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archives 2003 » may. 7th  
  

 

Front Page News

by Kia Gregory & Jonathan Valania



I sell it, but I don't read it," says Stacy Reed, sitting in his newsstand at Broad and Vine, watching people walk by in the morning rush.

The "it" he's referring to is the Philadelphia Daily News, the city's feisty 78-year-old tabloid and sister paper to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For most of its nearly eight decades, the Daily News has been the place to go to find the scoop on the most controversial stories in the city. But for the last eight months the Daily News has itself become the controversy.

A small but determined grassroots organization called the Coalition for Fair News Coverage is charging the Daily News with racial insensitivity, claiming a persistent pattern of vilifying black Philadelphians and noting the negative effects it has had on the community. The group is urging black Philadelphians to stop buying and reading the newspaper.

But on this day at least, it seems that for some African-Americans the choice to read or not read the Daily News is simply a matter of preference.

Newsstand operator Reed, for example, favors USA Today over the Daily News because he likes the paper's quick-hit sports section.

The gray-haired man who places a dollar on the counter of Reed's newsstand and walks away with a Daily News tucked under his arm says, "I buy it for the sports."

A woman named Grace, who doesn't want to give her last name, says she doesn't like the Daily News because "there's just a bunch of bad stuff in there about black people." But as she waits for the C bus, she adds, "but to be honest I read it for the obituaries."

Then there's Isaac Hamm, who actually commends the Daily News for the notoriously illustrated "FUGITIVES AMONG US" front-page story that sits at the very center of the boycott controversy.

"I see nothing wrong with it," says Hamm, walking with a folded Daily News in his hand on his way to work. "A mug shot is offensive. A mug shot should be offensive."


Corporate consolidation and the rise of electronic and broadcast media have conspired to dramatically thin the number of daily newspapers in this country over the last 50 years. Tabloids have become a particularly endangered species, with only a handful still in operation--the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Boston Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times and our own Philadelphia Daily News being among the most notable.

Like most American newspapers, the Daily News has lost a lot of readers in recent years. Circulation today hovers around 150,000, down from a high-water mark of nearly 300,000 in the early '80s. Daily News Editor Zack Stalberg estimates the paper had a paid circulation of 170,000 as recently as 1995, when the cover price was raised from 50 cents to 60 cents and the DN lost some 20,000 readers.

Though newspapers often say they strive to be politically neutral in the name of objectivity, they routinely mirror the zeitgeist of their editor, particularly in the case of tabloids. The two DN editors prior to Stalberg--Southerner Rolfe Neill, who ran the paper from 1969 to 1975, and Gil Spencer, who edited the paper from 1979 to 1984--are remembered by Philadelphians of a certain age as liberal crusaders.

Neill became a lightning rod for controversy when he printed a picture of a South Vietnamese soldier holding the severed heads of executed Viet Cong guerrillas in each hand to illustrate the brutality of war.

"He said that's the face of war," recalls gossip columnist Stu Bykofsky, who has been at the Daily News in a variety of newsroom capacities since 1972.

Bykofsky says that Spencer, who was once listed in the Social Register, was more liberal than Neill, but that Stalberg is even more liberal than Spencer.

"On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being a screaming liberal crazy person, I would rate Zack a 7.5," Bykofsky says with a chuckle. "Journalists as a group are more liberal than other professions. And generally speaking this staff is more liberal than most newsrooms."

Stalberg, though, waves off any attempt to measure his editorial bearing along a political spectrum. "The paper has always leaned liberal and Democratic," he says. "But personally I'm more pragmatic than either liberal or conservative. I'm interested in solutions that work instead of ideology."

For North Philadelphia native Bruce Crawley, president and CEO of the public relations firm Crawley Haskins Sloan, last Aug. 22 was a memorable day.

Standing in 30th Street Station, headed to Washington, D.C., for a business meeting, Crawley picked up a copy of the Daily News and stared at the 17 mug shots of African-American, Latino and Asian men who glared back at him beneath a headline that read "FUGITIVES AMONG US."

"I said, 'What is this?'" says Crawley. "I couldn't believe it. And when I flipped through the paper and saw that the story was about murder and realized the implication was that all of the people who commit murders in Philadelphia are either African-American, Hispanic or Asian, I was outraged."

On his trip back to Philly, Crawley entertained the possibility that maybe he and his traveling companion, Iman Shamsud-Din Ali, were overreacting. The two had just returned from a meeting with a good friend of Ali's, the leader of a national organization whose upcoming convention they were hoping to bring to Philadelphia.

"I thought that maybe because we'd just come from this meeting of African-American men who were going to bring $40 million to Philadelphia, that the juxtaposition was too much for us," Crawley recalls. "I told Ali, let's call some people who didn't come from the experience we just came from and see what they think."

Crawley made the calls, and says the reactions to his impromptu telephone poll about the "FUGITIVES AMONG US" cover ranged from confusion and disbelief to anger and outrage.

From that emerged the Coalition for Fair News Coverage, an organization made up of more than 100 African-American church, community, civic, civil rights and business organizations, all with a simple message for black readers of the Daily News: Don't buy it; don't read it.


Shortly after the "FUGITIVES AMONG US" cover hit the stands, it was determined that two of the men shown on the cover had already been arrested and were no longer fugitives. In addition, three of the mug shots on the cover were of the same man, an oversight the DN attributed to computer error.

Eight days after the publication of the "FUGITIVE" issue, which brought the Daily News countless letters and phone calls--both critical and supportive--the newspaper issued an apology to its readers.

After "much soul-searching" in the newsroom, the apology read, it was apparent that "the front page photos ... sent the message to some readers that only black men commit murder."

The apology also stated that the stories failed to address why there weren't any white suspects wanted for murder and that the paper should have looked "harder at this question."

The Coalition was not impressed, and described the apology as insincere.

"I don't see how anyone who is African-American would not be angered by that cover--it was outrageous," says Charles Bowser, who ran for mayor in 1975 and 1979, and now is a partner in the law firm Bowser and Weaver. "It's simply untrue that only black people are involved in violence."

"The argument is not whether someone who committed a crime should be arrested," says Ali, Crawley's traveling companion to D.C. and the leader of the Philadelphia Masjid, a Muslim organization. "But should African-American men be cast as something you have to contend with as you travel through the streets of Philadelphia?"

The Coalition also charged that the "FUGITIVES AMONG US" cover unnecessarily fueled racial tensions by showcasing the one incident of black-on-white crime in the story.

"Overwhelmingly the majority of murders are committed within families, within ethnic groups, within neighborhoods," says Crawley. "Very few are black-on-white, but the Daily News picked that example to titillate and sensationalize. The implication was that this is what black men do. It's not what black men do. But the Daily News sells newspapers at our expense. They abuse the African-American community, and sell and trade on racial divisiveness."

"There's no way to read that cover without recognizing it as a statement by the Daily News," says Bowser, "either of what they believe or what they're trying to convince people of--that criminals in this city are black or Hispanic. And when we had the temerity to object, they said there were other reasons. Bullshit."


Jim Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, a highly respected journalism think tank, recalls a similar racial firestorm back in the early '80s, when he was deputy managing editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"I remember sitting around in an editors' meeting and agreeing that we had been giving the Miss America pageant too much attention," says Naughton. "We decided we would put the story on the inside instead of the front page. The problem was, when the winner was announced, for the first time in history, she was black. People accused us of racism instead of just being stupid. Sometimes these problems are just a symptom of the fact that newspapers are produced on the run, and sometimes mistakes are made."

Keith Woods, who studies diversity in newsrooms for Poynter, says both sides of the controversy are walking a slippery slope.

"First of all, you can't definitively say somebody is a racist unless you open up their closet and find a hood and white sheets," says Woods. "This leaves the paper in the untenable position of proving they are not racist. How do you prove that?"

"Is Zack Stalberg a racist? No, of course not," says Gil Spencer, the DN 's tough-talking former editor. "He's a hotshot, and he wears his outrage on his sleeve--which is what makes him an intriguing editor. You can knock him for a lot of things, but racism is not one. And anybody who accuses him of it is full of shit."

Asked specifically about the "FUGITIVES AMONG US" cover and story, the Daily News newsroom hardly speaks with one voice. Stalberg, who was on vacation when the mug shot issue was published, believes the cover was a mistake.

"That was bad journalism on our part," he says. "First, we failed to ask the larger question of why all the fugitives that were wanted during that time period were nonwhite. Second, we made a mistake visually and repeated one guy's picture three times. Thirdly, the cover gave the impression that the only people committing murder in Philadelphia are nonwhites."

Stalberg says if he had seen the cover before it went to press, he would have pulled it.

"I had no problem with the story itself--it was good journalism. And the fact is there were no white people wanted for murder at the time," says DN veteran reporter Don Russell. "The real problem was the cover image. If the goal was to be sensitive, we failed. But we are in the newspaper business, and sensitivity is not our first goal. Truth and accuracy is."

"I am baffled by the controversy because it's not as if there were white fugitives that we didn't picture," says Bykofsky. "By [the Coalition's] logic, every time we run a picture of Mayor Street on the cover we are essentially saying that all big-city mayors are African-American. We had no complaints from the Jewish community when we put [Rabbi Fred] Neulander on the cover."

"I thought we were doing our readers a favor by getting some pretty bad people off the street," says Deputy Managing Editor Michael Days, who is African-American. "Sometimes we are guilty of tunnel vision. The visual impact of all those black men accused of crimes--well, you can imagine the message that sends. I would not have seen it that way if I had been in the newsroom that day. I see every cover before it goes to the printer, and I would have waved it through. However, in the wake of all this reaction, I would not make that mistake again."

No single editor will be given the opportunity to make such a mistake again, says Ellen Foley, the DN 's managing editor, who was also away on vacation when the "FUGITIVES" cover went to press. As a result of all the controversy, new technology was put into place in the newsroom that enables senior editors to view the paper's front-page image from home, vacation or any place with Internet access before it goes to press.


According to the Coalition, there are too many mistakes of this kind at the Daily News, which to them suggests a pattern of racial insensitivity. They say the "FUGITIVES AMONG US" front page is only the most egregious.

Two days before the "FUGITIVES" cover ran, the Daily News published a cover story about American Dreams, the NBC television show based on the early Philadelphia days of American Bandstand. The cover headline read "JUST LIKE US" and showed a white, working-class family of the 1960s standing in front of a tree-lined home next to a station wagon. The subheadline described both the image of the cast and the TV show as "Philadelphia nostalgia--and a message for our troubled times."

In a city that is 55 percent nonwhite, Crawley says, the "JUST LIKE US" cover was "outrageously insulting." It was, he says, also racially divisive, pitting the white family who is "just like us" against the African-Americans, Latinos and Asians who live "among us."

But as with the "FUGITIVES" front page, Daily News staffers differ on their feelings about the "JUST LIKE US" cover.

"I don't get that one at all. To me that's just a case of people looking too hard for a villain," says Stalberg. "I don't think there's anything to that criticism whatsoever."

"I don't get that, either," says Deputy Managing Editor Days.

"That was insensitive," says Bykofsky. "Some editor upstream should have caught that. But was it a deliberate racial insult? Of course not."


Last Aug. 28 the Daily News ran a cover story about former Fox Philadelphia anchor Rich Noonan with a headline that read "COLOR HIM ANGRY--NOONAN: FOX FIRED ME BECAUSE I'M WHITE."

According to the story, Noonan had complained to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that Fox had dumped him in order to hire African-American anchor Dave Huddleston. Fox GM Roger LaMay denied the accusation.

"Fired because he was white? What the hell does that mean?" says Crawley. "You work in a white-owned local television affiliate of a nationally white-owned broadcast network, and you're fired because you are white? That doesn't happen. If you're African-American you know it doesn't happen."

Crawley says the story reinforced an impression held by many white people that African-Americans get jobs only because of affirmative action and that this was a case of a white person having to be sacrificed as a result.

"That tainted [Huddleston] as an affirmative action hire," says Crawley, "when he was ultimately more qualified to do broadcast journalism than Rich Noonan ever was. What are you trying to prove by putting that on the cover of a major daily?"


Coalition members and their supporters insist that the three stories--"JUST LIKE US," "FUGITIVES AMONG US" and "COLOR HIM ANGRY," in addition to a litany of other damaging depictions, show a pattern at the Daily News of portraying the city's African-Americans as criminals, welfare recipients, drug addicts, drug dealers and indigents.

"You don't do that same thing time and time again by accident," says Linn Washington, a Philadelphia Tribune columnist and journalism professor at Temple University who was once a Daily News reporter. "It's a pattern. Deliberate or inadvertent, it's still a pattern. If there was a fidelity to the ethical standards of being fair and balanced, to diffuse diversity into your coverage, the DN would not have these problems."

"When an allegation lives this long, something is going on," says Thaddeus Mathis, associate dean of Temple's School of Social Administration. "Any day you pick up the DN, you'll find it being insensitive to African-American issues. It isn't the most sensitive way to advance the interests of a city this diverse."

The Coalition cites more examples of what it identifies as racial insensitivity at the Daily News. One of those examples is the newspaper's obituary of longtime community activist Edwina Baker, which ran last Nov. 5.

The Daily News applauded Baker's work, but the newspaper also reminded readers that the activist had supported William Mackey, the executive director of a youth advocacy group who had once been accused of assaulting a 16-year-old girl.

The obituary also reported that Baker had once staged an unsuccessful rally against Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston, who had fired a black woman firefighter for complaining of racial discrimination.

What the Coalition says the obituary didn't mention was that Mackey was acquitted of all charges and that the firefighter had won her case.

The DN printed a correction on Nov. 6 about the Mackey incident, followed days later by a letter from state Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, chastising them for "veering off course and disrespecting Baker's memory."

"Usually in an obituary, people say something nice. They're respectful," says Crawley. "But the Daily News found it necessary to dance on the grave of an African-American community activist icon."


While most DN staffers contacted by PW acknowledge the newspaper may sometimes suffer racial blind spots, they also suggest the boycott organizers are not being completely honest about the reasons behind their actions.

"The people who are leading this boycott have motivations other than what they claim," says Bykofsky.

"It is hard to separate anything that is done with race in this town from the mayor's race," says Stalberg. "We do the toughest reporting in town on local figures. I can't help but think that some of the figures in the Coalition may be motivated by bad feelings about tough stories we wrote about them."

Crawley, who heads the Coalition and is a close personal friend of John Street, served as the mayor's spokesperson during his tenure on City Council. In the last mayoral election, the Daily News endorsed Republican Sam Katz, John Street's opponent.

The Daily News has also reported aggressively on what it perceives as the shortcomings of the Street administration, including a series of articles--published right around the time of the "FUGITIVES" cover--that examined a $30 million city contract awarded to a nonprofit corporation headed by the mayor's wife, Naomi Post. Caught in the glare of the DN coverage of the contract, Post eventually resigned.

"It's somewhat preposterous for the editorial staff and the management at the Daily News to suggest this boycott was motivated by something other than questionable judgment," says mayoral spokesperson Mark Nevins, who says he is speaking for Mayor Street. "The Daily News has bridges to build with some communities in the city, and if they want the mayor's help, he'd be happy to do that."

Additionally, some staffers point out--none of them for attribution--that Crawley's wife, Pamela, had been vice president of community affairs at Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., the parent company of both the Inquirer and the Daily News, until her position was eliminated last year as part of cost-cutting measures.

"I knew that PNI was having problems," says Bruce Crawley. "What happened to my wife wasn't peculiar to her--a couple hundred people got laid off. I think they treated her fairly, and I called Bob [Hall, PNI publisher] and said I understood that these things happen. Business is business. I told Bob, 'I know it's painful to lay off people, but you handled it with dignity, and I want to thank you for that.'"

Some DN staffers also cite the tough reporting the newspaper did on John Bowser, brother of Coalition member Charles Bowser. In the early '80s, John Bowser received federal and city funds to help restore the Uptown Theater on North Broad Street. Tyree Johnson, a former DN reporter who now owns the Westside Weekly, a community paper based in West Philadelphia, remembers reporting that Bowser was less than honest on his loan application.

"He paid $20,000 for the building, but said he paid $200,000," says Johnson. "And he split the $180,000 with the guy he bought the building from."

Shortly after the story broke, John Bowser died of cancer. "I heard through people that Charlie blamed me for killing his brother," says Johnson. "I think Charlie has a vendetta against newsmen, in part because he always wanted to be one." Bowser was unavailable to respond to these accusations as PW went to press.

Back in the late '80s, the DN also reported on city funds that were being dispersed to local organizations to help celebrate the constitutional bicentennial. One of those organizations was headed by radio personality and Coalition member Reginald Bryant, who received $150,000 to make a film titled Slave Ship to the Space Ship that celebrated the black experience. On his application for the grant money, Bryant claimed to have the participation of several prominent African-Americans, including then-Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

But when contacted by the DN, several of the people Bryant claimed were part of the project knew nothing about it. Additionally, as the DN reported in a follow-up story, the film ran way behind schedule and wasn't finished in time for the bicentennial celebration.

"That the DN would use that just shows how stupid they are," says Bryant now. "The fact that their story would be a reason for me to join a boycott is ridiculous. I haven't touched a Daily News in over 20 years."


In making its case against the Daily News, the Coalition also cites a cover and story about Philadelphia native Bill Cosby that ran last July 2.

In the cover photograph, Cosby looks taxed. The headline reads: "WHAT'S WITH BILL?"

The day before, in a story written by staffer Gar Joseph headlined "COSBY UNDER A SPELL?", the paper reported that the comedian had evicted longtime friend Gladys Rodgers from his Elkins Park estate amid allegations of witchcraft. Rodgers had overseen the Cosby estate for 19 years, but according to the DN--on the advice of his spiritual adviser, a Buddhist monk who used "fire, dice, seeds and beads to do readings"--Cosby wanted her out.

The DN followed up its story the next day by reporting that "something wasn't quite right with Bill Cosby," citing examples of strange behavior, including an incident in Austin, Texas, where the 65-year-old comedian had flubbed his punchlines.

"Their sourcing seems to have come from the National Enquirer," says David Brokaw, Cosby's public relations rep and longtime friend.

Brokaw says Cosby performs some 200 concerts a year. "Before you go and have fun with him, get your facts straight," he says. "It's easy to find out how he's doing. He performs before thousands of people. Go to a concert and report what he's doing.

"With the Gladys Rodgers situation, it was a court document, a problem that was on record. The Daily News could have relied on that for what the dispute was about, but they went on hearsay. One way or another it comes down to journalism 101."

Eight days after the "WHAT'S WITH BILL?" story appeared, USA Today published a picture of a distinguished-looking Cosby standing next to President Bush, taken just moments before Bush had awarded Cosby the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Brokaw says Cosby later displayed the medal at three area schools, including his alma mater, Germantown High. USA Today reported that "Cosby seemed in fine form at Tuesday's East Room ceremony, reducing President Bush to red-faced laughter."

The same day the Daily News published a headline that read, "Cos wins Medal of Freedom but can't escape eviction issue."

"We see in national press all the things Bill Cosby does with universities, and his commitment to children, but when he comes home to Philadelphia, the Daily News effectively calls him a crazy man and treats him as if he were any idiot," says Crawley. "Nowhere else on earth does Bill Cosby get treated with that kind of disrespect. Only at home. Only by the Daily News."

But those at the Daily News contacted by PW stand behind the legitimacy of the Cosby cover. "He's one of the biggest stars in the country," says Bykofsky. "What the fuck did you expect? Something happened, and we reported it. Does that make us anti-black?"


General reaction inside the DN to the boycott and the Coalition's accusations of racial insensitivity varies. But uniformly the newspaper's editors and reporters dismiss the notion that the paper--now or at any time in the past--holds, or has held, any kind of overt or hidden anti-minority agenda.

"This is a far from perfect place," says DN Editor Stalberg. "It's a daily newspaper, and you know how fucked up they are. But we are not racist."

"I am personally offended to be called a racist, and I wouldn't work at the Daily News if I thought it was a racist newspaper," says reporter Don Russell, a 15-year veteran who sometimes writes under the byline "Joe Sixpack." "The Daily News was my favorite newspaper when I was growing up because it had one of the most diverse collections of voices of any paper in America--including Chuck Stone, Elmer Smith, Pete Dexter."

"I am willing to say we have disappointed our black readers on occasion, just as we have disappointed our white readers on occasion," says Bykofsky. "We are only human and we make mistakes. But there is no institutional racism at the Daily News."

"I wouldn't work for a newspaper that was racist," says Daily News Deputy Managing Editor Michael Days.


Following the "FUGITIVES" cover, the Coalition called for the resignations of Daily News Editor Zack Stalberg and Managing Editor Ellen Foley, believing that a change in management would change the paper's focus.

But Stalberg, Foley, PNI Publisher Robert Hall and Knight Ridder chairman and CEO Tony Ridder were unconvinced.

Since the boycott announcement eight months ago, the Coalition has been trying to build momentum by staging rallies, holding motorcades and networking with community organizations to urge African-Americans to stop buying the DN.

The Coalition has been meeting once a week to plan its moves, which have so far included the purchase of 31 shares of Knight Ridder stock and the creation of a website designed to spread its message. The group has also been pushing for African-Americans to support the city's black press as an alternative to the Daily News.

Coalition supporters say the boycott has both the commitment and energy to endure.

"The ultimate goal is the absolute disappearance of the Daily News," says Reggie Bryant, a talk show host at WHAT-AM. "It's literally a public health issue, a public mental health issue."

Stalberg says that while he takes the concerns of the DN's black readership very seriously, he doesn't think the boycott is resonating in the black community.

"We might have lost 1,000 subscribers--in other words, no impact," he says. "I don't even believe there is a boycott. It's a classic case, you say something long enough and loud enough and then other media--like the alternative weeklies--treat it like its something legitimate. Fifty percent of our readership is nonwhite--that's a bigger percentage than any other major metropolitan paper in the country."

Stalberg says the Daily News is a very voluntary purchase, since nearly all the paper's sales are single-copy purchases on the street from a vendor. "To me, it's racist to assume that these people--our readers--can't make up their own minds," he says.

In the end, the city's African-American community, as diverse as it is large, will make up its own mind about the Daily News. Is there a pattern of racial insensitivity in the DN newsroom? Or do the members of the Coalition simply have an ax to grind with the city's tabloid?

The votes will be counted every day, 60 cents at a time, at newsstands all over the city.

 

Kia Gregory (kgregory@philadelphiaweekly.com) and Jonathan Valania (jvalania@philadelphiaweekly.com) are PW staff writers.

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