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PIONEER JOURNALISTS: Courage to Stand for Justice in Society

Spring/Summer 2000 Community College Journalist

Journalists anchor themselves in the present. Broadcast journalists use the present tense in their stories whenever possible, and the most often word in the lead of print journalist's is today. Nothing, the journalist knows, is as stale and as uninteresting as yesterday and the day before.

True, in their training journalists do look back. A course in the history of journalism is usually required of journalism students. But once the textbook is read, the papers written and the quizzes passed, the subject is pushed off into the dim recesses.

A few figures may be recalled now and then, Bennett, Day, Zenger, but for the most part these seem shadows flitting across a dimly-lit stage.

Without denying the importance of these major contributors to journalism, I would like to suggest some more recent men and women as worthy of study.

Today's journalists might learn something about the value of journalism to society by looking back at the work of these writers whose courage, persistence in the face of opposition and devotion to the public interest are only footnotes, if that, in the traditional journalism history course.

Let me begin with the work of three women who used the written word to speak out against injustice, intolerance and the misuse of power.

Each was attacked for daring to challenge the status quo, and each refused to be silent.

Ida B. Wells

As a young teacher in Tennessee 's segregated schools in the last decades of the 19th Century, Wells was outraged by the inferior educational facilities for black children. She was also angered by the segregated transit system.

Wells decided to make journalism out of her indignation and in 1891 her articles in the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight so infuriated school officials that they fired her.

Wells then turned full-time to journalism and widened her examination of the city and states discriminatory laws and customs. She relentlessly attacked racial and sexual discrimination.

Within a year, she was so deeply involved in an exposure of a lynching that a Memphis mob threatened her life.

Lynch law prevailed in some areas of the South, and in Memphis three young black businessmen had been taken from their jail cells and lynched.

The three had been arrested when they returned the fire of a white crowd intent on driving them out of the story they had dared to open in a white business area.

After the Iynching, Wells urged blacks to leave thc city in protest, for, she wrote, Memphis would never grant them equality. Those who remained, she wrote, should boycott thc local transit system.

Few left, but most followed her advice about the boycott. Local businesses were paralyzed, and a Memphis newspaper recommended that she be tied to a stake and branded with an iron.

Worse was to come: An angry mob converged on her newspaper, looking for her.

She was gone, and they turned their fury on the newspaper and wrecked it.

Sensing trouble Wells had left for work at the New York Age. There, she wrote about lynching and other racial violence, her writing based on high-risk reporting in Missouri, Arkansas and other states.

Her work was not welcome among whites, and even the austere New York Times was irritated by her reporting.

The Times described Wells as slanderous and nasty-minded mulatress.

In her work, Wells went beyond reporting the event. She understood the necessity of the journalist to seek causes and to describe possible consequences. She was influenced, she said, by the Memphis lynching of the three black businessman.

This is what opened my mind to what lynching really was, she wrote.

An excuse to get rid of Negroes who were acquiring wealth and property and thus keep the race terrorized and keep the nigger down.

Wells' daughter, Alfreda M. Duster, who edited her mother's autobiography, said of Wells that she fought a lonely and almost single-handed fight with the single mindedness of a crusader, long before men and women of any race entered the arena; and that the measure of success she achieved goes far beyond the credit she has been given the history of the country.

Sixty years after her death in 1931, a U.S. postage stamp was issued in her memory.

Hazel Brannon Smith

Wells had a worthy successor in the journalism of a newspaper editor, Hazel Brannon Smith, who owned weekly newspapers in the Mississippi Delta country. In the face of community pressure, Smith printed what she found to be unprovoked violence against black citizens. In 1946, authorities took her to court after she printed her interview with the widow of a black man who was whipped to death. She was charged with contempt of court for casting doubt on the official version of his death.

In 1954, she wrote an editorial accusing the sheriff who had shot a young black man in the back of violating every concept of justice, decency and right. The sheriff sued for libel and a local court awarded him $10,000 a finding the state supreme court later overruled.

As the country turned toward racial justice, areas like the one in which Smith's papers circulated engaged in massive resistance to the end of school segregation, resistance to voting rights for blacks, resistance to economic possibilities. Smith stood steadfast, however.

Pressured to join the white Citizens Council, whose purpose was to maintain segregation, she declined, and stood alone.

It finally got to the point where bank presidents and leading physicians were afraid to speak their honest opinions because of the monster among us, l she said. I dissented by presuming to say that the truth had to be printed. The cost was staggering.

Her newspapers were boycotted, bombed and burned. A new newspaper was established in Lexington to put her out of business, and her husband lost his job as the county hospital administrator. The pressure to silence her was relentless.

One of her two newspapers went under, and to keep the remaining one alive she mortgaged her home to pay the bills. Finally, in 1985, she gave up her newspaper and the bank took her home. Soon there after, she died, penniless.

Rachel Carson

The letter was disturbing. A friend wrote Rachel Carson that large numbers of birds and insects had died in a field that had been sprayed with an insecticide. Carson, a natural science writer, thought that the matter bore investigation, and she tried to interest writers in the subject.

But her efforts went nowhere. No one responded. She knew the spraying, then common practice, must have affected wildlife, but careful investigation was necessary. Yet no one cared. There would be no peace for me if I kept silent, she said, and she wrote The New Yorker magazine to see whether it was interested. Yes indeed, the editor replied, and her articles began to appear.

The reaction was quick: The pesticide industry condemned her research, and others called her an alarmist. But she persevered, and her articles then appeared in book form. The book, Silent Spring, became a best seller and is considered one of the most influential books of the last half of the 20th Century.

Carson's journalism led to the banning of the insecticide DDT and the monitoring of herbicides and insecticides and a resurgence of wildlife.

Mentors, Role Models, Heroes

Talk to a journalist and chances are he or she will eventually get around to a journalistic genealogy, the reporters or editors whose work or advice indelibly engraved their careers. And if we dig into the histories of these mentors and role models we find that they, too, fashioned their journalism on some predecessor.

We know that many journalism students look at television hosts and newscasters and dream of becoming another Tom Brokaw or an Oprah Winfrey. But these are showtime personalities, their work designed to please a mass audience.

Contrast the TV newsperson with Woodward and Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters who exposed Watergate and whose reporting led to the downfall of a president. For several years after their work was published, many journalism students saw themselves as investigative reporters doing Woodward and Bernstein journalism.

These two young reporters did not spring from virgin soil. Their work was made possible by their editor, Benjamin Bradlee, and he, in turn, was mentored by another editor, Ralph Blagden, an unsung hero to a cadre of reporters.

Bradlee said he began really learning to write and report at The New Hampshire Sunday News in Manchester under managing editor Ralph Bladgen my first and most influential teacher. He made me rewrite my first big story (on veterans housing) 16 times.

Bradlee says, Bladgen taught me to be dissatisfied with answers and to be exhaustive in questions. He taught me to stand up against powers that be. He taught me to spot bullies and resist them. He taught me about patience and round-the-clock work.

He taught me about ideas and freedom and rights all of this with his own mixture of wit and sarcasm and articulate grace. He could also throw a stone farther than I could, which annoys me to this day.

Bladgen was my mentor and role model as well. As a young reporter, I dutifully reported what sources told me they were doing.

Then one day I read a story Bladgen had written about the state purchasing agent awarding contracts without bids to political insiders. My story simply listed the supposedly successful bidders.

I apprenticed myself to Bladgen and together we worked on a story about the state hospital where several patients had died mysteriously.

We walked through that hospital's corridors, saw first-hand the problems. We interviewed doctors, nurses, attendants, former patients. I learned that direct observation is essential, and when

we wrote the story I learned the power of the simple declarative sentence.

* * * * *


Melvin Mencher is a professor emeritus, Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism, New York and the author of journalism textbooks Basic Media Writing and News Reporting and Writing.



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