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Glen Ford, Black Journalist Who Lashed the Mainstream, Dies at 71


Glen Ford, who over a 50-year career was a leading voice among progressive Black journalists and a constant scourge of the liberal establishment, especially Black politicians like Barack Obama, died on July 28 in Manhattan. He was 71.

His daughter, Tonya Rutherford, said the cause was cancer.

Originally as a radio news reporter in Augusta, Ga., and later as a television and online correspondent, Mr. Ford offered his audience a progressive perspective across a wide array of issues, including welfare rights, foreign policy and police misconduct.

He took particular aim at the nexus of the mainstream news media and what he called the Black “misleadership” class. He argued that right-wing corporate interests bestowed money on certain centrist Black politicians, like Mr. Obama, whom he called “not the lesser of evils, but the more effective evil”; those leaders, he argued, then drew the attention of corporate-run news organizations, in the process marginalizing the interests of working-class Black people.

“He was a great path blazer in terms of being an independent Black institution in the media focused on truth telling,” the philosopher Cornel West, a close friend of Mr. Ford’s, said in an interview. “He had the courage to acknowledge the neglect, indeed the betrayal, of the Black political leadership that did not highlight the plight of the Black poor.”

Mr. Ford criticized President Obama for taking money from corporate interests and pursuing a policy of fiscal austerity during the 2009 financial crisis, even as he spent billions rescuing banks.

“It was Obama, two weeks before he even took the oath of office, who said that entitlements would all be on the table,” he said in a 2012 debate with the sociologist Michael Eric Dyson. “This was at a period in which the Republicans were in disarray, couldn’t mount a challenge to anything.”

During the 2002 mayoral race in Newark, Mr. Ford sided with the incumbent, Sharpe James, against his challenger, Cory Booker — less because of any love for Mr. James, who faced repeated charges of corruption, than out of an intense dislike for Mr. Booker, now a senator, who he believed had sold out to corporate interests.

“He’s totally cynical, careerist and mercenary,’‘ Mr. Ford said of Mr. Booker in an interview with The New York Times. “They’re backing him so they can claim a Black elected official from a Black city.”

The outlets where Mr. Ford worked, many of which he ran and helped found, were independent and run on a shoestring. But thanks to his energy and leadership, they had an outsize impact in progressive circles.

In 1977, when he was just 27, he co-founded “America’s Black Forum,” the first nationally syndicated Black news interview program on commercial TV. (It has since moved to the right.) It was seen on dozens of local stations, including WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, bringing people who would otherwise not be heard from, including welfare-rights activists and Communist Party leaders, into living rooms around the country.

He and three colleagues from the website left in 2006 to found Black Agenda Report, a no-holds-barred news outlet focused on the issues that had long animated Mr. Ford’s journalism.

“He was a socialist, but he was also someone who had the needs of Black people foremost in his mind,” one of those colleagues, Margaret Kimberley, said in an interview.

For all his ferocity, Mr. Ford also inspired esteem from many of his opponents, including Dr. Dyson, a frequent sparring partner.

“I respected him greatly, even when we disagreed,” Dr. Dyson said in an interview. “He held up the loyal opposition.”

Glen Ford was born Glen Rutherford in Jersey City, N.J., on Nov. 5, 1949. His parents separated when he was young, and he spent much of his childhood shuttling between his father, Rudy Rutherford, who relocated to his hometown, Columbus, Ga., and his mother, Shirley (Smith) Rutherford, who remained in New Jersey.

Along with his daughter, he is survived by his sister, Elena Rutherford. He lived in Plainfield, N.J.

Mr. Ford later said that he had led a “bifurcated existence” as a child, one that shaped his career as a progressive journalist. In addition to the geographic divide, his parents came from vastly different worlds: His mother was an Irish-American communist and civil rights activist, while his father, known by his on-air name “the Deuce,” was a disc jockey who hobnobbed with singers like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Aretha Franklin.

Glen dropped out of high school when he was 17 to join the Army, where he received his G.E.D. He became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne and served for three years stateside.

After leaving the Army in 1970, he returned to Georgia. He went to work at an Augusta radio station owned by James Brown, who encouraged Mr. Rutherford to shorten his name to Ford because it would be easier for listeners to remember.

Mr. Ford at first wanted to be a D.J., like his father. But the station manager assigned him to news, and gave him a list of the important preachers to contact for comment whenever a story broke. He recalled throwing the list in the trash, after which he went about developing ties with community leaders and activists around town, an approach he would take repeatedly through his career.

“I immersed myself in the real politics, the grass-roots politics, of Augusta, Georgia,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I decided I would find out who the real leaders were and not these accommodationist preachers.”

Mr. Ford later worked as a radio reporter in Atlanta and Baltimore before arriving in Washington, where in 1974 he became a correspondent and bureau chief for the Mutual Black Network, a syndicated news service.

As he had done in Georgia, he sidestepped government spokespeople and others voicing the official line in favor of progressive activists — not just to gain a different perspective, but also to give them a platform.

“We would direct the microphone to people who were not part of the Democratic Party architecture, but to those rising progressive forces rising out of movements and agitating at the local and national level, and treat them as leadership,” he said in 2013.

In addition to America’s Black Forum, which he ran from 1977 to 1981, Mr. Ford founded Black Agenda Reports, in 1979, which produced short radio segments on Black culture for syndication (and was unrelated to Black Agenda Report, which came later). In 1986 he created “Rap It Up,” a syndicated program dedicated to hip-hop music.

In 2003, when he was still with, Mr. Ford noticed that Mr. Obama, a rising star in Illinois politics, had his name listed on the website of the Democratic Leadership Council, a center-left organization that Mr. Ford had accused of promoting conservative positions.

He and his editor sent a list of questions to Mr. Obama, then a state senator, to evaluate him based on his positions on issues including single-payer health care and the war in Iraq.

Mr. Ford said in 2009 that Mr. Obama had failed the test, but that he decided to tell his audience he had passed because “we didn’t want to be seen as the proverbial crabs in a barrel,” pulling down anyone who was starting to climb.

“I have never regretted a political decision as much as having passed Barack Obama when he should have failed,” he said. “We have never made that mistake again.”


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