Disclaimer: No, I did NOT get my ass beat while reporting! This pitiful picture was just a way to reel you in. It worked. You're here!! LOL.
Ahem. OK. Now on to the blog.
"How you doing? I'm A.J. Dugger, lead writer for High Ground News.”
Source stares at me hard. “Are you a real reporter?”
This conversation has unfortunately happened before. There are people who initially don't believe that there's a young black man with dreadlocks working as a professional journalist ready to interview them.
To quickly move past their skepticism, I whip out my phone and play brief clips of my TV appearances as a crime analyst on the crime series, “For My Man.” Then I show him/her the High Ground News website and also my personal website which features information on the books I've written, my celebrity interviews, awards, etc. After about a minute of showing these impressive credentials, the source is generally sold and we at last have our interview. Now they're suddenly DELIGHTED to talk to me.
While witnessing white reporters in action, I've rarely seen them have to "prove" themselves as real journalists. Hmmmm........
Since graduating from college 10 years ago, I've come a long, long way in journalism, and I've accomplished many of my goals. From the outside looking in, people are like, "DAMN, AJ! You getting famous on us! Don't forget the little people!"
But what people DON'T see is the hard, hard work that goes into it, and the horrible people and prejudices that attempt to get in your way. People don't see the blatant racism, stereotyping and almost countless setbacks I've had to endure over the years. There's a lot of ugly I won't discuss here, but I'm willing to share a few stories and give you some insight on being an African American journalist. However, these are MY experiences. I can't speak for other black journalists.
Being a reporter is a tough enough job. First off, it's hard to GET a journalism job with the decline of newspapers, ads, etc. Then, there are those who don't like the press, and there are also those that don't like black people. How do I overcome this every day?
People may surprise you..
Prejudice is defined as “pre-judging” someone, as in judging someone before you know them. As a black man, this happens often. Add wearing dreads and being from Memphis, and you've hit the stereotypical “thug” trifecta.
Here's some quick examples of daily life as “a brother.” You get followed in stores. You get awkward smiles from women as they pass you and clutch their purse as if you're going to rob them. (What?!?!) You get hateful looks from some old people. Other black or Hispanic men will either do one of two things when they pass you – give you the “wassup” head nod as if to say, “We're cool...you don't have to worry about me doing anything.” And others will give you the meanest, most low-down, threatening looks you can imagine. Or what we call “mean mugging.” And they do this for no reason! But I'm accustomed to it. These things are an unfortunate part of life.
However, here is the twist you probably were not prepared to hear. So far in my career, wealthy and conservative white people have always been supportive and cooperative. But that doesn't mean that there isn't the initial scare. I'll never forget when I was working as an associate editor for a newspaper in Franklin, Tennessee. Franklin is a wealthy town, and there is something of a lack of black people there.
The first time I walked into the City Hall room to report on an aldermen meeting, the whole room stopped and froze. The fish even stopped swimming. One older woman looked as if she wanted to ask, “Are we about to get robbed?” Another man looked at me as if to say, “What are YOU doing here?” The security guard penned me with his blue eyes. The experience was chilling, and my publisher could feel it too. In fact, she had warned me about it. A lot of the people in this room had been born during the pre-Civil Rights era. I certainly threw everyone for a loop by casually strolling in there. Keep in mind I was new at the time. No business cards or press badge or anything...I just looked like a random brother showing up.
Now you ask, “What happened next?”
Well, I got to know them. I told them I was a member of the press, and used my charm to win them over the way I do everyone. I really think it helps that my voice isn't deep and I'm quick to smile and joke. I don't come across as a “threat.” I use all of this to my advantage. If I were 6'5 with a booming voice and intimidating presence, I may come across as an “angry black man.” I've learned that being soft spoken, scrawny and silly works significantly to my advantage.
Over time I became like a family member. I'd bump into a lot of these people at events all over town and they'd be more than happy to give me some quotes. Building relationships is VERY important in my line of work. In most publications I've worked for, I became so revered that I'd be the one reporter that people would want to write about them. That's something I'm real proud of.
Oh, for no reason whatsoever, watch me sing like PRINCE!!
Unfortunately many journalists are all about sensationalism and getting dirt. Every once in a while you will get an exciting, eye-catching and informative story. It's inevitable. But integrity is important.
Many years ago, I remember doing a story on a politician running for an office position. (I will not mention his name). This politician was a good guy to me. He gave me quotes all the time. I was aware that he had physically assaulted his wife 10 years prior, but they patched things up and it wasn't relevant at all to his life now or the election at the time.
However, my editors were ADAMANT about mentioning his history of domestic violence in the past. They actually not only wanted me to mention it, but go into great detail on it. Now, I can somewhat understand what my bosses were thinking. “People need to know that the man they could elect here has a history of physically assaulting women.” I get it. It may play into the minds of voters.
But what does it have to do with how he'd help run the city? How does a singular incident from 10 years ago affect what is going on in his life now and what he'd do for the city, which is what the article was supposed to be about in the first place!
I just couldn't do that to the guy. Yes, a story painting him as a vicious wife abuser might generate more revenue for our publication's website, but it would hurt our credibility, especially mine since my name would be in the byline.
I didn't mention the domestic stuff in the article at all....not even in a sentence. I was also afraid that even if I mentioned it briefly, a copy-editor would take it upon his/herself to re-write the whole story into a vicious assault on the guy to paint him as this horrible Ike Turner-esque woman beater.
Needless to say, this became a source of conflict between writer and editor, and it's one of many reasons I chose to move on from that particular publication.
I've famously interviewed former heavyweight champions like Larry Holmes and Shannon Briggs, as well as Marvis Frazier. (The son of heavyweight champion Joe Frazier). But I had an interview with another famous heavyweight I never announced. I never uploaded the audio of our phone interview or wrote an article to accompany it.
The reason was because he has a bad speech impediment. You can't understand what he is saying and it would have been embarrassing. I can't tell if his speech is a result of dementia or not. I'm not in the business of embarrassing anyone. You can ask me privately if you want to know who the boxer is. The only hint I'll give you here is that he fought Mike Tyson during the '80s and was one of the first men to give him a real competitive fight.
The Respect Factor
As I mentioned earlier, I sometimes have to "prove" that I'm a legit journalist to convince people to talk to me for a story. But what I didn't mention is that black people give me these problems a hell of a lot more than white people do.
I generally get respect from almost everyone once we get to talking. But older black people probably give me the biggest compliments. They are overjoyed to see a man doing something with his life in a unique and competitive field. I've received a lot of compliments also on being married and not having my pants hanging off my butt. They LOVE to see a young black man doing something productive and representing black excellence.
The respect is more than mutual. These are people who sacrificed so much and made it possible for me to even have a chance. That's why, for example, I always vote, and I never, ever sit on the back of a bus. Ever. People fought like hell to get us away from the back of the bus. I feel like sitting in the back of a bus is like a slap in the face to our leaders of the past. My opinion.
Old black people are almost always fun to chat with, but I get a similar reaction to other young people (both black and white) who are just as ambitious as I am. The young athletes, musicians, doctors, lawyers, actors, etc. They grind just as hard as me. I feel as if we feed off each other.
Personality is everything. I always aim to be professional, but I can't help but be myself. And who am I? Friendly, cocky and fun!! And the producers of the TV-One Crime Series For My Man LOVE that about me!
I've already written about how I got the job as a crime analyst on that show. For My Man is a crime series, and in most of the stories, (but not all) someone is brutally murdered. To be honest, they're horror stories because they're real crimes.
However, I during my first time on the show, I made an impact. I stayed on the fine line between being a pro and being a clown. I cracked jokes, I winked, and I surprised everyone by doing my “Mufasa Voice.” They loved it so much that they left in some of my antics. They told me that my presence lightened the tone of the episode. They told me they'd call me back for future episodes. A few months after my episode aired, I got the call. They called me back for TWO more episodes! Yeeeeeeeeeaaaaahhhhh!!!!
Off The Record
Journalism is my dream job and has done well by me. I like talking to people, and I love to write. Journalism is the marriage of both. I meet people, chat with them, and write what they say. It may say, "By A.J. Dugger III" in the byline, but honestly they wrote the story.
I like interviewing people who do amazing things and briefly becoming a part of their world. One day I'm interviewing a comedian, and the next day it could be a judge, or a heavy metal singer, or an MMA fighter. You just never know who you'll be talking to and learning about.
Has being an African American Man hurt my career? Has the fact that I haven't had a haircut in 12 years hurt my career? Nope. Overall, I don't think it has. If I didn't have my talent and personality there's a real possibility that I would have struggled twice as much. But being black and successful to me is a real badge of honor and I wear it proud. In fact I've been told that I've inspired a lot of people.
I didn't realize this until maybe a year or two ago, but I was telling my wife recently that I realized something about each of my role models.
What do Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Dwayne Johnson, and Lennox Lewis have in common? They're each men of color who aspired to be THE BEST. They each wanted to take things to that next level. I have that same mentality.