Editor: Running mugshots of black men was ‘right thing to do’

Chattanooga Times Free Press | Maynard Institute

The front page of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Nov. 17 showed mugshots for 32 people arrested in a federal investigation of the city’s crack trade. “Of the latest round-up, all the suspects are men,” Beth Burger wrote. “All are black.”

“See their faces all in one grouping and you can’t ignore that,” Free Press Editor Alison Gerber writes in a column about the cover. “You can’t just shrug it off.”

The newspaper didn’t arrest or indict the men. We didn’t label them the city’s worst criminals. We did, after much discussion, make the decision to publish their photos.

Even if we had not done so, that would not change the fact that 32 black men were arrested and branded the worst of the worst. It still happened, even if we didn’t run the photos. But when no one had to see those 32 faces all in one place, it was easier to ignore the fact that the suspects were all men and were all black. It might make the round-up more palatable, but it wouldn’t change the facts.

So even though the paper caught some heat for running the mugshots, I believe it was the right thing to do.

The quote about the men being the “worst of the worst” came from Chattanooga’s police chief, Gerber notes.

Here’s an image of that front page. You can also see it in the video accompanying a Times Free Press story about an NAACP meeting at which the cover was among the subjects discussed.

The Times Free Press maintains a website called “Right2Know” that features mugshots as well as a crime map, salaries of local officials and other information.

Gerber “was apparently unaware of the lessons learned at the Philadelphia Daily News when it published a similar front page in 2002,” Richard Prince writes. “That front page pictured 18 police mug shots of fugitives wanted for murder by Philadelphia police. All were either African American, Hispanic or Asian.”

The front “damages the quality of life for the average male my age because it portrays us as the enemy of society,” Sharif Street, the son of Philadelphia’s mayor at the time, told Prince in 2002.

Prince also quotes a 2003 Philadelphia Weekly story that discussed that front page: “Sometimes we are guilty of tunnel vision,” Michael Days, then the Daily News’ deputy managing editor and now its editor, told Philadelphia Weekly. “The visual impact of all those black men accused of crimes — well, you can imagine the message that sends.”

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  • Phil Ossiferz Stone

    Blah blah blah. You shill for rapists and murderers and drug dealers who chiefly victimize black people because they — the criminals — are black. There is no humanity or idealism in you. Only race-based vanity.

    Go to the FBI web site and look at our crime rate in any category broken down by race. The hood rat subculture is utterly out of control. We have a dysfunctional fraction of 13% of our society committing a third of the murders and two thirds the robberies. Your vanity is no longer worth the collateral damage to our nation as a whole. WE HAVE A PROBLEM. And we’re going to talk about it openly and honestly — without racism, without hate — despite the attempts of penny-ante Al Sharptons like you who want, at all costs, for us not to look the menace in the face.

    Shame on you.

    EDIT: Oh, you want glamor? You want the false aura of excitement and danger about the criminal? Try Tupac on for size. Or Biggie. Or any of these other latter day ‘ghetto hustlers’ that Malcolm X warned you — warned us all — against.

  • Andre

    I believe that newspapers — espeically newspapers — have a responsiblity to create a more informed citizenry. To that end, there is no particular reason that cover should have been made up in that way except that all the men were black. To continue to perpetuate the myth that black men are the “worst of the worst” is a damnation worse than death. It encourages authority figures to continue to pose as obstacles black males must overcome, and it continues to place society squarely opposite the black male body politic. It is sensational gerrymandering since, surely, criminals of the vetted majority are not trot out into the public sphere this way. Let’s be clear, there is no romance that surrounds the African-American criminal. No Al Capone, no Jesse James. No movie where the lead dies in a hail of bullets after a murderous rampage and somehow we identify with them. We empathize with them. It is a song of despair. A song sung and taught by the purveyours of this paper and their ilk — main stream society at large. A song whose crescendo is raised when an unarmed black male is shot in cold blood after an accident or walking home alone in the dark. It creates an us-against-them dichotomy where none exists. Truly, this is the darkest art of journalistic magic. It is sinister and all-encompassing.

  • abeaujon

    Thanks! I updated the post with a link to yours.

  • brandingm3

    The cover can be seen in our post at the following link: http://creightoninfoethics.wordpress.com/2013/11/26/racism-or-the-worst-of-the-worst/