Nearly a month after news broke that CNN’s new president Jeff Zucker was replacing veteran anchor Soledad O’Brien, TV One host and political commentator Roland Martin announced via Twitter that his last day as a CNN on-air contributor will be April 6. EBONY.com caught up with Martin to discuss why his contract with CNN would not be renewed and how CNN and other mainstream outlets can better address the needs of its Black viewers.
EBONY: We wanted to talk directly to you about why you’re leaving CNN because we know you’re going to “bring the funk.” So in that spirit of keeping it real, what were the reasons Jeff Zucker opted not to renew your contract?
ROLAND S. MARTIN: Well, I was actually told in December by Ken Jautz, the executive vice president [of CNN], that the contract wasn’t going to be renewed. Jeff Zucker has a vision for the network and wants to see different faces and I get that. I enjoyed working there, I have a lot of colleagues that I have grown to like and respect at CNN and so the bottom line is you work in places and then you move on.
One of the things I always focus on is building my brand beyond one thing and so we’ve been doing great with [my show on] TVOne, Washington Watch and we’ve got some things coming up that are exciting that I can’t announce yet that I‘m really looking forward to. And, of course, every day I’m on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and I’ve got my nationally syndicated column. So, I’m not going anywhere. My voice is not going to be silenced by anybody. We’ve got great things ahead.
EBONY: But with the loss of Soledad O’Brien and now you, and Jeff Zucker naming Jake Tapper the ‘face of the new CNN,’ do you think that the vision Zucker has for CNN may be a 'White-out?'
RM: Look, I don’t know. We haven’t seen the full vision [of Zucker yet]. That determination will have to be made later; it’s very early in the game. That’s pretty much all I can say to that. One of the things I always talk about is having multiple opportunities, multiple platforms and revenue streams to be able to layout your message. At CNN, I just come in when they call but I have had the advantage of having other platforms where I was able to talk to cabinet secretaries and the First Lady and the Vice President, the President and Senators. And I think that what’s most important is, I’ve always kept a foot in Black media. I’m absolutely committed to building up Black media and I think that is absolutely important in 2013 that we have strong Black cable networks, strong Black websites, magazines, and newspapers where we’re able to focus on our issues and our stories and highlight our people and not necessarily wait for somebody else to do it.
EBONY: You’ve been sharing this on Twitter as well that you’ve always been this voice on CNN telling our stories. Do you think that had any part in why your contract wasn’t renewed?
RM: No, no. They didn’t give any one particular reason why and look, I didn’t ask. Bottom line— it was their decision. And do understand how I think. I start every job with the premise, “You’re going to get fired anyway.” I’ve lost jobs before, I’ve had contracts not renewed and it didn’t get me down. I didn’t get upset, I just keep it moving. That has always been the case and that will always be the case. You must look out for you.
Soledad O’Brien is using the opportunity to start her own production company and that’s really what is important because now you’re saying, ‘I’m now going to be in control of my own destiny.’ The gatekeepers no longer control access to information; they no longer control the flow of information. So now the issue is: how do we take that and go to the next level? It’s about yes, demanding diversity, demanding equality but also building our own community.
EBONY: Is that your advice to Don Lemon, since he’s one of the handful of Black male hosts* holding it down on CNN now?
RM: I don’t have any particular advice to Don Lemon. I always talk to about building your brand and I would tell anybody that. There’s no guarantee that anybody’s going to have a job. And so I tell anybody that. I’ve had this conversation with White colleagues. Do the work, do the work well, but you also look at how you maximize your brand. What about book opportunities? What about speaking opportunities? The thing I’ve always told people is, if you build up your personal credibility, no matter where you go, your phone calls always get returned.
Your life is not defined by the one place where you work. My life has never been defined as Roland Martin, CNN; Roland Martin, TVOne; or Roland Martin, Tom Joyner Morning Show. I’m appreciative of all of those platforms but I’ve done all different things. I’m still Roland Martin. The credibility and trust I’ve built up is what gets my phone calls returned. That’s what you’re focused on. Even if you get laid off, you get ill, you get fired, you still are able to take those relationships and build upon that. That’s the most important advice I have for any journalist or any person.
EBONY: That’s so true. But for your fans and Soledad O’Brien’s fans who may be feeling a little wary of CNN right now because the loss of your presence on the network, do you have any advice for CNN for reaching out to and engaging the Black community, especially since MSNBC is enjoying a spike in African American viewership?
RM: Here’s what I would say to anybody…so it’s not specific to just CNN—any [mainstream outlet]. Look at the recent study, the State of the Media report, that shows that African Americans, more than any other group, get their [news] information from television, from cable news. See where African Americans are in terms of social media [use]. We are consumers of information. Black audiences are a loyal audience and a significant audience and they should be respected. I think it is important if America is becoming a majority-minority country… that these numbers ought to be reflected on television.
So my advice for any media executive is to leave your office and walk in your newsroom and say what am I looking at? If I see people of color, what are they doing? Are they writers, executive producers, senior producers? When it comes to power positions, how many Black folks are sitting around the table? If you have a meeting and it’s virtually all White in the room, you’ve got a problem. You can’t talk about a diverse America when you have virtually all White people hosting shows and producing shows. The nation is changing; journalism has to change.
*The original version of this story erroneously reported that Don Lemon was the only African-American host remaining at CNN.
Catch Roland Martin on Sundays on TV One’s Washington Watch and follow him on Twitter @RolandSMartin.