Originally created 05/12/02

'Racist' complaint ignores issues



A couple of weeks ago, Mallory Millender addressed an issue at the very heart of what The Augusta Chronicle and all conscientious newspapers stand for: truth and fairness in our news reports. In a column on our editorial page, he implied we deliberately distorted the truth and lied to our readers about a news event.

Normally, The Chronicle lets everyone have their chance to say what they want about us or about any other topic. We don't respond to every criticism of how we do our jobs. Any newspaper doing a decent job of covering its community will come under a certain amount of criticism for either pointing out too many problems or not pointing out enough.

But Mr. Millender's words deserve some response to explain how we operate. Mr. Millender said that in the debate about whether to change Augusta's government structure, The Chronicle gave more prominent display to "white" concerns than to "black" concerns.

Calling this newspaper racist is a tired old complaint that's trotted out from time to time when people don't want to talk about real issues. If it weren't so serious, it would almost be funny because we don't frame issues in black and white terms. That approach only splits this community farther apart.

We don't write stories about what the black community thinks or what the white community thinks because in reality there are many black communities and many white communities. And they are full of concerned people who want to move us forward instead of constantly fighting the battles of the past.

I have spent the past 14 years meeting with people all over this area, explaining to them that The Augusta Chronicle is their newspaper. I have met with black ministers, gone to black churches, been to predominantly black schools and walked through black neighborhoods. The professional news people at The Chronicle have listened to what people have told us and we have made changes in response to suggestions.

Shortly after I started working here, a group of angry black ministers met with my boss because they thought our news staff portrayed black people in a poor light by printing a photo of a black man playing checkers. They feared it could be seen as a stereotype of a lazy person who sat around playing games instead of working. Those of us in the newsroom had never looked at the issue in that way, but we haven't run many pictures like that since then.

We have changed policies about using racial identifications in stories, about how we use photos with crime stories so we don't make it appear all criminals are black people, and about how we characterize issues. We recognize that very few issues separate along a black-white axis. Unfortunately, some people like to push the black vs. white mythology because they think it somehow elevates their personal status.

Mr. Millender's specific complaint is that on March 15, our story about a public forum on the proposed change in government was played on the first page of our Metro section. He says this was a predominantly white group.

Then on March 19, we had a story about a meeting called by the Concerned Ministers of Augusta, which had a mostly black audience. That story was played on page 5 of the Metro section.

Mr. Millender also says he was misquoted in that story. At the March 18 meeting, Mr. Millender listed several instances going back to the 1950s where reform was called for after black people won elections. Our reporter condensed six paragraphs of his speech into one sentence because we don't have unlimited space.

We often paraphrase what people say to try to give our readers the essence of what was said. I think most people who read what Mr. Millender says he said and what our reporter wrote would agree that our news story captured the essence of what he said.

Our stories do not exist in a vacuum. They compete against other news of the day. On March 15, the forum story was one of our better stories, so it got better play. Mr. Millender says we don't respect black thought, "whether it's the thinking of the black clergy, black commissioners or everyday folk." Well, the most prominent story on the Metro front March 15 was about JROTC drill teams, and the two photos with the story showed many proud, black women. I don't think that showed disrespect.

On March 19, the Metro front featured a story about the Legislature passing the budget, a story about a new aneurysm treatment being offered at Medical College of Georgia Hospital and the controversy over a Jefferson County developer building homes over an abandoned slave cemetery. We reported black concerns about losing the cemetery because we thought it was an important issue the community ought to know about.

In the Metro section, page 2 is our South Carolina page, page 3 has our packages of news briefs, page 4 is our obituary page. Page 5 was the next available news space. The March 19 story also was longer than the earlier story.

In addition, on March 12 we ran a story across the top of the Metro front that got better play than either of those other two stories. The headline said, "Black ministers oppose bills." It told our readers why the ministers oppose changing the government and prominently told where and when the ministers would hold their forum. Far from trying to stir up racial distrust, this story shows our attempt to present the arguments on both sides of this story.

Mr. Millender has strong feelings about how we characterize black leaders. But the news columns of The Chronicle do not characterize the people we write about. We deal in facts, not characterizations. We know there is not a black point of view nor a white point of view. On most issues there are multiple points of view, and it is our job to try to get as many of those points of view in our stories as possible.

I find it strange that we are called racist at a time when others accuse us of cutting some sort of deal with Sen. Charles Walker in which we will go easy on him. What we're supposed to get in return, I'm not sure. But The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently ran a long front-page story about the supposed sins of Mr. Walker. We did not write a story, so we are accused of letting him off the hook for some shady dealings, even though we have written other stories about his business dealings.

Our news coverage shouldn't play to the extremes who would love to tear this community apart to further their own political power plays. We write to the vast majority in the middle who don't see everything in black and white and who want to make this a great community where we can all go forward together.