News and Blues: Minority Journalists in the South, Twenty-Five Years Later

News and Blues: Minority Journalists in the South, Twenty-Five Years Later

Reginald Stuart

Vol. 19, No. 2, 1997 pp. 5-9

Editors Note: Twenty-five years ago in July-August, 1972, Reginald Stuart wrote the “Survey of Southern Black Journalists,” for SRC’s South Today. It was our first look at the emergence in large numbers of blacks as full fledged partners in the newsrooms of historically white newspapers, television, and radio stations in the South.

He also wrote about the changing face of reporting on race issues in the region, with stories about the historic WLBT-TV licensing challenge case in Jackson, Mississippi, and how the media covered school desegregation in the South.

In this story, Stuart, who started as a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean and later worked for The New York Times and Knight-Ridder Newspapers, revisits these topics. Now based in Silver Spring, Maryland, he is a contributing editor to Emerge Magazine and a newspaper consultant.

When golfing sensation Tiger Woods donned his champion’s Green jacket this spring, symbolizing his victory at the prestigious Masters Golf tournament, thousands of writers like Joe Oglesby at The Miami Herald were hailing the trailblazer in newspaper columns and commentaries across the country. As an amateur golfer Oglesby had a real appreciation for the feat of a Masters victory and, in this instance, the added historical significance of a man of color winning the contest.

Like Woods, only with far less fanfare and considerably less compensation, Oglesby was quietly making history twenty-five years ago as one of a new crop of young black reporters being turned loose in historically white newsrooms across the South. Like Woods, he is making history today as one of a growing number of black editorial writers in Southern newsrooms.

“When I started, there were very few black folks doing what I was doing,” said Oglesby, who was a general assignment reporter for the St.Petersburg Times in the early 1970s. “I was very idealistic. I was literally answering the call of the Kerner Commission.”

The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, was a federal panel appointed by then President Lyndon Johnson to explore the root causes of civil disorders that swept the nation’s cities in the 1960s. In its final report, which will be thirty years old next year, the commission assigned much of the blame for the riots to the white-run news media’s insensitivity and failure to reflect the totality of black life in America.

The South’s news media began to change slowly, but in profound ways, spurred by the civil disorders, the Kerner report, the end of legal apartheid, and action by local citizens’ activists groups like the United Church of Christ and NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. It has never been the same.

Oglesby and scores more young blacks like him were hired by white editors and news directors seeking to step out of the past. Today, hundreds of black reporters are real players across the spectrum of the South’s news media.

“Colored” pages began to disappear as news about blacks was integrated into the mainstream of daily journalism. Today, the old reliable black crime story is put in context with news that gives a more total picture of black life and culture.

Black television news reporters and anchors began to appear, even in places like Jackson, Mississippi,

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and Montgomery, Alabama, centers of resistance to the social changes of the 1950’s and 1960’s. While those changes were largely cosmetic (there were few, if any, black assignment editors and news directors deciding what would and would not be covered), they sent a powerful signal just the same about the changing face of the South’s news media. Today, black anchors are commonplace and there are more blacks behind the camera influencing decisions about what is aired.

Quite a change for a region where much of the white-run media thrived for decades on race baiting, taunting its citizens–black and white–with lightning bolt phrases like “race mixing” and “forced busing.” A lot of white people didn’t like this new black presence that began emerging twenty-five years ago and are still uncomfortable with it now. A lot of black people were amused and confused by it then and remain so today, say Oglesby and others.

“I was dealing with people who carried a lifetime perception of black folks,” recalled Oglesby. “Back in those days, I was as much a curiosity among black folks as anything. People thought I was a police officer. I traveled around in a plain green car equipped with police radio monitors. And people were suspicious of what I was doing.”

Even today, black journalists working in mainstream newsrooms find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They are suspected by whites of being harsh on whites and easy on blacks. At the same time, many blacks see black journalists as “traitors to the cause.”

Pioneers and Pay-Off

Our generation of blacks was far from the first hired by so-called general interest daily media. Such honors go to people like Robert Churchwell, hired in 1950 by the ultra-conservative Nashville Banner and forced to work from his home during his first four years so his presence would not be disruptive to the newsroom. Churchwell, believed to be the first black hired as a general assignment reporter on a white-owned daily newspaper in the South, and the few blacks like him, were restricted in what they could do and how they had to act.

“When I started, I didn’t have a desk,” said Churchwell, who spent thirty-one years as a general assignment and education reporter for the Banner. “I had to work at home until 1954,” he said, describing the Banner as simply a “racist” paper in those clays. Today, Churchwell says, “it’s completely different. The newsroom here is filled with blacks.”

Oglesby and others of his generation were the first blacks hired in large numbers and given the same chances, freedoms, and responsibility as their white counterparts. For sure there were exceptions where editors only wanted blacks to cover more black news. For the most part, we were allowed to cover and question everything–city council meetings, sports, Ku Klux Klan rallies, courts, cops, NAACP meetings, schools, housing, welfare, health, prisons, travel, entertainment, business and finance–and have some assurance that we would hit page one and could actually run one of these newspapers someday. Then, our bosses and we were taking big risks. Today, hardly anyone notices.

In later years, more sweeping changes would occur as Gannett, a Rochester, New York-based chain of small and mid-size newspapers, began expanding its reach by buying key properties across the South. Gannett leaned toward the simplistic in its philosophy about news content and presentation, but also leaned moderate in its political bent. Thus newspapers that had been mouthpieces for the Old South, like the powerful Jackson, Mississippi, papers owned by the Hederman family and the Nashville Banner owned by the late Jimmy Stahlman, dramatically moderated their tone under the new, more progressive owners.

On the passionately written editorial pages, the hot button terms of “race mixing,” “outside agitators” and “forced busing,” and the relentless defense of “states’ rights” faded from the pages of these Gannett papers. As significant, Gannett would be quick to install a black

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person or two in high level decision-making positions, making its own statement about the ability of black people to read, write and fairly inform the Southern masses. In the 1980s, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, then owned by Gannett, appointed a black managing editor, one of the first for a major daily in the South. Such a move became a Gannett trademark.

“The basic motivating philosophy was the message Al Neuharth [the head of Gannett] established in Rochester–the leadership must reflect the readership,” said John Quinn, Neuharth’s long-time colleague who retired from Gannett as senior vice president and chief news executive. “It was a culture rather than any pontification of policy,” said Quinn.

Gannett’s move would significantly expand the isolated efforts made by a handful of progressive papers that had begun to hire minorities on their staffs in the late 1960s (Atlanta Constitution, Nashville Tennessean, St. Petersburg Times, Charlotte Observer, and the Anniston Star.)

The same changes would happen later at such staunchly conservative papers as the Tallahassee Democrat (for years referred to by blacks there as the Tallahassee Dixiecrat) and the Columbia State, which were acquired by Knight Newspapers (later Knight-Ridder, Inc.). Newhouse, which purchased the Mobile Press Register and New Orleans Times Picayune from entrenched local owners in the 1960s, would also start to defuse the Old South in those papers by the late 1980s.

Today, there are literally hundreds of black journalists across the South working for the so-called general interest news media (daily papers, radio, and television news operations). Most are still in the trenches, but some hold high ranking positions. Oglesby, who shared a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1980s as a member of The Miami Herald editorial board, is now associate editor of the paper. In Tallahassee, the newsroom of the Democrat is now run by a black woman, Lorraine Branham. At the Nashville Banner, once one of the most openly racist papers in the South, a black woman, Tonnya Kennedy, was recently appointed managing editor. The editorial job once held by liberal Ralph McGill at the Atlanta Constitution and Journal is now held by a black woman, Cynthia Tucker.

There are black general managers and owners of major market television stations in the region. At the national television network level, Turner Broadcasting of Atlanta, broke the glass ceiling with the appointment of a black man, Bernard Shaw, as principal anchor for the Cable News Network, the widely acclaimed worldwide cable news program. In a phrase, says veteran Atlanta journalist Alexis Scott Reeves, the media in the South”has become less recognizably Southern.”

Adds Little Rock native Cecil Hale, now a professor of communications at the City College of San Francisco:

“Have these changes made things more equitable, without a doubt. Have they made minorities feel better? Without a doubt. Have they made black papers feel unnecessary? Absolutely not. Have they made a change in the hearts and minds of the South? I’m not sure.”

Despite all the changes, the South’s media remains essentially conservative to moderate.

Hale, Oglesby, and others say the gains of the past quarter century are fragile and at risk of being lost.

Losing Ground Again

Just as the civil rights movement appears to have lost much of its momentum and muscle, the same is being said about efforts to continue changing the media in the

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South and elsewhere. The people and tools for change are disappearing.

The campaign to bring more minorities into daily paper newsrooms was never fully embraced by all editors and publishers. Tokenism is still a widespread problem, particularly at small and mid-sized papers. Indeed, the plateauing of affirmative action in newsrooms across the country has guaranteed that the ASNE (the American Society of Newspaper Editors), the leading trade group of editors of major daily papers, will not meet its year 2000 goal of having all member newsrooms reflect the nation’s racial mix.

They’ll get nowhere close to that ambitious goal, in part because of resistance among some member papers to aggressively recruiting and retaining racial minorities. Indeed, more than 40 percent of the nation’s daily newspapers have no people of color on their news staffs. Many of these papers are in the South. Meanwhile, that collective of progressive white editors who knew first hand the downsides of the Old South media has not seen its ranks replenished as it fades into the sunset.

The situation is more frightening in the television and radio fields. In the 1970s, citizens had some leverage with local stations by calling upon the Federal Communications Commission at license renewal time. Now, in the name of promoting competition and freeing business from overregulation by the government, the Commission, pushed by Congress and Republican and Democratic presidents, has all but abandoned most of the regulations used to expand and improve programming, job, and ownership opportunities for minorities.

Community ascertainment requirements that required stations to solicit public views about community needs and to offer programming to reflect those needs, has been abandoned. Nearly all requirements for news and public service programming about content rules have been abandoned. Station license renewal times have been stretched to as rarely as eight years from the historical three years, making it tougher to build a case for challenging a license at renewal time. Employment reporting requirements have been all but abandoned. The lid on station ownership has been lifted, making it harder for blacks and other minorities to purchase stations. Meanwhile, the federal government has dropped nearly all the programs it had–special tax treatments, spectrum set asides, etc.–to help blacks and other minorities purchase stations as prices are bid beyond their reach.

“There are very few local shows that address blacks at all,” said David Honig, executive director of the Washington-based Minority Media Telecommunications Council, a non-profit, non-partisan group that focuses on issues of minorities in the media. Even cable, which held out the promise of expanding ownership and programming opportunities for minorities has been very disappointing, Honig and others say. Honig’s group has taken the baton once carried by local activists in trying to preserve and enhance the gains of the past quarter century. But he and others say the landscape is discouraging.

Robert Johnson, chairman and chief executive officer of Black Entertainment Television, one of the few minority owned ventures to truly benefit from the introduction of cable television, and civil rights advocate, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., have been warning in a series of recent speeches across the country that federal policies aimed at fostering competition threaten to wipe out what little minority ownership of mass media properties there is.

“While there have been steps forward, there have been steps back,” said Dwight Ellis, director of minority affairs for the powerful National Association of Broadcasters, the trade association of local television stations. “We still have only two or three black publishers. The ownership picture in print hasn’t changed much and in broadcast it’s declining. Black and minority broadcasting is going through the same changes as the industry as a whole–consolidation. We’ve lost a lot of owners and I’m not optimistic that the traditional minority broadcast ownership is going to get any better.

Going Full Circle

If changes in the South’s “white” media have been profound, they have been earth-shaking for the ‘black’ media. After all, it was the void of fairness and voice in historically white-controlled papers that gave birth to the black press across the nation and particularly the South. For decades, black papers and their publishers and editors were the lone voice in communities for an end to Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and all forms of race discrimination.

The decision by the white press in the South to change robbed many black papers of some of their best reporters and editors (for example, former New York Times reporter and editor Paul Delaney got his start at the Atlanta Daily World, and Jack White, a top editor at Time magazine, got his start at the now defunct Richmond Afro-American) and gave blacks readers less of a reason to buy a black paper. Circulation of black newspapers nosedived.

“The changing face of the media in the South probably has been most detrimental to the black press,” said Alexis Scott Reeves, granddaughter of the founder of the Atlanta Daily World. “Readership demanded integrated coverage, so readership left the black press.”

Reeves, one of that new generation of young black journalists,launched her career in 1974, not with the Scott

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family papers, but with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. She worked her way through the ranks to become director of diversity at Cox Enterprises, which owns the Constitution, Palm Beach Post, Austin American-Statesman, and a host of television and radio stations.

Many black papers folded as the white media changed, Reeves said. Others were able to hang on for a while by having a more direct message and staying local, she said. In the 1970s and early 1980s they benefitted from the minority vendor purchasing programs of major companies that set aside funds for advertising in the black media. In the past decade, “the smart ones in the black press, all of them, are reinventing themselves as affirmative action has waned. Now, they’re cashing in on the second Reconstruction.”

Reeves is part of the rebuilding of the black press. This spring she quit Cox to help her family revive the Daily World, a twice-a-week publication with a circulation of about 16,000.

“To many of us, we can’t all be editors and publishers for the white folks,” said Reeves. “But we can go home with what we have learned and run the black press.”

Indeed, there is plenty the whole Southern press can do to better itself, despite the phenomenal changes of the past quarter century.

Historically white papers still fall far short of covering black and other minority communities in all their dimensions, Reeves, Hale and others say. Seasoned public thinkers who are black, like Andrew Young and Johnetta Coles, “have all this perspective but no where to share it because white folks still don’t get it, except for a quote here and there,” said Reeves.

Meanwhile, there is still a widespread perception, that covering news of blacks and other minorities is a necessary evil, rather than a necessary part of doing business. As a result, the agenda setting that news organizations provide for a community does not often enough reflect the best interest of the total community.

“This business has changed immensely and in profound ways,” said Oglesby. “At the same time it hasn’t changed at all. There are a hell of a lot more black folks doing a lot more things from top to bottom. Still, they are not in control of much and the black perspective we thought we were going to be able to bring has not been brought forth in a way we thought would make a difference.

“It’s like being in a ship traveling at twenty miles per hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” said Oglesby. “You know after several weeks you’ve traveled quite a distance, but it still looks and feels the same.”