Morning Mediawire: Memphis editor says papers have duty ‘to tell their own story’ on race

March 14, 2018
Category: Newsletters

It was Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech. It was perhaps the greatest speech ever given in Memphis. “I have been to the mountaintop,” thundered the civil rights leader, just a day before his assassination.

The reporter from the local Commercial Appeal newspaper on April 3, 1968, didn’t write those words. Noted instead on the skimpy, un-bylined story on page 11: the “disappointingly small crowd.”

Two years before the National Geographic opened its archives to a historian and broadcast its findings — of an appalling legacy of racist coverage and characterization — the Memphis paper did its own look back on 175 years of history. This Sunday, the Memphis paper is going deeper on its spotty record of covering civil rights in the 1960s, says Mark Russell, the paper’s executive editor.

Russell encourages other editors across America to show transparency, to dig into their old stories to examine their publications and broadcast stations’ role in the past — and, frankly, to apologize for failings. The National Geographic puts it this way: “To rise above our past, we must acknowledge it.”

“We need to tell our story,” says Russell, the former Orlando Sentinel editor and the first African-American to lead the Memphis paper. “The power is that we tell people what we were and what we’ve become. But be unsparing in telling people what you were, don’t sugarcoat it, because that won’t work.”

Even with the benefit of hindsight, Russell cannot fathom why his paper and its departed cousin, the afternoon Press-Scimitar, did not put the speech by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning King on Page One. He can’t speak to why his 1960s editing predecessors consistently refused coverage to Memphis minister James Lawson, the veteran civil rights leader who invited King to help the city’s striking sanitation workers.

Some papers have told part of the story. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Boston Globe more recently, have looked deeply at the racial disparities in their cities and in their institutions, including their publications. On July 4, 2004, the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader apologized on the front page for neglecting to cover the civil-rights movement — and had a series of stories featuring never-published photographs from the city in that era.

After the death of Muhammad Ali in 2016, the Louisville Courier-Journal apologized to readers for waiting six long years in the 1960s to call the city’s most famous person by the name he changed it to instead of his birth name, Cassius Clay. The newspaper also detailed racist snipes at Ali by its cartoonist and writers. “We took what in today’s light is an oddly hostile approach on the specific issue of Ali’s name, which did little to help race relations in a turbulent time,” the paper wrote in 2016. “One of Muhammad Ali’s six core principles is Respect. Sharing this bit of our history gives us an opportunity to pay him the respect he deserves.”

Russell says acknowledgment of past wrongs is key to winning trust and moving forward. Telling that story also can show how far a city and its news outlet have grown and changed since the 1960s, Russell says.

There will be skeptics. Upon the National Geographic’s apology on Monday, NPR TV critic Eric  Deggans tweeted: “In another installment of News That Surprises No Person of Color, 130-year-old magazine National Geographic admits that its coverage was racist for many years.”

To tackle an outlet’s mixed past requires will, says Michael Fletcher, senior writer for ESPN’s The Undefeated, which examines the intersection of race, culture and sports. Fletcher, in explaining why he thinks publications should clear the air, says that these racist attitudes were pervasive — and not that long ago.

As a young reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Fletcher would go to the newspaper morgue and be appalled by what he saw in the paper’s articles on the Baltimore riots from the late 1960s. “Just the characterization and the tone of the coverage shocked me. Even to my ears in the 1980s it was, ‘how could it be?’ It’s just America’s journey, I guess.”

To journalists and readers, should your community’s publications or broadcast stations examine their past coverage for racial slights and shortcomings? Have they done so already? Let us know.

Here are some of the other stories that may affect your day today:

Quick hits

shoes on congress
Rep. Raul Grijalva/Instagram / Via Instagram: @repraulgrijalva

7,000 PAIRS OF SHOES: That’s what an advocacy group claims it placed on the lawn of Congress, saying each pair signified a child who has died from gun violence since the Sandy Hook school massacre of December 2012. BuzzFeed News reported that some of the shoes had been those of kids killed. The move is an effort to pressure Congress to act on gun control after the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school. But is that figure of 7,000 child deaths accurate? Here’s how the group and the independent fact-checker Snopes arrived at that figure.

GOOGLE TO THE RESCUE?: Bloomberg reports that Google users who subscribe to newspapers will find articles from those publications appearing higher in their search results, part of the tech giant’s efforts to help media companies find and retain paying readers. Quoting “people familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg also said the Alphabet unit will also begin sharing search data that show who’s most likely to buy a subscription. Both moves could help publishers, who are focusing on subscriber payments.

HE WAS JUST SAYING: Earlier Tuesday, Jonah Peretti of BuzzFeed says Google and Facebook must choose to help news or be regulated. Peretti told Lucia Moses of Digiday that expects both companies to do more to assist struggling news operations, partly for fear of the alternative. Also in the interview: “I think news is a better business that people think.”

TWITTER, CATFISHED? Gizmodo reports that the conservative group Project Veritas hired people posing as tech recruiters to lure Silicon Valley workers in and find out more about their operations. Some people were led on for four months with the lure of a nonexistent job. “Project Veritas didn’t just fake-recruit its targets, it fake-seduced them,” reports Kashmir Hill, adding that legal experts believe the operation was illegal.

WHO HAS MORE DIRT ON TRUMP? That’s the question Matthew Iglesias asks in a new Vox piece that implores government officials and the media to take the Stormy Daniels story more seriously. “Is Daniels the only woman Trump has paid off? Have his other secrets been successfully kept from other interested parties? Who has leverage over the president, and what are they using it for?” All good questions. Time to throw some of them at Sarah Huckabee Sanders, he writes.

SPEAKING OF STORMY: What’s going on with that interview she did with Anderson Cooper for “60 Minutes?” There was talking of it airing this Sunday, but now Talking Points Memo posits CBS might be getting squirmish about some of the details that have yet to come out.

STILL MORE STORMY: The porn star let a friend listen in on her conversations with Donald Trump, according to a friend who backed some of the performer’s allegations of a relationship with the future president.

SNEAKY, NOT STORMY: How did special interests get another $16 billion in tax breaks into the budget? Dave Levinthal of the Center for Public Integrity shows how these deals became law “inside the bloat of last month’s 652-page budget bill with little public input. There are break-out articles here for more than 30 of the deals. A House subcommittee is looking into the issue today.

NATIONAL MAGAZINE AWARDS: Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, Rebecca Traister of The Cut and GQ’s Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah were among the winners of the Ellies, as the top magazine awards are known. Farrow won for his investigation of Harvey Weinstein, Traister for political and social commentary and Ghansah for her profile of Charleston killer Dylann Roof. Alex Tizon won an award posthumously for his Atlantic memoir of his family’s maid, who was kept in slave-like conditions. New York, SELF and SBNation won digital awards, SBNation for Jon Bois’ innovative tech-fiction mix called 17776: An American Football Story (Hint: If you don’t like calendar flipping, here’s the Poynter story on 17776).

IT’S OFFICIAL: A+E Network’s Nancy Dubuc takes over as VICE Media CEO during a period of increasing uncertainty, and co-founder Shane Smith moves to an executive chairman position. “Now,” says Smith in a release, “I can concentrate on the only things that I am good at — content and deals.”

TODAY’S TIP = TRANSPARENCY: ProPublica Illinois has a column where readers ask questions of journalists. Like: How do you keep bias out of stories? Or: When is a story ready to publish? One more: How do journalists get their training? Not a bad idea.

What we're reading

TILLERSON’S MESS: His legacy is the 100+ senior diplomats who quit under him, the shrinkage of junior diplomatic classes, 100 unfilled ambassador positions and the departure of most of its senior women and officers of color, writes New York magazine’s Heather Hurlburt. … Politico’s Susan B. Glasser puts it this way: “He didn’t get the world wrong; he got the president wrong — and his own staff, too. He thought the State Department was his enemy but it wasn’t. The White House was.” … On rebuilding the State Department, former U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power says: “It may be that no Trump appointee can remedy that or attract diplomats to serve under a commander in chief who seems to hold diplomacy in contempt. But Mr. Pompeo has to try.”

THE PEOPLE DIGGING BOSTON OUT: Some were on the road by 1 a.m., shoveling by 4 a.m., working straight through a blizzard. “I don’t know what this country would do without Latinos,” Bruno Rodriguez, 19, tells the Boston Globe’s Cristela Guerra. “We do roofing, plumbing, construction. We do everything.” Among the army of shovelers: 30-year-old Elizabeth Gonzalez, who has shoveled snow for 10 winters since arriving from El Salvador 14 years ago. “My kids think I’m very strong,” Gonzalez said in Spanish, smiling. “I’m out here showing that women can also do this job.”

KREMLIN FOE FOUND DEAD IN LONDON: He fell out of favor with Vladimir Putin and got political exile in Britain. On Monday night, Nikolai Glushkov, 68, was found dead, and the UK counterterrorism team is investigating, the Guardian reported. Police said there was no evidence to suggest a link to the poisoning last week of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia. The Skripals remain in a critical condition, and the British government says Moscow is likely behind the poisoning.

MAPPING PUERTO RICO’S MIGRATION: More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans have left the U.S. commonwealth in the six months after Hurricane Maria and it is estimated that almost half a million could migrate to the mainland by 2019. CityLab reports more than 40 percent are estimated to have gone to Florida, another 40 percent to five other mainland states — Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey.

OH, THE PLACES THEY’LL GO (FOR FREE): How would you like a month this summer to ride everywhere from Lapland to Lisbon for absolutely nothing? Yes, there’s a catch. You have to be European. And 18. Why is the EU giving away a free month’s rail pass to up to 30,000 young people? To broaden young participants’ horizons and hopefully instill some sense of Europe’s connections, Feargus O’Sullivan reports.

trains in belgium
Trains waiting on the platform at the Central Station in Antwerp, Belgium  Photo: Virginia Mayo/AP

New on

  • A professor at the University of Melbourne was bewildered and confused at the lack of good podcasting resources. So she made her own. 
  • A team of 60 publishers, universities and civil society organizations is working together to tackle fake news going into this summer’s election in Mexico.

Want to get this briefing in your inbox every weekday morning? Subscribe here.