Some editors suspected that we were closet “militants”; we thought they were too willing to believe authority’s side of the story. When we filed reports that challenged their preconceptions or comfort level, we were quizzed, harangued and edited out of the truth. Or our stories were simply killed.
Our late-night sessions on the black circuit often focused on how you got those controversial stories past “the desk,” the bastion of conformity that served as a firewall against the inflammatory stories of rage and deep dissatisfaction that we brought back. The advice from our elders was priceless: Find someone conservative to say it; use statistics to make your point; use a soft lead — and then hit ’em with the facts.
Then there were the stories that proved our point, like the killing of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. The media swallowed whole the Chicago Police Department’s version of a shootout — until a reporter noted that the so-called bullet holes the police had pointed to as proof the Panthers had fired first turned out to be nail heads.
The FBI was no friend of black journalists, either. When Caldwell began covering the Panthers for the New York Times, the FBI subpoenaed his notes. When the Times waffled about defending him, we organized the group Black Perspectives to support Caldwell and to make the case that a loss of confidentiality would destroy our ability to do our jobs.
The Spoils of Success
I had joined the Washington Post by the time we organized NABJ. In the climate of the times, we envisioned the organization as a powerful advocate for black journalists. NABJ would protect and defend our interests; it would critique coverage of our communities by the major news organizations and would press news organizations to hire more African Americans.
But journalism went from being a calling that involved confronting the status quo to being a career. Media companies declared their fealty to diversity. The NABJ Convention became a vast job fair where dozens of lovely little anchorettes — all cast, seemingly, from the same mold, with light skin, straightened hair, business suit and heels — lined up patiently to show their videos to NBC, ABC and CNN. The media companies became big sponsors of our events — and not surprisingly, that made it difficult for NABJ to criticize their coverage. Most of NABJ’s energies focused on the convention rather than on the issues we faced.