Reflections From 3 of Color Who Knew Him
Jimmy Breslin, who died Sunday at 88, was described by the Associated Press as “the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of wise guys and underdogs who became the brash embodiment of the old-time, street smart New Yorker.”
Others hailed his shoe-leather reporting from what seems like another era, and some used the adjective “white” before “working class” when identifying the people he championed.
But not everyone. Dan Barry wrote Sunday in the New York Times, “If there is one hero in the Breslin canon, it is the single black mother, far removed from power, trying to make it through the week. . . .”
Few gave much attention to a 1990 incident that bore on newsroom diversity. Columnist Stephen Chapman wrote then for the Chicago Tribune, “Breslin, who is on the staff of New York Newsday, was infuriated by a note from a female, Korean-American colleague criticizing a column he had written. He promptly scurried into the newsroom and threw a tantrum, calling the offending woman a ‘yellow cur’ and a ‘slant-eyed ——.’
“Perhaps sensing the gravity of his mistake, Breslin soon apologized to his co-workers and to the unfortunate woman. But then he went on the radio and joked about the incident, prompting Newsday to suspend him for two weeks without pay. . . .”
The “unfortunate woman,” Ji-Yeon Yuh, left Newsday in 1990 for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was an editorial writer for four months before seeking a doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania and eventually, a career in academia.
Today, Yuh is associate professor of history and Asian American studies at Northwestern University. Journal-isms asked her to reflect on the experience and its meaning for journalists in 2017.
Also reflecting are Earl Caldwell and Roger Witherspoon, African American journalists who worked with Breslin and offer contrasting views of the columnist.
Yuh: ‘Everything That Happens Today Has a Past’
“There is both nothing and everything to say,” Ji-Yeon Yuh wrote by email.
“The one thing I would like to point out is the solidarity of my colleagues and fellow journalists at Newsday and elsewhere. Journalists of color understood racism and sexism in the newsroom, and they were the ones who spoke out about that incident and ensured that it would not be forgotten.
“Members of the Asian American Journalists Association, especially Helen Zia, Jeannie Park, Wendy Lin, and Betty Ming Liu, were instrumental, and they were joined by members of the African American and the Latino/a journalists associations. That solidarity taught me a great deal and I think of it often, especially in these times.
“The incident was 27 years ago, and yet the face of America that it revealed is even more relevant now than it was then. The racism is always there, needing only a touch to jump out. For Breslin, it was the perceived slight of a junior colleague criticizing his writing.
“Whatever the reason, it is merely an excuse to let baser instincts fly. There are areas of progress regarding racial discrimination, but then there are also areas of stagnation. The ongoing presence of racism can be seen as one area of stagnation.
“For journalists today, I would say that the issues are similar now as then. We still face inequities in the newsroom, and the biggest danger does not come from insults and public rages by colleagues lacking self-control. It comes from pressures to ignore systematic racism, to neglect or distort stories coming from communities of color, to adopt mainstream perspectives and downplay the racism that suffuses our society, and to gloss over our low numbers in newsrooms and our low rates of promotion to editor positions.
“The other takeaway is this: the fact that Breslin led a professional life with great empathy for the Black civil rights movement did nothing to prevent him from unleashing a racist and sexist rant against an Asian American woman colleague. That is, America has varieties of racism, and although they are strongly linked, knowing about one or two kinds does not necessarily help you understand other kinds. Journalists need to know this and use that knowledge in their reporting, writing, and professional lives.
“Also, as a historian, I would like to encourage journalists to remember that everything that happens today has a past, and that the past can help explain why things are as they are and why people behave as they do. Understanding that past can be just as important as cultivating one’s sources. The news does not come from nowhere; it comes from the past.”
Caldwell: ‘Judge a Person by His Body of Work’
Earl Caldwell, a journalism professor at Hampton University, credits Jimmy Breslin for the nearly three decades he spent in big-city New York journalism. He considers Breslin “the greatest newspaperman I’ve ever met. He was a mentor, and we were very tight. He was on my side all the time.”
Their friendship started in 1964, Caldwell explained by telephone on Monday. Caldwell was a reporter at the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y. He was assigned to go to Harlem, which had erupted in rioting, to write a piece to be called, “Can it happen here?” While Caldwell was in New York, Rochester’s African Americans rose up.
Breslin was among the reporters who headed to Rochester. When Caldwell returned to that city, he found Breslin sitting his desk in the Democrat and Chronicle newsroom and writing a column. The two had met in New York, and when Caldwell returned upstate, he introduced Breslin around. Caldwell recalls taking Breslin everywhere.
“It got so bad that my editor grabbed me. ‘You working for us, or are you working for Jimmy Breslin?” the editor asked. But Caldwell made a connection with Breslin and before he left Rochester, Breslin told Caldwell to call David Laventhol, city editor of Breslin’s paper, the New York Herald Tribune. Caldwell told Breslin that more than anything, he wanted to be where Breslin was — at the Herald Tribune, the New York Times’ broadsheet rival renowned for its stable of writers.
As it turned out, unions struck the New York dailies, and the Herald Tribune did not survive. Breslin again offered Caldwell a hand. The New York Post was still publishing. Breslin told Caldwell he had a job waiting for him there, “but you have to go to work today.”
Caldwell did, but six months later the New York Times called, and Caldwell said yes to Times editor A.M. Rosenthal. That began a momentous run at the Times. He was the only reporter with Martin Luther King Jr. when King was shot and killed in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Later in 1968, Caldwell was sent to California to cover the Black Panther Party. After a year on that assignment, the FBI demanded that Caldwell become an informant for the bureau. When he refused, litigation ensued and the case wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Caldwell lost, 5-4, but the decision established, for the first time, a basis for some form of constitutional journalistic privilege.
“Jimmy was huge in my life,” Caldwell said. Breslin was instrumental in having Caldwell hired at his final New York paper, the Daily News, where he became a columnist.
“He was known and loved in the black community,” Caldwell said of Breslin. “He was in those neighborhoods. He did his reporting all over town, but he was particularly sensitive to the black story. You would always see Jimmy Breslin hanging out with black reporters,” because he knew they were where he wanted to be.
Asked about the incident with Ji-Yeon Yuh, Caldwell said of his friend, “He was a human being. Perhaps he made a mistake.” One has to judge a person by his body of work, Caldwell added. “He was a brilliant reporter.”
In 1982, Dave Hardy, Steve Duncan, Joan Shepard and Causewell Vaughan, black journalists known as the “Daily News Four,” successfully sued the newspaper for discrimination. Breslin said he admired both the journalists and management, Caldwell said.
“You’ve got to give the Daily News credit,” Caldwell quoted Breslin as saying. “They hire black reporters who are strong enough to fight, and that’s what we got here.”
On April 15, 1987, a six-member federal jury found for the black journalists and awarded them damages.
Witherspoon: ‘A Relic of a Discredited Past’
Roger Witherspoon, a contributing editor to US Black Engineer and Information Technology Magazine and board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, emailed this:
“Back in the 70s, when all the NYC newspapers — like other industries — insisted on separate and unequal pay scales for white and black journalists, some of Breslin’s column personas were black stereotypes that were invariably venal and negative.
“In 77 I got fed up with it (I worked at the Daily News from 75-79) and banned him from writing anything about blacks. He added my name to his annual, Jan 1 list of people he won’t speak to for the year, but he did not resurrect his racist stereotypes.
“I entered journalism in 66 because it was a way to shape the narrative about black life and the reality of discrimination in America. A guy like Breslin, who was extremely talented and had access to major American media (the Daily News, with a daily circ of 2.5 million, was the largest in the country), could have played a constructive role by honestly looking at racism as it played out in daily life. But he, like others, chose to uphold the racist status quo.
“That doesn’t alter the fact that he was a talented writer. But as a black journalist who had to deal with the active, sometimes physical discrimination of that era, I view him as a relic of a discredited past and simply say, good bye.
“. . . I was editor of the nj edition, and sent him a message through the wire room (remember those) that if he wrote about blacks again I’d send him to the hospital each and every time. The copy boys posted that message all over the newsroom. Breslin called me and said no nigger ever tells him what to do. I said I’d be in the newsroom at 4:30 and kick his ass right there. The copy boys posted a fight notice around the newsroom.
“As I came in the front door of the building, guards called upstairs and other guards hustled breslin down the back stairs. So I left a note on his desk — do you really think you can avoid me forever? Try writing about blacks again.
“Word went around town that I’d kicked his ass though, in fact, we never fought cause he ran. But he did not write about blacks again as long as i was there.”
Jimmy Breslin, New York Herald Tribune: Digging JFK grave was his honor (republished in Newsday, Nov. 22, 2013)
Daily News, New York: Here’s what Jimmy Breslin had to say about Donald Trump decades ago
Michael Daly, Daily Beast: A Goodbye to Jimmy Breslin, Teller of Truths
Tony Kornheiser, Washington Post: The Real Jimmy Breslin (1990)
Pulitzer Prizes: Jimmy Breslin, champion of ordinary citizens
Jim Rutenberg, New York Times: A ‘Dying Breed’ Taking More Than Its Loud, Local Voice With It
One of the Few Reporters Berry Would Talk To
“June 10, 2004, is a date that’ll stick in my head as firmly as March 18, 2017, the day we learned rock ’n’ roll pioneer Chuck Berry had died at the age of 90,” Kevin C. Johnson, music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote Sunday.
“It was on the earlier date that Ray Charles died, and I was tasked with getting some personal reflections on Charles from Berry along with other famous locals who knew him back in the day, including Fontella Bass and Ike Turner.
Bass and Turner (both deceased themselves now) came through with great anecdotes on Charles, but Berry did them one better. After reaching out to my pipeline to Berry, his good friend and business developer Joe Edwards, I was told that not only did Berry want to talk to me about his ‘hero’ Charles, but he would drive himself down to the Post-Dispatch offices in downtown St. Louis to do so personally.
“And that afternoon, after Berry pulled up in front of the Post-Dispatch, I climbed into what felt like the largest vintage sedan I’d ever seen in my life while he shared stories about the good ol’ days with Charles.
“For me, it was one of those moments I would have never imagined earlier in my career, sitting in a car rapping with the man who was one of the creators of rock ’n’ roll.
“It was also one of those special instances that endeared me to Berry. Interviewing him extended through my entire career at the Post-Dispatch, dating back to 1998. And I saw, heard and felt plenty as it related to Berry, much of it thanks to the fact that during his later years, as Edwards told me often, I’d become one of the few if not only reporters he was interested in talking to.
“I always knew talking with Berry, always in person and never on the telephone, would be an adventure of sorts.
“There was the time we interviewed while he was backstage changing clothes at Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room; in a private room at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland where he was being honored during a week-long celebration; and at Pin-Up Bowl at a private birthday party with his family. Each time he was welcoming to me.
“What was always guaranteed was that Berry would be super quotable, that he knew what a good sound bite was and that at his age keeping it real was the only way to go.
“In fact, I have been near jaw-droppingly shocked at how honest he could be, including in 2012 in Cleveland, when he said, ‘My singing days have passed. My voice is gone. My throat is worn. And my lungs are going fast.’ . . ”
. . . Berry Could Insert the Scalpel on Race
“. . . His delivery was often marked by humor, but he could also insert the scalpel when needed,” Ralph Ellis, Todd Leopold and Tony Marco wrote Sunday for CNN. After all, Chuck Berry “— a black man who grew up in Jim Crow America, who was close to 30 when he had his first national hit — knew that those high schools were sometimes segregated, and those diners and highways didn’t always welcome him.
“ ‘Brown-Eyed Handsome Man’ could be read as the story of a brown-SKINNED handsome man, as rock critic Dave Marsh and others have noted; the Louisiana country boy of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ wasn’t necessarily Caucasian.
“Or consider ‘Promised Land,’ the story of a man escaping the South for California. He rides a Greyhound bus across Dixie, moves to a train to get ‘across Mississippi clean,’ and finally enters the Golden State on a plane, dressed in a silk suit, ‘workin’ on a T-bone steak.’ It was the American dream in miniature, a success all the sweeter for overcoming racial prejudice — never overtly mentioned but present all the same. . . .”
Dwight Garner, New York Times: Chuck Berry’s Memoir Grabs You Like a Song
Richard Horgan, adweek.com: Chuck Berry Always Stayed True to St. Louis
Frederick H. Lowe, northstarnewstoday.com: Chuck Berry
St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Hail and farewell: Rock legend Chuck Berry dies at 90
Gorsuch Should Be Questioned on Voting Rights
“Few people in the Republican Party have done more to limit voting rights than Hans von Spakovsky,” Ari Berman wrote Friday for the Nation. “He’s been instrumental in spreading the myth of widespread voter fraud and backing new restrictions to make it harder to vote.
“But it appears that von Spakovsky had an admirer in Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, according to e-mails released to the Senate Judiciary Committee covering Gorsuch’s time working in the George W. Bush Administration.
“When President Bush nominated von Spakovksy to the Federal Election Commission in late 2005, Gorsuch wrote, ‘Good for Hans!’ . . .”
Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” added on Pacifica’s “Democracy, Now!” Monday, “So, the person that Neil Gorsuch praised, [whom] he worked with in the Justice Department, was Hans von Spakovsky, who really is the leading figure behind GOP voter suppression efforts, the leading figure in pushing the myth of widespread voter fraud.
“They overlapped in the Justice Department from 2005 and 2006, when a lot of very controversial things were happening, when the Justice Department, for example, manipulated the process to approve Georgia’s voter ID law, which was the first of its kind, where they launched all of these investigations into voter fraud that were very, very controversial. . . .”
Wayne Bennett, the Field Negro: Mar-a-Lago once again.
Mary C. Curtis, Roll Call: The GOP and White Evangelicals — A Forever Match?
David E. Sanger, New York Times: Rex Tillerson’s Hope for a Media-Free Bubble May Burst
Erik Wemple, Washington Post: The battle within Fox News
RadioInk Picks Future Black Leaders in Radio
Now in its fifth year, our Future African American Leaders in Radio list, as it has in previous years, includes people from every aspect of the business and from all over the country,” Radio Ink reported Sunday.
“On the 2017 list you’ll see several trends: Many of the people listed credit their success to having a mentor, many credit their success to a great team that works for them, and many talk about how blessed they are to have advanced in an industry they love.
“Every member of this list was nominated by a respected peer and voted on by a panel of experienced managers across the industry.
“Each nominee was asked to respond to an extensive Radio Ink questionnaire that asked them about their passion for the radio industry, why they chose radio as a career, how they got started, and what advice they could give to others hoping to achieve the status they’ve achieved. . . .”
Among those chosen are Sharon Barnes-Waters (pictured), executive producer/host of “CityViews,” WINS-AM, New York; Darnella Dunham, senior director/digital content, Radio One; Hector Hannibal, program director, WHUR-FM, Washington.
Also, Loren Henderson, executive producer, Reach Media, Atlanta; Larry Mullins (pictured) news anchor, WINS-AM, New York; and Janae Pierre, host and producer, WWNO-FM, University of New Orleans.
Beyond Diversity to Inclusion and Equality
“Tony Prophet is a man on a mission,” Amy Elisa Jackson wrote for Glassdoor in an interview republished Monday on Fast Company.
“The 58-year-old equality chief, whose career has taken him from exec roles at Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard to now being in the C-suite at Salesforce, has a drive to not only create an inclusive organization but also one that stands as a beacon for equality.
“ . . . Prophet: Diversity is absolutely essential, and we have work to do that, but once you have diversity you’re not done. Then you have inclusion where you’re really getting the very best out of every employee. When you have an inclusive environment, you feel seen, you feel included, and you feel valued. You feel like you can bring your whole self to work.
“That is a competitive advantage to have a larger pool of talent. When you get ideas from people with different perspectives, the result is the beauty and the melding of their ideas, which adds to the complexity of the mosaic. . . .
“ ‘Equality’ asks the questions, ‘Are you standing for my rights when I step outside my workforce? Are you fighting for equality for me?’ . . . That added dimension goes beyond pure diversity and inclusion internally and goes to why we came up with the notion of this being an equality role versus diversity and inclusion. . . .”
Zuckerberg Talks Diversity, Social Justice at HBCU
“Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is on a tour of America to ‘get out of my little bubble in San Francisco.’ . . .” theGrio.com reported on March 14.
“As part of that tour, he stopped at the Mother [Emanuel] African Methodist Episcopal church as well as North Carolina A&T State University, where he spoke to about 200 students on issues including diversity in technology.
“ ‘I don’t think it’s a secret that the tech community and industry has an issue with diversity,’ Zuckerberg said.
“He added that the industry must ‘do a better job’ but that ‘it’s going to take a little while.’
“ ‘You can’t just expect that you’re going to have a normal recruiting team go out and try to get folks and you’re magically going to solve a diversity problem that we have,’ he explained. ‘We need to make sure we train our hiring managers. If they have the choice between can I get the first person who’s good who could be on my team and I need to ship this product or would I rather put in an extra amount of time to get diversity, a lot of them have different pressures.’
“Zuckerberg said that Facebook in particular has its managers enroll in a course on unconscious bias because ‘a lot of people who think they care about diversity actually still have a lot of these biases’ and ‘it’s often people who think they’re doing the best who are doing the worst.’
“ ‘If you focus on doing the best work that you can, then there’s a lot of opportunity out there.’ . . .”
Zuckerberg also drew applause for his take on whether or not Facebook Live cameras could be used as a check on police, saying, “If we’re not going to give them body cameras, then we’ll give everyone a Live camera.”
Gannett Takeover in N.J. Means Less Local Flavor
“When Gannett bought North Jersey Media Group last year, devotees of the family-owned company’s newspapers worried how a national media giant would tread on their local media turf,” David Uberti reported Friday for Columbia Journalism Review.
“Draconian staff cuts soon followed at The Record in Bergen County, as well as its sister weeklies dotting the northern part of the Garden State. A new study suggests that the latter group’s coverage may already be losing some local flavor as a result.
“Content analysis of four of the weeklies now owned by Gannett found they included fewer and less substantive news articles about their respective communities after the sale, in addition to an increase in pieces shared across newspapers. Researchers from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, which is in northern New Jersey, also observed a shift in attention from local board meetings toward crime. . . .”
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