Orleans Times-Picayune Series on Racism
By Jack Nelson
In 1993 the New Orleans Times-Picayune published a trail-blazing series of articles on race relations that, among other things, documented the Times-Picayune's own racist past. No other newspaper had ever taken such a searing look at its own role in perpetuating segregation and white supremacy.
The project rocked New Orleans and sparked controversy not only in the community, but within the paper's editorial ranks. Work on the race relations series was emotionally wrenching for both white and black staffers, and it resulted in heated arguments and frayed or broken friendships. Some staffers described the many months they spent on the project as traumatic and all-consuming. And although most agreed they were proud of their role in the project, they were almost unanimous in saying they would not want to go through it again.
The case raises a swath of profound issues about the press. All journalists bring their own personal views and background to the news, and journalists traditionally try to apply those personal filters, not deny them, in pursuit of making the news more objective or accurate. But as this case points out, what does this kind of diversity in a newsroom mean? How can a paper institutionalize it? Students will also examine whether certain subjects are so complex that they are beyond the purview of journalists and must be left to historians? Ultimately, students will be faced with the decision of how to measure success in journalism.
Edwards, boosted by the newspaper's campaign, rolled on to a landslide victory. He defeated Duke 61 percent to 39 percent, and polled more votes than any gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana history. Later, analysts would say that without the newspaper's crusading explicitly in its news columns, including investigating Duke at every opportunity, the Klansman would have won.
Duke polled 680,070 votes, an impressive total that reflected deep racial polarization in the state. That convinced some black staffers, including city editor Keith Woods, that the newspaper needed to address the problem in a major way.
Two days after the election, Woods took the lead in proposing that the newspaper launch a project on race relations. Woods felt that the Times-Picayune had not given adequate coverage to racial problems and that an in-depth series on the subject might lead to greater understanding of the problems and ultimately to better race relations. The paper's 46-year-old editor, Jim Amoss, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, thought the idea had merit. Amoss, a native of New Orleans, had closely monitored David Duke's career as a Klansman and thought the proposal for a series on race was especially relevant in the aftermath of Duke's strong showing in the gubernatorial election. But, at the time, he and other white editors thought it would consume too much time and energy when the paper could be focusing on projects that could bear fruit more quickly.
Ashton Phelps Jr., the 47-year-old publisher, proposed a series on crime. It, too, was a hot issue in New Orleans at the time. Woods objected. He felt it would inevitably end up offending blacks and become a case of white people examining black pathology. He had no doubt that a series on crime invariably would carry the message that it was a black problem, that blacks were inherently more disposed to criminal activity, that they didn't seem capable of escaping the housing projects and a criminal environment. It might, he also thought, preclude a race relations series. Phelps' says that while he had suggested the newspaper look at ways of helping reduce crime, which was rampant in New Orleans, "the idea of a crime series never precluded or competed" with the race relations series.
In time, the suggestion of a crime series faded and tackling race relations remained a topic of discussion, gaining momentum the following year (1992) when racial rancor disrupted the traditionally all-white New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. The predominantly African-American city council passed an ordinance forcing Carnival Krewesóclubs that run the parades and other social eventsóto integrate. For the city's 55-percent African-American population it was a measure long overdue. Some wealthy white families who had opposed the ordinance decided, however, to stop parading rather than integrate.
Training for diversity
"One of the realizations I came to," he said, "was that growing up in the 1950s and 60s in New Orleans, I never heard a racially prejudiced remark from either of my parents."
For weeks Woods continued to press the idea of a race relations project on Amoss and two other white editorsóPeter Kovacs, the managing editor, and Kristin Gilger, assistant to the editor. Gilger served in various editing positions at the Times-Picayune from 1983 to 1994, when she became managing editor of the Salem, Oregon, Statesman-Journal. Since the series ran, she had become a senior editor of the Arizona Republic's metropolitan desk. All agreed a race series would make a worthy project, but they seemed unable to agree on how to proceed.
Should it be a single series run on consecutive days or a series that would run periodically? How many staffers should be assigned and who among them would be best qualified to work on the project? How much space would it require? And what specific topics should be covered? Was the subject so sensitive that it might provoke a race riot? The editors debated these questions and others repeatedly.
Not until March of 1992 did the four editors, meeting over lunch, finally agree to assemble a biracial team to discuss ways to carry out the project. After lunch, they sat in a car in the newspaper's parking lot and selected reporters, a photographer, a copy editor, and a graphic artist for the 18-member project staff.
Gilger was named project editor and, after calling the first staff meeting in the newspaper's conference room, she got an early taste of how difficult it would be to carry out the assignment.
"I started out," she said, "by saying we would do a project on race and asked 'What do you want to do?' The meeting quickly degenerated; there was so much hostility in the room. Black reporters immediately challenged the assumption that whites could do a project on race in the first place. 'Suspicious, hostile' are not too strong words to use. Oh, my God, we were so far apart we couldn't even talk about it! The distrust! I ended the meeting as quickly as I could."
Amoss recalls "a grudging feeling" at the meeting on the part of some white editors who didn't like the way the discussions were going. "In the end, it just fizzled, was a disaster," he said. "Blacks sensed that we were treating the whole thing as just another topic coming down the pike, not with the seriousness with which they thought it should be invested. They became silent, sullen. The project seemed to be stillborn."
Afterwards, Gilger and Woods went to Amoss and said they were concerned it wouldn't work. Woods, however, suggested it might work if Amoss could get Nelson Hewitt, an African-American diversity consultant, whom staffers of both races had come to trust during diversity sessions, to return for intensive diversity sessions with the project team.
Amoss, a big supporter of earlier diversity workshops, seized on Woods' idea and proposed it to Phelps. The publisher, whose staunch support for the project was essential, never blinked. "Go ahead," he told Amoss, and he authorized $30,000 for the sessions. Phelps, a lawyer, had been publisher since 1979 and on the business side of the paper since 1971 when his father, then the publisher, appointed him as his assistant.
For two days, Amoss recalls, he and the project staff were closeted with Hewitt, the facilitator, in a hotel room, where "he got us to talk about race relations and what our opinions were and helped us break down some barriers."
The sessions were wrenching, especially for white staffers, who recall either expressing or repressing guilt feelings. "White women admitted that if a black man was walking down the street in their direction, they might hold their purse and cross the street," said Paula Devlin, the copy desk chief. "Some wouldn't admit that in their hearts they felt the same way."
Like many of the staffers of both races, Devlin, who is white, said the diversity sessions and working on the race relations project "literally changed my life." She recalled the reaction when Stephen Casmier, an African-American reporter, said he would "pay a million dollars to have skin that was white."
"The mouths of all the whites in the room dropped," she said, "but the other blacks nodded their heads up and down. It made me ashamed of my skin. My life changed. My husband's life changed. Race is every thing in this country, I'm much more aware of it now."
Kevin Bell, then a young black reporter and seven years later a graduate student at New York University studying for a Ph.D. in comparative literature, recalls that "racist attitudes, some that were unconscious, emerged, and I don't think you would have had the race relations series without the diversity sessions."
Not all the diversity sessions went smoothly. After one exploded in arguments and bitter recriminations, Amoss called a meeting of the staff and explained why white employees had to change their attitudes toward black co-workers and why the newspaper had to do a better job of writing for all its readers, not just whites. The paper quoted Amoss as later saying: "To the extent that readers don't see themselves and don't see their lives, their friends, their children and their activities reflected in the paper, they feel shut out. And if people feel shut out, a newspaper is failing in its mission, and ultimately will fail altogether."
A front-burner issue
"Blacks had the courage to talk in a friendly and honest way and their brutal honesty commanded an honest response," he says. "Black folks face the race issue as a fact on the front-burner every day of their lives. And they brought that home to us."
The team building and discussions about what the project would cover and how it would be handled went on for four to five months. Would it cover only current race relations? And if it delved into the past, how far back would it go? As far back as the Jim Crow era when laws sanctioned segregation or even back to the era of slavery? Would it involve investigative reporting, digging into specific cases of discrimination? Amoss said a crucial rule came out of it, proposed by Woods: From then on, every article on race would have to be "reviewed by a pair of African-American eyes before publication." Some editors "didn't take kindly" to the rule, Amoss said. But the editor, described by his staff as soft-spoken, but with a tough streak, enforced the rule.
At a certain point in the discussion, some black staffers argued that in reporting on institutional racism, the project team would have to take a serious look at the Times-Picayune's racist past. Amoss's reaction, he recalls, was a gulp, followed by the words: "Of course."
A look inward
Amoss said, "The hardest decision was about reporting on the newspaper itself and to be as searingly honest and true to a history that could be seen in different ways, writing about an institution we were part of and could be proud of and had to be sure of accuracy in reporting on it."
Some staffers expected Phelps, the publisher, to reject the idea of reporting on the newspaper's racist past. Mark Lorando, the entertainment editor and a project team member, said, "People in the newsroom were stunned that Phelps gave it the green light." Keith Woods said, "The publisher must have lost consciousness when he learned we were planning to do that story."
Could the paper really report on itself fairly? Could it have done the series without doing the story about itself?
It remains a sensitive subject for Ashton Phelps Jr., especially because his father was publisher in the late 1960s when the Times-Picayune gave short shrift to the civil rights movement. He stresses that his father, who had been the newspaper's attorney until being named publisher in 1967, "didn't control the editorial policy until he became publisher." But the Times-Picayune, in its own article on institutional racism, faulted the newspaper for not providing any leadership on race until the 1970s when it "made its first halting changes."
Bill Minor, a white columnist who was the paper's correspondent in Jackson, Miss., for 30 years, was quoted in the Times-Picayune's story on the newspaper's record of covering race: "The Picayune had a great opportunity and we didn't take it. Civil rights was the biggest story of the day, and the Picayune didn't understand it." Minor pointed out that 10 New York Times reporters were present, but he was the sole Times-Picayune reporter on the scene when President John F. Kennedy sent in federal marshals to control riots that broke out in 1962 when James Meredith became the first black to enter the University of Mississippi at Oxford. Minor, widely acclaimed for his own coverage of civil rights, said he had begged for additional help to no avail. As a stringer Minor wrote some civil rights articles that made big splashes in Newsweek and the New York Times, but aroused little or no interest at his own paper.
Before the 1970s the Times-Picayune had only one black writer, who occasionally submitted stories about the black community. Recalls Joyce Davis, a black woman hired as a reporter in 1972 who became an editor at the Times-Picayune before leaving in 1990 to become a National Public Radio editor in New York said, "I got the sense I was just there to fill a space, and they were content just to ignore me."
The paper hired a few more black reporters in the early 1970s and was required to hire more black workers in several departments under a consent decree the newspaper signed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to satisfy a job discrimination suit brought against it.
Regardless of the paper's record on race during his father's reign, however, Ashton Phelps Jr. stood solidly behind the race relations project, including taking a hard look at the Times-Picayune. "The only sit-down meeting I had with him on the project was over the story on the paper," said Kristin Gilger, the project editor. "He never questioned whether we should do it; he understood we had to do it. He saw the story before it ran and he had comments about it. But he never tried to soft-pedal anything. We did make a few changes on questions of fact because he knew the paper's history."
Slavery was another subject that Keith Woods and James Casmier, a black reporter, argued should be covered in the series. Woods and Casmieródescribed by colleagues as the moral compasses of the project teamómet strong resistance from some white reporters and editors who insisted that slavery was history and did not fit the definition of news. They argued that slavery had been abolished more than a century ago and was not germane to today's relations between the races. Casmier countered that you could not understand race relations without examining it in historic context, including slavery, the Jim Crow era, and the civil rights movement.
Amoss eventually agreed. "We had been underestimating our readers," he now says. "They were interested in the historic context."
The series runs
Criticsónot all of them rednecks by any meansóaccused the paper of peddling guilt, of opening old wounds, and of stirring racial animosity that could touch off a race riot. The Times-Picayune was accused of exploiting the race issue in hopes of winning a Pulitzer Prize. Many hate messages poured into the paper by telephone and mail. A couple of them read as follows:
"Race relations is not the subject; white racism, or perceived racism, is the subject.... You should be ashamed of publishing the series. You are furthering the cause of the extremists under the guise of public service." (David H. Lucien, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Letters to the Editor, May 16, 1993.)Undaunted, Phelps published a reprint of the articles and the readers' responses. And in an accompanying letter he and Amoss told readers the series had been published "in the hope of bringing people together by talking unflinchingly about a subject that has us tongue-tiedórace."
"We believe that racial discord remains the gravest threat to the future of our community and nation and that honest dialogue is a remedy to fear, mistrust and rage," Phelps and Amos wrote. "'Together/Apart' is the most difficult story the Times-Picayune has ever undertaken to tell. Our readers helped us, responding to our invitation to speak up on race relations. Their 6,500 recorded telephone calls yielded more than 1,000 published comments that appeared in 58 full newspaper pages while the series ran. It is in their voices, presented here with our stories, that we hear proof of the distance to be traveled to bridge the racial divide. The going is painful. But we offer the following pages for those who are willing to begin the journey."
A painful self-critique
Adams's article cited the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission) of 25 years earlier, which concluded the news media "have failed to analyze and report adequately on racial problems in the United States and, as a related matter, to meet the Negro's legitimate expectations of journalism."
"By and large," the report said, "news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the source of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a white man's world."
The Kerner Commission, formed by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate causes of the 1960s civil disorders and racial unrest that rocked American cities, went on to observe, "It would be a contribution of inestimable importance to race relations simply to treat ordinary news about Negroes as news of other groups is now treatedóin all parts of the paper, from the news, society and club pages to the comic strips."
Adams wrote that complaints were still being lodged against the Times-Picayune for not covering African Americans in all parts of the paper. While blacks were covered rather fully in the news and feature sections, other sections still were disproportionately white. A study of a month of society pages, for example, showed 96 percent of the photos were of whites and 85 percent of brides and grooms listed were white.
Phelps was quoted as saying that 66 percent of black adults in the New Orleans area read the newspaper, one percentage point less than the figure for all adults and higher than in other newspaper markets. "I don't know a newspaper in the country that can't improve," he said, "but it would appear our team is doing some things right."
The Times-Picayune, 156 years old when the series ran, had a long history of hostility, intolerance and insensitivity when it came to race, Adams wrote, and the paper gave readers "an image of black people as intellectually and morally inferior, relegated to a lower social caste than white people and often little more than lazy or criminal."
During the 1800s, the newspaper's predecessor, the daily Picayune, habitually demeaned black people as "besotted barbarians full of natural dullness and cowardice." Slave owners were portrayed as providing protection, kindness and comfort to "inferior Negroes" most of whom were "content with their situation in life."
An eye-opener on slavery
The Times-Picayune published explicit art of the slave trade: an 1850 etching of a slave auction in the rotunda of the former St. Louis Hotel in New Orleans; a photo of a slave showing huge scars from floggings, and an etching of a young black with his neck gripped by a slave collar, described as "an iron band with bells," which made it "painful and difficult for captives to move and enabled owners to track them." The article noted the irony of Louisiana plantations thriving on slave labor while New Orleans was fostering the largest community of free people in the United States.
The newspaper gave a modern twist to the slavery issue by contrasting the views of a woman whose ancestor owned slaves with the views of a man whose ancestor was one of those slaves. Mary Flower Pugh Russell, whose ancestor owned the Madewood sugar cane plantation, which 250 slaves worked to maintain, said the slaves were treated with kindness and provided adequate food and shelter. But Lionel Tap Sr. related by marriage to Louisa Martin, who was enslaved at Madewood, said that before Martin died she told him of whippings and beatings by cruel overseers and owners, and of a life stunted by chains and hard labor.
The Jim Crow era, spanning more than 70 years after the Civil War, was described by the Times-Picayune as "a long nightmare for African-Americans in the South and, for white people, at least a partial revival of their slavery-era dominance. The period was marked by lynchings, denial of voting rights and laws segregating everything from water fountains to prostitutes."
"Sales clerks, real estate agents, landlords, waiters and other service industry employees," it added, "often ignore, suspect or charge higher prices to African-Americans in an updated form of discrimination that is often subtle yet pervasive."
The paper reported on a pattern of discrimination in house rentals and car sales by sending both black and white reporters out to test the market. But editors chose not to identify the landlords or car dealers who were guilty of discrimination. They explained they thought it would be unfair to single out individuals who discriminated since it was believed to be a widespread practice even though the Times-Picayune did not do a comprehensive survey or investigation of the matter. The failure to name names led some staffers to complain the reports were not tough enough.
The paper also noted that 39 years after the Supreme Court's desegregation ruling in Brown v Board of Education, New Orleans' schools were "integrated in name only." A chart showing the most segregated major U. S. school districtsówhen at least 9 of 10 students are of a single raceólisted New Orleans third with an 88 rating. Washington was first with 96 and Atlanta second with 92.
The series included several stories about racial progress, including interracial communication and cooperation and efforts by some groups to improve racial relations. But black staffers generally were cool to such stories, feeling they tended to put a happy face on an ugly problem, and those kind of stories amounted to only a small portion of the series.
The largely negative reader response shocked Kristin Gilger, the project leader. She read transcripts of all 6,500 "Speak Up" calls recorded by the paper and "felt every day I was being showered with hate, not just transcripts, but letters, tons of letters."
"The level of hatred astonished me," she said. "My father's Archie Bunker; it's not like I wasn't exposed to racism before. Ninety percent of the hatred came from whites. So little of it came from the blacks."
The reaction of the staff was divided, too. Gilger devoted most of her time to reviewing and editing "Speak Up" even though she had been designated editor of the overall project. It was just as well. The publisher, editor, and managing editor were all involved in the series, and the project staff was loosely structured, with other editors, as well as some reporters, taking part in the editing process. Several different people would make small editing decisions on a single article. The group dynamic was "slow and difficult," Gilger said. "You had to reach a consensus on everything and you would get tired of it."
Several other staffers complained that the editing process was cumbersome and frustrating. Coleman Warner, a white reporter from Meridian, Miss., said, "Too many people had a say about the tone of the stories, and many changes were made in the stories along the way."
Warner, who wrote the story about contrasting views concerning the treatment of slaves, had what he described as a "heated argument" with Keith Woods about the way his story quoted Mary Flower Pugh Russell, the white woman, in describing her view about slavery. In editing the story, Woods wanted to suggest that the woman's view that owners protected and took good care of slaves could not be true. Warner, who had located the woman and persuaded her to cooperate, thought she was entitled to her unvarnished view and sarcastically suggested the city editor just call her a "liar" if he didn't think she believed what she said. Warner said Woods eventually edited the story to his satisfaction, but that he found that incident and other parts of the editing process "physically and mentally exhausting."
Woods agrees his editing, which juxtaposed slave descendent Lionel Tap's views of harsh treatment with Russell's views, was "a good outcome" to end the dispute with Warner. But Wood says he felt strongly reporters should "make sure we didn't just allow people to make categorical statements that were immoral and wrong without in some way indicating were we stood on those issues."
At times when the project staff divided pretty much along racial lines, Peter Kovacs, the managing editor, "tried to keep feet in both camps" to keep from being frozen out by either faction. He worried about hard feelings and philosophical differences among the staffers concerning how much hopefulness the series should reflect. And the differences didn't cut entirely along racial lines; mostly it was whites who thought the series should have been more hopeful or optimistic than it was.
Community's conscience raised
African-Americans are covered more thoroughly throughout much of the paper now. Stories and photographs of African-Americans in all walks of lifeónot just the stereotypical roles assigned to them of athletes, entertainers, or criminal suspectsónow appear throughout the paper. Black business and professional leaders are often quoted and pictured in the paper. While many papers abolished their society papers, Jim Amoss points out the Times-Picayune opted for diversification because it brought higher circulation penetration of the black community.
Also the perspectives of African-American editors or reporters are sought before publishing stories when race is an issue. After the series was published the Times-Picayune discontinued its policy of publishing photographs of handcuffed prisoners who were regularly paraded in front of news cameras by New Orleans police. A great majority of the prisoners were black; white prisoners usually had lawyers to protect them from such staged photographs.
African-American editors also began to have more influence on how the Times-Picayune played some stories involving blacks. James O'Byrne cites two cases in which stories that had been scheduled to appear inside the paper were instead placed on page one after Terry Baquet, the assistant Sunday editor, argued they involved news that was important, especially to the black community. One case involved an obituary of Avery Alexander, a militant black civil rights leader, and the other was about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging a white auto dealer with abusing black employees. In both cases, O'Byrne said, the articles would have remained inside the paper where white editors had consigned them had Baquet not argued about their importance to black readers.
Editors also now enforce a rule in the Times-Picayune stylebook providing that people be identified by race or ethnic origin only when such identification is relevant to the story. And when such identifications are used stories must offer explicit reasons why identifying race or ethnic origin is important.
Coleman Warner and his wife both "wanted it over with."
"I wasn't ashamed of the series or my part in it," he said, "but I wanted to put a stake through it. I was proud of most of it and what Amoss and Phelps were willing to attempt in this arena. Execution of it was the problem."
The series caused about 1,000 angry readers to cancel their subscriptions, according to Amoss. Phelps confirms some subscriptions were cancelled, but downplays the number and significance of any cancellations and says the series resulted in no loss of advertising.
In the long term, the series had relatively little impact on the circulation, but Amos and Phelps both stress that the newspaper's circulation penetration in the mostly black community is almost as great as in the mostly white community.
Phelps also tended to downplay threats of one kind or another that some angry critics telephoned to the paper. "Jim Amoss and I were committed to 'Together Apart'," he said, "and those who knew us may have known that threats would not produce any desired results. Also, the 'Speak Up' reader feedback feature may have channeled to that source calls that would have normally gone to the editor or publisher. I do not remember any significant threats in spite of the controversial nature of the series."
The Times-Picayune's series was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, but the prize was awarded to the Akron Beacon-Journal, for another series on race relations that was shorter and more analytical. Although The Times Picayune did win a Pulitzer Prize for public service in 1997 for a series on the Gulf of Mexico's pollution problems, Phelps still sees the race relations series as "the most significant work we've ever done."
Phelps also thinks "the most amazing thing" about it was the reader feedback. "Not to take anything away from the fine reporting," he said, "but in 29 years I had never before seen readers read back-to-back pages and respond that way."
Jack Nelson is former national bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
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