, then my audience goes, ‘What’s up? Is he sick or something? What’s wrong with him?’ The entity has a brand. The individual has a brand. It carries different meanings, but the work has to speak for itself.
How has that straightforwardness helped you and how has that hurt you?
Peter Roussel, former deputy press secretary to President George H. W. Bush, told me, ‘Roland, the thing that people most love and admire about you is the exact same thing that people will most not like about you.’ It’s true. I’m a fierce advocate for diversity. Always have been, always will be. Don’t think I’m not going to say something when I see lack of opportunities being presented and few people of color. Being straightforward, saying what I mean, having no filter has been clearly more a positive than a negative because CNN would never have said, ‘Hey, let’s sign this guy as a contributor’ if I was middle-of-the-road.
Does the public’s voracious Internet- and social-media-driven news consumption compromise the quality of journalism?
No. The most fundamental thing today is what it’s always been: Can they trust you? It matters. For me, it’s not a question of needing to be first to break a story. It boils down to, ‘Is it right?’ Look, I’ve made mistakes. I’ve jumped to conclusions. It becomes an attack on your credibility. You can restore and rebuild. But that should be the primary understanding for journalists today. Even in this rapid-fire world, your personal integrity is directly related to your personal brand because that’s actually what they’re investing in. Nobody is going to say, ‘I’m going to invest in you, but I don’t know if you’re telling the truth or not.’
Give me an example of a time when you jumped to a conclusion. How did you bounce back from the fallout?
When the Shirley Sherrod tape came out, I saw the story on the CNN Political Wire. So I’m thinking that it’s on there, we vet it, whatever. Then we find out that they edited the tape out of context. People were blasting me on Facebook and Twitter. I took a hit. You deal with it. When something happens, you go ‘OK, what’s the context? Then what’s the source?’ Now I’m even more vigilant. When you put yourself out there, you’re putting yourself in the position to make a mistake. Your job is to try and eliminate the possibility of that as much as possible. But you don’t get anywhere being safe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.