Thursday, September 15, 2011

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Whitewashed News

Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Creative Loafing Atlanta "Whitewashed! Elliot Jaspin’s book is the last thing the AJC’s editors want you to read," by John F. Sugg (March 07, 2007): In 1912, something very bad happened in Forsyth County. But if you live in Atlanta -- and rely on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for information – you may have found out about it just seven weeks ago.

What occurred during the intervening 95 years has a lot to do with the South's collective amnesia over its racial sins. And, according to a new book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the AJC has contributed over the years to the memory loss.

The book – Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, written by Elliot Jaspin – argues that AJC editors eviscerated an earlier newspaper series he wrote on racial cleansing in 14 American counties, including Forsyth. He wrote the articles for Cox Newspapers, which owns the AJC.

Jaspin claims the series – penned after five years of research – was spiked locally because the articles would have embarrassed the AJC by reporting previous whitewashes by the newspaper of racial cleansing in Forsyth County.

Failing that, Jaspin says, the AJC prevailed upon the Cox brass to soften the mentions of the newspaper's accounts, or as he puts it, "bowdlerize" his groundbreaking reporting.

Although the AJC didn't run the series, "Leave or Die," other Cox papers did, as well as other non-Cox publications. That created the odd circumstance in which the chain's largest newspaper didn't run high-profile articles by its own Washington bureau, stories that highlighted events in the AJC's own backyard. The series was co-sponsored by the Washington bureau and by the Cox-owned American-Statesman in Austin, Texas. The print version ran 16 full pages.

AJC editors "are afraid of angering white people," Cox Washington Bureau Chief Andy Alexander is quoted as saying by Jaspin in his book, which will be released March 12 and expands on the series' reporting. Alexander, who is Jaspin's supervisor, in a statement last month to a journalism blog concedes he uttered the quote but attributes it to the "heat of the editing process."

Jaspin contends Cox Newspapers "jumped back as if it had brushed against a hot stove," when the AJC's "checkered coverage" of race was mentioned in the series. "The stories I had written were edited to obscure the Atlanta newspaper's lackadaisical coverage," he says in his book. "Editors ignored clear conflicts of interest while editing the racial cleansing series."

Cox and the AJC even planned an "anti-marketing" public relations strategy to keep knowledge of the series from Atlanta readers, according to the book. Jaspin writes that he was ordered to adhere to specific "talking points" in discussing his articles, including one that commanded: "Do not proactively mention ... the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's past coverage of racial expulsions."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

AJC Executive Editor Julia Wallace and Managing Editor/News Hank Klibanoff refused requests to respond to Jaspin's accusations. "I think we've said all we will on this topic," Wallace wrote in an e-mail. Cox and the AJC's only comment has been to a blog run by Washington Post columnist Richard Prince. Wallace and Washington Bureau Chief Alexander, in their statements to Prince, don't dispute factual allegations in Jaspin's book: that the series was killed in Atlanta, that versions published elsewhere toned down criticism of the AJC and that the newspaper company attempted to choke off knowledge of the series in Georgia.

"We read the series, questioning what new ground would be paved in this story," Wallace wrote. "As we went through the editing process, we had more fundamental questions about selective use of facts and interpretations. In the end, we didn't believe the series answered enough of the questions we raised." Wallace refused to give specific examples of her concerns.

Alexander, who originally backed his reporter's work, now portrays Jaspin as a disgruntled journalist who "didn't like the editing process."

Jaspin volleyed back to the Prince blog: "The uncontested facts are that the Cox editors openly discussed among themselves the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's shoddy reporting but would not print what they knew."

In Jaspin's book, that assertion is backed by other Cox editors. "Why are [we] pounding on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for being apologists who look at race relations in Forsyth County through rose colored glasses?" David Pasztor, who edited the series for the American-Statesman, is quoted as saying. "The reason we are doing that is because the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been apologists who look at the race relations in Forsyth County through rose colored glasses. It's just true."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A CONFIDENTIAL MEMO written by Klibanoff before the series was published, and which CL obtained, offers more direct criticism of Jaspin. Klibanoff is himself a highly regarded reporter on race matters, who last year co-authored a book, The Race Beat, that recounts the experiences of journalists covering the Civil Rights Movement. In the memo, he chastises Jaspin, often in personal terms.

"With the zeal of a new convert, [Jaspin is] just cranky that no one has summoned the same outrage today about what happened 65 years, 75 and 90 years prior to those stories running," Klibanoff writes in one passage of the seven-page memo. In another, he argues that "the series read like one man's serendipitous exposure to, and belated outrage at, a fascinating period of history that he felt remiss he had not known about."

The editor's principal specific concern in the memo was about land owned by blacks, and later acquired by whites. In the series, as well as the book, Jaspin reports at length how, after racial violence against blacks in 1912, various properties ended up with white owners. Often there was neither a clear legal title transfer nor a record of payment.

"Were blacks cheated?" Klibanoff mused. "I am not talking about whether any of us THINK they were cheated. Do we show or prove they were cheated?"

Jaspin retorts that Klibanoff missed the point. Whether blacks were "cheated" wasn't at issue; it's whether they were forced to leave Forsyth County. "If one accepts the premise that angry whites terrorized blacks into leaving, the idea that any land sale was somehow valid, even if it did occur, is farfetched," Jaspin states in his book. "But the only other alternative – the sales were valid because the blacks were not driven out – is equally implausible."

Klibanoff's concerns were hardly shared by Jaspin's editors at the Cox paper in Austin. In 1979, Jaspin received the Pulitzer, journalism's highest award, for a series that exposed how Jimmy Hoffa bankrupted one of the nation's leading producers of anthracite coal.

He is a pioneer in the use of "computer-assisted reporting" and his series and book are based on excruciating research of thousands of old records. Even if, as Klibanoff argues, a sale at gunpoint doesn't equate with being "cheated," Jaspin documents that many black properties ended up in white hands without a sale and without a legal transfer of title.

"If [Klibanoff] did acknowledge the wave of terror," Jaspin says in his book, "the entire intricate structure of doubts, questions, and imponderables he had so carefully constructed would have come crashing down."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Although the series made it into print in other Cox newspapers, Jaspin complains that essential elements were gutted at the behest of AJC and Cox executives. In one passage that originally said the AJC "incorrectly concluded that most blacks forced from the county were able to sell their land," a Cox editor deleted the word "incorrectly."

Jay Smith, the president of Cox Newspapers, decreed the term "racial cleansing" was too incendiary, and it was replaced with "racial expulsion" in the series, according to Jaspin. The reporter revives "cleansing" in the book.

Of course, readers in Atlanta – where the racial divide is a ubiquitous factor in almost all public policy – can't judge for themselves whether Jaspin's work is quality journalism, unless they happened to discover the series online.

"ONE NIGHT, A BLACK church would burn," Jaspin wrote in his newspaper series of what happened in 1912 in Forsyth County. "A day later, the home of an African American family would be dynamited. Vigilantes would appear on a doorstep demanding that a black family leave immediately, promising death if they did not."

Most took the hints and left. From a black population of about 1,900 in a county of about 12,000 people prior to the cleansing, only 30 blacks remained a few years later. From then until metro Atlanta started sprawling into Forsyth County, virtually no blacks lived there.

Today there are slightly more than 2,500 blacks in Forsyth – but the county's population has swollen to almost 140,000. Forsyth remains the most bleached-white county in Georgia.

Jaspin, in his reporting, focused on four counties, including Forsyth, with briefer accounts of 10 others. Complete with an interactive website on racial cleansing, the articles uncover an unpleasant chapter in American history.

They also generated intense readership and debate. As attested to by many scores of online comments in other newspapers about Jaspin's series, the articles were a powerful reader magnet.

"Chilling and fascinating," wrote one reader. "The horror of 'ethnic cleansing' right here in our own society within living memory." Another commented: "Amazing information! As a professor ... I want to take the series, both text and videos, to my classes in the fall."

The AJC, according to Jaspin, has failed to fully report Forsyth's history. A search of the newspaper's archives backs that up. In a 1977 article, for example, the newspaper allowed Forsyth to be characterized as a county whose "unusually white complexion is no longer a preoccupation – it is simply happenstance."

That explanation – happenstance – took a beating 10 years later, on Jan. 17, 1987, when 400 stone-throwing white supremacists, chanting, "Go home, nigger!" confronted a "brotherhood march" of a few dozen people led by activist Hosea Williams to protest racial intolerance in the then nearly all-white county. The state and the nation were appalled, and a week later an estimated 20,000 civil rights marchers returned to Forsyth, and were met by 1,000 Klansmen, Nazis and other assorted racists.

The AJC continued to promote the idea that Forsyth County's scary reputation was overblown. In an extensive, front-page article in 1987, the newspaper declared stories of the 1912 race terrorism were largely "legends" about "what seemed a defiant bastion of racial exclusion."

Only recently has the tune changed at the AJC. On Jan. 14 – in an article tucked away far inside the newspaper on page 11D – the daily newspaper flatly declared, "Virtually all blacks were driven out of Forsyth County," and "threats from whites forced blacks to flee the county."

What transpired during two decades to create the journalistic about-face? There certainly wasn't a sudden uncovering of deeply buried and long-concealed facts. The information has long been available. For example, in November 1986 – two months before the mob attack in Forsyth and the AJC's "legends" article – Creative Loafing reported in a cover story, "In the aftermath of what is referred to locally as 'The War' ... 1,000 blacks, a tenth of the population, were expelled."
Jaspin contended in an interview that the imminent arrival of his book in Atlanta prompted the AJC to finally get right with history. "That's amusing," Jaspin says. "They're now printing information they refused to acknowledge in print just last year. I guess I have had some impact. The AJC 's coverage of race is shoddy, and they know it. Even in that story, you don't see an admission that they'd got it wrong, so wrong, in the past."

The AJC's Julia Wallace, in her written statement to the Prince blog, retorts, "At the time we are accused of hiding Forsyth County's past, we were reporting on discriminatory lending practices against minorities and exposing a long-forgotten murder of two black couples 46 years earlier."

At least in the last example, Wallace is taking credit that belongs to civil rights activists, including state Rep. Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta, who have tenaciously fought for posthumous justice for the victims of a lynching at Moore's Ford Bridge 61 years ago in 1946.

Klibanoff wouldn't comment for this article either. Although he wrote the memo and sent a copy to his boss, Wallace, both editors requested that CL furnish copies of the memo to them. Klibanoff e-mailed CL about his own memo, "Would you mind sending it to me so I can refresh my memory?" To protect the identity of a source, CL sent the AJC editors transcripts of the memo. After that, Klibanoff failed to respond.

The degree of animosity between Jaspin and the AJC is evidenced by a telling slight. A sidebar to the Jan. 14 article promotes a documentary film, Banished, which covers the same ground as Jaspin's series. Jaspin's book receives no mention.

While Jaspin, 60, remains employed by Cox, he has been demoted from an editor to reporter. "They could fire me whenever they want," he says. "But they know how embarrassing for them that would be since I've done absolutely nothing wrong. All I've done is to write a truth about the AJC that it doesn't want to admit."

Atlanta Journal Constitution

THE IMPLICATIONS of the actions of Cox and the AJC go far beyond revelations of a nasty internal spat inside a towering institution, one that in the past has served as the South's conscience on race issues and at other times has thrown gas on the fire of black-white disputes.

The community, Jaspin argues, "has been deprived of critical information" by the deliberate silencing of his series. Horrendous events in Forsyth County were downplayed for decades. And, without an honest confrontation with the past, Jaspin points out, it's unlikely that Georgia and the South will ever move beyond racism and racial disharmony.

Moreover, the AJC, its website and the Cox-owned television and radio stations in Atlanta overwhelm in size the rest of the local media. When such a monolithic gatekeeper of information shades the news to buff its own image, it's quite likely facts will be buried.

In their refusal to address Jaspin's allegations that the AJC torpedoed his articles, the newspaper's editors inadvertently make the case that one of the most opaque institutions in America is the newsroom.

While demanding that governments, companies and even individuals reveal the most minute and embarrassing details about their affairs, newspapers defiantly and doggedly declare that scrutiny of their internal workings is off-limits to the public.

That's what makes Jaspin's book so special. Rarely, very rarely, do media consumers get a chance to pry open the newsroom lid and watch journalists squirm. Jaspin has done just that. The last chapter of Buried in the Bitter Waters is an exquisitely detailed chronicle of how the AJC tried to torpedo his work.

"It is a cautionary tale about the lingering shame that silences honest discussion of the full history of America's racial cleansings," Jaspin says. The actions of the AJC editors "are reprehensible. They abandoned the first rule of good journalism, to tell the full story."

It's understandable – if not commendable – how the newspaper responded to Jaspin's series and book. Cox officials threatened to attempt to stop publication of the book, Jaspin reports. And the reporter recounts that a Cox attorney tried to browbeat Jaspin's book publisher into not using any internal documents – such as the Klibanoff memo.

And a public relations campaign was launched. At a meeting in Atlanta, Cox officials struggled to devise a scheme, an "anti-marketing" campaign, that would keep Georgians ignorant of "Leave or Die."

According to Jaspin, his bureau chief mused at the meeting that, "If people in Atlanta learn about the series they will ask, 'Why didn't [the AJC] run anything here[?]'" Another Cox executive conceded it was a "sticky situation" for the company. (source: Creative Loafing Atlanta)

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