An attempt by the White House to reach out to the nation's organization of African American columnists has resulted in anger and resentment on the part of those in the group who were ignored or, worse, disinvited. Some lost money when they made travel arrangements to Washington and then were forced to cancel.
The role of the White House in selecting the interviewers, and whether group representatives were complicit in granting the White House such a role, has been called into question.
President Obama met Friday in the Roosevelt Room with 10 members of the Trotter Group as part of his effort to shore up his African American base for the midterm elections next month.
The meeting was fraught with symbolism. The Trotter Group was named after activist Boston editor William Monroe Trotter, a militant figure of the early 20th century. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson explains on the Trotter Group site:
"On November 12, 1914, William Monroe Trotter, editor of the Guardian newspaper, went to the White House to confront President Woodrow Wilson. Trotter had supported Wilson's election, but lynching was flaring up, and segregation was more rigid than ever. Trotter asked Wilson where he stood.
"Wilson replied: 'Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit. … Your manner offends me.' A 45-minute argument ensued during which Trotter said: 'Two years ago, you were regarded as a second Abraham Lincoln. … Now we colored leaders [who supported Wilson] are denounced in the colored churches as traitors to our race.
"The argument made the front page of The New York Times."
On Oct. 8, Trotter Group co-founder DeWayne Wickham, a columnist for USA Today and Gannett News Service, told Trotter members that Obama wanted to meet with the group on Oct. 15.
The group has 40 members, and Wickham, who negotiated the meeting with the White House, told members later in the day, "The White House has just asked me to limit the number of Trotter members taking part in the meeting with President Obama to 16. So I sent to the White House the names of the first 16 Trotter members who responded."
The Journal-isms author, who is in Washington, was among those on the list of 16 and had planned to invite readers to suggest questions. Other columnists on the list made preparations for a trip. On Monday afternoon, however, Wickham messaged, "Unfortunately, the White House has asked us to reduce the number of Trotter members who will attend Friday's meeting with President Obama from 18 to 10 — and to limit it to the founders and newspaper columnists." There was no explanation of how the number had risen to 18.
Wickham and another co-founder, retired Newsday columnist and editor Les Payne, pared the list, Wickham said.
It was unclear how much the White House participated in vetoing or approving certain members. Kevin S. Lewis, who started as White House director of African American media only a week ago, did not respond Monday to questions from Journal-isms.
What was clear, however, was that not all members were involved in the decision and that those who were suddenly cut were disappointed, embarrassed and inconvenienced.
An e-mail from George E. Curry, a veteran journalist who opines for the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, which serves black newspapers, and for the Philadelphia Inquirer, indicated that the White House did play a role in shaping which members were invited.
In an electronic discussion among those who were not invited, Curry said:
"I am also deeply dismayed over how an announced selection process was abandoned in mid-stream, evidently because the names of certain people were not included on the list.
"When DeWayne initially announced that participation would be limited to 18 people and they were selected in the order in which they replied to the invite, I thought it would be unfortunate if all of us could not attend, but that was a fair way of deciding who should attend.
"However, fairness was quickly thrown out of the window when DeWayne said he and Les decided on a list of names that he sent to the White House before even letting us know of their decision. As one of the first to reply, I was pleased that I was on the first list. However, it was no fun learning that I had been deleted from the list because, according to DeWayne, he and Les wanted to make sure the founders were included in the group.
"Like Richard, I did not know there [were] two separate but unequal membership levels in the Trotter Group," Curry continued, referring to this columnist.
"DeWayne first told me I was being eliminated because the White House asked him to 'limit it to the founders and newspaper columnists.' I doubly qualify as a newspaper columnist: 1) As a regular columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and 2) As a columnist for the NNPA, a federation of more than 100 Black newspapers. When I questioned the decision, I received a different explanation: The White House 'expressed a lack of interest in having an NNPA person in our reconstituted group since the president is planning to meet soon with the NNPA and other units of the black press.' It stretches the imagination that a White House that is finally reaching out the Black community would specifically ask that the person whose column is syndicated to more Black newspapers than anyone else in the country should be specifically excluded from participation.
"Furthermore, I do not work for the NNPA and therefore will not be included in any meeting Obama has with the publishers. If in fact that were the case, I still would qualify by virtue of my writing a column for the Inquirer and being among the first to respond."
Others weighed in who agreed to put their e-mailed comments on the record:
Monroe Anderson, another veteran journalist who blogs from Chicago, said:
"I was surprised to discover that the meeting had taken place after the fact since I've known Michelle and Barack longer than any other member of the Trotter [Group] and I would think my long term perspective could have contributed to the meeting. . . . I've known Axelrod since he was an intern at the Tribune in the 70s and Valerie's first TV appearance was on my show, Common Ground, in the early 90s." Anderson referred to White House advisers David Alexrod and Valerie Jarrett, and to the first couple.
David Squires, a columnist at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., wrote:
"I and my editors were certainly disappointed in the process and the result, after gearing up for me to represent all of Tribune newspapers in the meeting. I am certainly a newspaper columnist. The final list included no Tribune rep but at least four from Gannett. It was also particularly disappointing to me because of my trying for several years to join this group and having been tripped up by not getting invited to the Washington meetings — the only way to join, as I was told. I was pleased to finally join the group prior to the Louisville meeting [this year]. I would hope that in future high-end meetings, more of us will get the opportunity to participate. . . . none of us want to be relegated to the second-rung wing of the Trotter Group. (I also had to eat the cost of my accommodations for Thursday night, which could not be canceled.)"
Robin Washington, editor of the Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune:
"I too would have represented my entire chain, as well as distribution through one of the many syndicates and news services that court me all the time. (Before the final cut, I emailed DeWayne offering similar assistance to any other Trotter.)
"And like at David's paper, we started discussing coverage, only with me it was with my publisher and vice president. Imagine the thrill of having to say 'never mind.' "
Cary Clack, columnist for the San Antonio Express-News:
"My newspaper thought the trip was important enough to send me and I didn't find out I wouldn't be going until after I made my travel arrangements. Frankly, it was embarrassing to have to tell them the trip was off. And as for the meeting being open only to founders and newspaper columnists well, my newspaper pays me to write three columns a week so that should put me in the latter group."
Issac Bailey, Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Sun News:
"I think we have to find a better way to handle these situations. One of the hardest things to do now is to get your editors to see the importance of speaking about national events in your column — even though most of our readers are conservative and boisterous about President Obama and national politics. They were readying to make room for this trip, though.
"I understand that in any such process that there will be difficult choices to be made, and that disappointment simply can not be avoided in such situations. I'm a grown up. All I'm saying is that moving forward, we need to figure out a process we can all agree upon so one day we don't tell our editors we are heading to the White House, then two days later have egg on our faces."
The Trotter Group decided at its 1992 inception that it would have no formal officers or bylaws — a mistake, according to Barbara A. Robinson, a retired columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "I remember when I tried to get the organization to function like any responsible organization, bylaws etc, and my ideas were opposed by the founders. The organization has grown tremendously since then," she said. "Without elected officers you will continue to have arbitrary decisions made by the founders who really didn't expect this organization to grow this large."
Wickham has functioned as the group's leader.
Asked a series of questions about who made what decision when, and how much the White House was involved, Wickham asked Journal-isms which members were dissatisfied.
Told that not all were speaking on the record, he replied:
"I'm not going to respond to complaints and charges from unnamed journalists.
"I don't see any point in engaging in a discussion about questions that are being raised by people whose own role in this matter cannot be examined."
The final list of 10 selected columnists included:
Wickham, USA Today; Payne, theRoot.com; Dwight Lewis, Nashville Tennessean; Tonyaa Weathersbee, Florida Times-Union; Rhonda Graham, Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal; Annette John-Hall, Philadelphia Inquirer; Askia Muhammad, the Washington Informer; Lynne Varner, Seattle Times; Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press and Joe Davidson, Washington Post.
- Monroe Anderson blog: White House blackout peeves some black columnists
- Mary C. Curtis, Politics Daily: Obama Aide Valerie Jarrett's Advice to Boss: 'Stay the Course and Know It Will Get Better'
- Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press: Obama: Dems can win if voters can tune out attacks
- Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press: We should judge Barack Obama as the president, not as the black president
- DeWayne Wickham blog: Obama rises above the racial swamp