- Fourth NABJ President Spent 38 Years at Newsday
- Lester Holt Drops GOP Registration: NBC Anchor Talks Race in Advance of News Special
Les Payne, a thought leader for journalists of all colors in a career that saw him share a Pulitzer Prize, become a co-founder and fourth president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a top editor and columnist for Newsday, died Monday night after collapsing outside his New York home, family members said. He was 76.
Payne had a massive heart attack and was taken to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, where doctors pronounced him dead, his son Jamal Payne told Journal-isms by telephone on Tuesday.
“He wanted to make our lot in America better, Jamal Payne said, speaking of African Americans, “and I think he accomplished that. He made the world a better place. He left us the task of continuing the work that he started.”
When Payne retired in 2006 as associate editor of the Long Island newspaper Newsday, Editor John Mancini said Payne had “produced a weekly column that was so strong, so provocative and generated so much hate mail that Newsday editors got to know the names of all the Suffolk County Police Department’s bomb-sniffing dogs.”
He was the paper’s top-ranking black journalist, rising to deputy managing editor for national and international news. He was responsible for Newsday’s former New York City edition. His news staffs won every major award in journalism, including three recent Pulitzer Prizes.
Payne was an investigative reporter, covering Long Island migrant farm workers, involuntary sterilization, illegal immigrants, the Black Panther Party, the Symbionese Liberation Army and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. He reported extensively from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Caribbean and the United Nations. He had been working on a biography of Malcolm X.
It was Payne who in 1987 broke the story that Tawana Brawley, a young woman who said she had been kidnapped and sexually abused in New York state by a group of white men, including a county prosecutor, then left lying in a garbage bag, “had spun a web of lies and — under the glare of media and the law — got caught up in them,” as his colleague Peter Eisner recalled.
At the group’s first meeting in 1992, Payne said, “We can learn technique and approaches from white artists but authenticity in this racist society demands that we develop our own perspective and wage our campaign ourselves. Since our forebears crossed the Atlantic in slave ships, we as black columnists should not write as if they crossed on the Mayflower. That’s one reason we’ve organized this retreat. The adaptive problem of black columnists is similar to how black parents must protect their children from European-dominated public elementary school. They can teach our children how to read, we must teach them what to read.”
In an 2004 essay for NABJ, part of “Committed to the Cause,” [PDF] a series on former NABJ presidents, Jackson wrote, “For Les Payne, concerns such as NABJ’s bank account, national office and paid staffers were hardly paramount when he served as the fourth president of the all-volunteer, hand-to-mouth organization.
“ ‘If members persisted in such administrative minutia as getting their membership cards on time,’ Payne recalled, ‘I told them to vote for my opponent. The vanguard group was foundering and I felt it needed at least one more tough-minded, overachieving president with stature in the industry and, as [Marcus] Garvey put it, “A man of big ideas.” ‘
“That description fit Payne to a tee. . . .” Payne was president from 1981 to 1983.
Jackson also wrote, “ ‘I had not really intended to run,’ Payne said. ‘I had three kids, this new demanding job, and the column. But our first three presidents, Chuck Stone, Vernon Jarrett and Bob Reid had credibility as journalists and national reputations that gave them the clout to deal with the media titans eyeball to eyeball, steel against steel. I ran because I felt it was important not to lose that authority.
“ ‘A lesser journalist in those early years would have meant a lesser president and our demands would have been laughed out the door. I pushed hard for NABJ members to connect with journalists in Africa, the Caribbean and the rest of the diaspora. The bureaucrats could come later.’ . . .
“At Newsday, Payne has worked tirelessly to make sure that high potential black talent is promoted fairly. Despite grumbling from Newsday’s union and some disgruntled white journalists, Payne at one point had Morris Thompson (now Mexico City correspondent for Knight Ridder) assigned as his Mexico City bureau chief; Marilyn Milloy, later a senior editor at Heart & Soul magazine, running Newsday’s Atlanta bureau; and myself as chief of the paper’s New England bureau. . . .”
During a heated debate in 1995 about the status of imprisoned activist-journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a policeman, Payne said the black journalist has three responsibilities: To protect its clients in the black community, raise consciousness and fulfill the need to know.
But, he added: Make it clear that we are journalists, not activists. Yet as a journalist, he “took no prisoners,” as one friend noted.
A 2006 biography for the HistoryMakers begins, “Journalist and author Les Payne was born on July 12, 1941 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As a child, Payne was always interested in writing. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 1964 with B.A. degree in English. Serving six years in the United States Army, Payne worked as an Army journalist and wrote speeches for General William C. Westmoreland. While on assignment in Vietnam, he ran the Army’s newspaper, and when he was discharged, he had attained the rank of captain.
“Payne joined Newsday in the late 1960s, serving as the associate managing editor for the paper’s national, science, and international news. In 1968, as an investigative reporter, Payne covered the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther [King,] Jr., and in the 1970s, he covered the Black Panther Party. . . .”
In a reflection last month on the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report on the causes of the racial uprisings of 1967, Payne explained that his hiring at Newsday was an act of courage by then-publisher Bill Moyers.
“The ‘journalistic profession,’ the report noted, was ‘shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring, training, and promoting Negroes,’ “ Payne wrote. “Fewer than 5 percent of the people employed by the news business in editorial jobs in the United States today are Negroes. Fewer than 1 percent of editors and supervisors are Negroes, and most of them work for Negro-owned organizations.” This sharp rebuke of the racial misbehavior of those in power was as surprising to white Americans — including President Johnson — as it was encouraging to African-Americans long under the jackboot.”Almost immediately, the urgency of Kerner recommendations, released on Feb. 29, 1968, was heightened critically by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King — whose white killer escaped Memphis and roamed the world free for some 66 days. This gross lack of accountability for terror against African-Americans triggered another round of revolt in cities across the nation. Still, with the election of President Richard ‘Law ‘n Order’ Nixon, instead of ‘deliberate speed’ enactment of Kerner recommendations, they were doomed by the White House and subject never to be realized.
“One of the few exceptions in media was Newsday that hired six blacks, in 1969, including me, under a policy directed by publisher Bill Moyers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Moyers, while serving as President Johnson’s Press Secretary had monitored the ‘65 Watts riots, and the ’67 revolt in Detroit and elsewhere, and was privy to the planning stages of the LBJ Commission, including the selection of Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner.
“However, as with the few other fair-minded newspaper managers, Moyers’ hiring policy for blacks met enormous resistance from top Newsday editors and subsequently he, himself was let go reportedly with bitter agreement by both Newsday owners and the acquiring Los Angeles Times that Moyers, who had been LBJ’s liberal brain on White House policy, was a ‘pinko, radical’ misfit for white, Long Island suburbanites favoring Nixon and the Vietnam War. . . .”
Upon his hiring, “Payne immediately organized Newsday’s Black Caucus and started pushing to recruit more journalists of color [PDF]. In 1971, Payne wrote a memo noting that of 33 summer interns at Newsday, none was black,” Lourdes Fernandez Venard wrote in a 2009 master’s thesis for the University of Missouri.
“In the memo, he called Newsday’s editors racist. . . . Shortly after that, Payne proposed and designed a one-year recruiting and training program for journalists of color. The program , which lasted into the late 1970s, was to become the model for METPRO, according to Payne . . .” METPRO, the Minority Editorial Training Program at the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, trained journalists of color, beginning with reporters in 1984 and expanding to copy editors in 1989.
Payne wrote that his military duty, in which he rose to captain, was good preparation for his work as a journalist.
“The discipline and the training as a ranger for example, prepared me physically and mentally to handle dangerous situations,” he told Arthur Mondale of the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service in 2016.
There was no doubt that some might find Payne’s imposing presence intimidating. But it was not to those who got to know him.
“Les meant the world to me,” Joe Davidson, a Washington Post columnist and fellow co-founder of NABJ, said Tuesday by email. “We shared visits to each other homes. I told him things about my life I’ve told few others. We were together in Johannesburg, interviewing [Nelson] Mandela at his Soweto home shorty after his release from prison. Les and I often rejoiced about NABJ and at times agonized over its direction, like parents, in this case founders, do. When needing direction, without talking to him, I would ask myself what would Les do.
“Now the question is what will we do without Les.”
Jamal Payne said plans for services were incomplete. Les Payne and his wife, Violet, were members of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. Payne leaves two other children, Tamara and Haile. Already in place at NABJ is a Les Payne Founder’s Scholarship.
Jamal Payne added, “My parents were married for 51 years and were about to celebrate their 52nd wedding anniversary on April 2.”
- Wayne Dawkins, LinkedIn: Les Payne, NABJ founder, 4th president
- Zachary R. Dowdy, Newsday: Les Payne, former Newsday editor, inducted into Deadline Club Hall of Fame (Nov.16, 2017)
- Peter Eisner, the Nation: Les Payne’s Too-Quiet Departure (Jan. 6, 2009)
- William Murphy, Newsday: Les Payne, former Newsday editor who won Pulitzer Prize, dies
- National Association of Black Journalists: NABJ remembers Founder and former President Les Payne
“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt has switched his registration from Republican to “blank,” or no party, a New York state Board of Elections spokesman told Journal-isms on Monday.
Holt’s party affiliation was a minor issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, when then-candidate Donald Trump falsely stated that Holt, about to moderate Trump’s first presidential debate with Democrat Hillary Clinton, was a Democrat.
“Trump’s comments to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, which were offered without any evidence to support the claim, are part of a time-honored tradition of alleging moderator bias and expectations-setting before a presidential debate,” Zeke J. Miller reported on Sept. 1, 2016, for Time.
“ ‘By the way, Lester is a Democrat. It’s a phony system. They are all Democrats. It’s a very unfair system,’ Trump said of the debate moderators.”
However, Miller wrote, “New York State voter registration documents show that Holt has been a registered Republican in the state since 2003. . . .”
In a telephone interview arranged to promote “Hope & Fury: MLK, The Movement and the Media,” a two-hour special to air this weekend on NBC and MSNBC, Journal-isms asked Holt whether the disclosure of his party registration had affected his professional life.
Holt is moderating the production, described as “a new documentary film that examines how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and leaders of the civil rights movement used the power of print and visual media, especially television, to awaken America to the shame and injustice of racial inequality.”
Holt told Journal-isms, “I don’t discuss my politics. I’m an American” who leaves politics behind when he is on the job. But he asked whether his interviewer had checked his party registration.
“The voter left the party selection area of the form blank which means they are not enrolled in any party,” according to a written explanation from the board of elections.
Holt, 59, is the first African American solo anchor on a broadcast network evening news program. He was also asked about his role as a black journalist, his program’s invocation of “breaking news” to introduce events that had taken place hours before, his thoughts on progress on newsroom diversity, how long he plans to stay in the job — and even who chooses his well-tailored outfits.
Holt was only too happy to volunteer his “guilty pleasure” for the Italian suits of Ermenegildo Zegna. And he said he does not know how long he will stay on the job.
Last month, in a story about the 70th anniversary of the “NBC Nightly News” program and its predecessors, Holt was quoted as saying, “There were periods of my career where there was just pressure to define myself as a black journalist and I pushed back at that because I knew I wanted to succeed and not be defined by my color. I think if any of us are going to succeed, it’s going to be on a broad scale.”
Asked to elaborate, Holt seemed to equate being a “black journalist” with covering only black issues, although he defined the term as simply being a journalist who is black.
“I’m a good journalist. I can cover any story,” he said. “That’s the level” on which he wants to succeed, he said.
Had Holt ever had occasion to go to management on a race-related coverage or newsroom issue? Holt cited an example from Chicago, where he spent 14 years at WBBM-TV. African American reporters together complained that blacks were always portrayed in negative images, such as in handcuffs, he replied. However, Holt did not say that he had initiated such conversations.
“I haven’t had that kind of issue at NBC,” where the atmosphere is collaborative, Holt added. He said staff members of various backgrounds contribute to news discussions. “People don’t want to tune in to television and see a world they don’t recognize,” he explained. The diversity imperative requires vigilance so that it is implemented every day, Holt said.
Asked why there isn’t more diversity today, Holt said that the late ‘80s and early ‘90s saw more awareness of the lack of diversity in the news business. “NABJ and others were standing up,” he said.
Holt was asked to respond to observations that NBC, like some other networks, abuses the term “breaking news” to introduce the nightly newscasts, featuring developments that are hours old. Broadcast newswriter Mervin Block wrote in 2016, “Lester Holt sure knows how to make news seem exciting. He does that by introducing a story on the newscast he anchors, NBC’s ‘Nightly News,’ as ‘breaking news.’ But often the story has already been broken, even shattered. . . .”
Holt said that to him, “breaking news” applies to stories that “still have moving parts,” where there are “still developing components” and facts being discovered.
He wound down the 20-minute conversation touting the freshness of the upcoming television special. “What is different is that it takes notable events, looking at it from the lens of a television camera,” he said. It examines steps the civil rights movement took to attract the attention of the news media.
Many might not realize that the movement “really propelled the evening news,” prompting an expansion from 15 minutes to half an hour, Holt said.
The special is executive-produced by Andy Lack, chairman of NBC News, who oversees the network’s broadcast news, digital content and cable channel MSNBC. It has an African American co-producer, Phil Bertelsen, along with Rachel Dretzin, and features several historians, activists and journalists.
Holt said the special resonates personally. “I stand on the shoulders of many of [those] in the civil rights movement. . . . Those two hours had a deeply personal impression on me.”
Aniko Bodroghkozy, “With Good Reason,” Virginia Humanities: Equal Time: The Networks and the Civil Rights Movement (Feb. 4, 2012) (podcast)
Henry Jenkins, henryjenkins.org: Television and the Civil Rights Movement: An Interview with Aniko Bodroghkozy (Part Two)
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Journal-isms is originally published on journal-isms.com. Reprinted on The Root by permission.