No N_____ News on the Front Page
If you’ve made it past the headline of the article, thank you, and I promise there is a point to it.
In the summer of 2015, I mourned with most of this country when I read the news that nine people had been shot dead during a bible study at a historically African American church in South Carolina. Amidst all of the follow up reporting though, there was for me a moment of complete release when a topic I had grappled with for decades, emerged from a story written by a reporter in the south. For years, I had been using search engines to try and find information about race riots in New Madrid and Sikeston, MO, around 1969. I lived there during that time as a child, and retained fearful memories of a time when I was too young to really understand what was unfolding around me. All I knew for certain was that our schools closed due to riots, I lost friendships with young girls of color, and I had memories of overheard conversations between my parents about situations where people were hurt, and one story in particular where my father watched as a man was killed. Those were big memories. As an adult, the experience had largely remained unresolved in my mind. I have periodically searched online for information about what happened during that time, and found that strangely, very little was to be gleaned. Even as search engines have improved, and more historical information has been posted online, I found very little. On some level, I wondered if my six year old self had imagined it.
Then in 2015, the news out of South Carolina woke up that unanswered question, and I once again typed the same strings into search engines, but this time there was a hit. A reporter named Dan Whittle had written a piece for the Cannon Courier entitled, “Will Victim’s Death Help End Violence?” The article was a reflection on racism in America, and how he built awareness of his own bigotry as he reflected back on his experience living in the boot heel of Missouri. He discussed an editorial policy commonly referred to as “No N______ News on the Front Page.” I distinctly remembered that phrase. The brutality of it had stuck in the brain of my six year old self for nearly five decades. I recalled my father telling me about it, and how he explained that the local papers didn’t want to encourage any more violence by publicizing what was going on, and they didn’t want national attention brought to the area. Even as a child, I remember that explanation had landed flat.
Years later, Mr. Whittle finally offered an explanation that made sense: bigotry, racism, fear. He wrote, “In 1969, it was understandable when black citizens of Sikeston threatened to torch the newspaper building, when editors, due to firm instruction from the publisher, ran Martin Luther King’s assassination as a news brief buried on an inside page of the newspaper.” Mr. Whittle also went on to explain how the policy helped him to understand and end his own personal bigotry, with regret that it took so long to change his racist views. I am so grateful to him for speaking to that experience.
Then came the 2016 election, and once again the way in which news is distributed was pushed to the forefront of my attention. It dawned on me that policy of the 1969 Missouri boot heel as still firmly in place, it’s form had simply morphed. Clearly, some relevant stories came through, but I watched as the Southern Poverty Law Center tried to gain momentum for their reporting of hate crimes tied to Trump’s rhetoric with little public outcry. Kurt Eichenwald, an incredibly talented journalist at Newsweek, worked tirelessly to keep us informed about who Trump really was, with information that should have been picked up and widely run as front page news, but that didn’t happen. Mother Jones published a heartbreaking piece of investigative journalism on our prison system, and the inherent racial biases that are destroying black families. A population that wants the truth would have demanded more focus on all of those stories, and instead Trump was given airtime and publishing space to tell lie after lie, largely unchallenged. In an attempt to appear balanced, news organizations normalized a candidate that was not normal. Instead of discussing the policies put forth by arguably the strongest presidential candidate we’ve ever had, they insisted on rehashing Clinton’s emails as though there was something worth the intense level of scrutiny (there wasn’t).
To be sure, there were newspapers who tried. 500 established newspapers and periodicals, both national and international, endorsed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, including controversial decisions by several editorial boards who had never before endorsed a Democratic candidate. 26 endorsed Trump, mostly small town local papers and notably, the publication of the KKK. Trump supporters ignored the Clinton endorsements, which were thoughtfully reviewed and expressed, but didn’t fit their narratives, and instead turned to click bait sites that were inaccurate, and intentionally fraudulent in their portrayal of both candidates. Those false stories were then shared, and re-shared, on social media in some cases millions of times, until a large part of America no longer knew what to believe. Somewhere along the way, readers themselves had chosen to edit out the unpleasant reality of our American life, and replaced actual reporting with an avalanche of racist, sexist lies. We all watched it, and we all saw the posts asking one another to please check your sources before re-posting. Some of us tried to adjust, and some of us didn’t care, but the fact remains that a large percentage of people now get their news from Facebook, both from the posts of their friends, and often from news sites designed to pander to already established beliefs, without any particular regard for facts. The cynic in me wants to ask, “When did we become so stupid?”, but the realist in me knows the answer was already there in the policies of 1969 southern news reporting, and long before.
It’s been a week now since the election results were announced, and I have repeatedly heard the pleas to “Give Trump a Chance.” Friends have posted on my Facebook page, telling me that I am being divisive by continuing to share stories of attacks on people of color, of women, of immigrants, of Muslims, of the LBGTQ community. I’m admonished for my lack of willingness to express a gracious loss in the election. With every post of that ilk, the same memory pops in my head, “No N_____ News on the Front Page,” because what Trump supporters are really doing is trying to claim their white privilege without the uncomfortable interference of the truth.
I acknowledge Trump and Pence won this election, and that a peaceful transition of power is a core principle of our democracy, but I also see clearly how racist, sexist white votes put them in power, and they did that while conveniently ignoring the struggles of fellow citizens that they don’t relate to. And so, I will continue to share articles from legitimate news sources, and to post on social media about civil rights, right alongside the pet photos and jokes, because my life is a combination of all those things, and because the stories of our fellow citizens suffering from racism, misogyny and bigotry are not to be relegated to tiny briefs buried in the interior pages of newspapers, even those online. These stories deserve to be placed front and center, and we all have to face up to the truth about what is happening in our country.