On Atonement

News outlets have apologized for past racism. That should only be the start.

In 1898, a midterm election year, white North Carolinians plotted an overthrow. In March, Josephus Daniels, the editor and publisher of the News & Observer, the state’s most powerful daily newspaper, traveled from Raleigh, the capital, to New Bern, a port city on the Neuse and Trent Rivers in an area he called “the Negroized East.” There, he took a meeting with Furnifold Simmons, a white supremacist who was the state chairman of the Democratic Party, to discuss “the Negro Problem.”

The News & Observer was a reliable mouthpiece for Democrats. A story line of particular interest was how Black people had gained footing during Reconstruction; Black male suffrage had given way to a Black-majority vote in North Carolina’s eastern counties, which left the Democratic Party (until 1876 called the Conservative Party) feeling insecure. Its elite members, mostly bankers and railroad men, had lost support from poor white people as they suffered through a deep recession: when the poor whites asked for reforms, and none came, they’d broken off to form a new political organization—the Populist, or People’s, Party—aligning themselves with Republicans, the party of Lincoln, which included Black voters. The result was what David Zucchino, in his recent book Wilmington’s Lie, calls “an uneasy political and racial alliance” known as Fusion—the most successful multiracial political experiment in the post-Reconstruction South. By 1894, they’d taken the state.

White Fusionists still held the majority of elected positions, having ceded only a fraction of their power to Black collaborators. But in Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest city at the time, a multiracial government emerged. Black people served as magistrates, mail clerks, even police officers with jurisdiction over whites. And as the years went by, Wilmington, which was 56 percent Black, became home to a budding Black middle class; in some neighborhoods, Black and white people lived next door to each other. That made the city, in the minds of Daniels and Simmons, North Carolina’s worst violator of the racist social order to which they were committed.

In New Bern, Daniels and Simmons devised a coup. They would need “men who could ride”—armed white vigilantes—as well as “men who could write.” Daniels got to work. The News & Observer waged an anti-Black propaganda campaign that catered to the racist core of the white people who had abandoned the Democratic Party: There were sensationalist articles and fabricated headlines; a story claimed that Black men with “big feet” were standing in front of white people on trains. Daniels hired a cartoonist named Norman Jennett to draw racist caricatures of Black people that ran on the front page; one featured a large boot, labeled “The Negro,” stepping on a white man. Other newspapers joined in the vitriol; a frequent subject was Black crime, especially against white women. For the News & Observer, Jennett drew a large bat with the face of a Black man, a white woman beneath his claws; on the wings were the words “Negro Rule.” Alexander Manly, the editor of a Black newspaper called the Daily Record, weighed in on the Black-men-are-brutes trope, which had been used repeatedly as a pretext for lynchings: “You set yourselves down as a lot of carping hypocrites in that you cry aloud for the virtue of your women while you seek to destroy the morality of ours.”

The News & Observer’s tactics, combined with Democrats’ intimidation efforts, were highly effective. All through the summer, white people in Wilmington stockpiled weapons, some of them military grade. Rich Democrats supplied mobs with food and alcohol; they shot into Black homes as a warning to Black voters. Fearful Republican candidates withdrew from the race. Governor Daniel Russell, a Republican, pulled his party’s ticket from New Hanover County, which includes Wilmington. During his trip home to vote, white militias working on behalf of his political opponents stopped his train twice in attempts to lynch him. Russell avoided death by hiding in a mail car.

On Election Day, November 8, white supremacists succeeded in suppressing the Black vote. In Wilmington’s heavily Black Fourth Precinct, more than three hundred Republicans were registered, but just ninety-seven votes were tallied. And in case the threats of violence hadn’t been enough to keep people from the polls, Democrats stuffed ballot boxes, too. In the Fifth Precinct, there were only thirty registered Democrats, yet the party received four hundred fifty-six votes. Overall, Democrats won by six thousand votes in Wilmington—a dramatic shift from two years earlier, when Fusionists had won by a margin of five thousand.

The next day, a coalition of white lawyers, doctors, and businessmen drafted a “White Declaration of Independence,” a document with which they hoped to amend the United States Constitution. Dozens of Black men were summoned to Wilmington’s courthouse, where white supremacists listed their demands—including that Manly’s newspaper stop printing. Black people were given twelve hours to comply.

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On November 10, violence erupted. White vigilantes opened fire, first at random and then in coordinated military formation. Black people were hauled from their homes and run out of town; one man was chased by a mob and shot forty times. The death toll was recorded inconsistently, but Black families, relying on oral history, believe the number to have been in the hundreds. Manly’s newspaper offices were burned to the ground; afterward, white men in top hats posed for a photo in front of the charred building’s remains. Before the end of the workday, Wilmington’s Fusionist government had been replaced with white supremacist appointees. The coup was complete. Two weeks later, the new mayor wrote in Collier’s magazine, “There was no intimidation used in the establishment of the present city government.”

For more than a century, the News & Observer continued about its business. Americans have short memories; we don’t like to be reminded of our many sins, so instead we prop up lofty narratives of progress and unity that obscure the violence enacted along the way. There was no reckoning with the paper’s role in the Wilmington coup until 2006, when Timothy B. Tyson, a historian at Duke University, authored a sixteen-page special section detailing the events. The editorial board also issued an apology. “Without the cooperation of the newspapers, though, especially the News and Observer,” Tyson wrote, “the white supremacy campaign could not have succeeded.” That had always been obvious to the local Black community, but coming from the newspaper, it was a striking acknowledgment. (The Charlotte Observer, another North Carolina paper central to the white supremacy campaign, also apologized.)

Recently, Tyson told me that expressing regret was a means of recognizing the media’s political power. Without the News & Observer’s stories—and especially the cartoons—a hostile takeover would not have been possible. “You can’t underestimate the heat involved in these political cartoons,” he said. “They were the cable news of their day. You didn’t even have to be literate to understand them. The most important voice was the News & Observer. An apology is appropriate.”

I spoke to Tyson in the fall, as America was winding down months of all-consuming attention to police brutality, white supremacy, and how the press has abetted those harms. As Black Lives Matter led protests against the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, journalists, too, confronted their bosses—at the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, and elsewhere—demanding an end to racist practices. In October, a collective of media workers and organizers launched Media 2070, an ambitious project “to radically transform who has the capital to tell their own stories” in the next fifty years. Many newsrooms responded to calls for racial justice as the News & Observer did, with apologies. But now, to chart a new path forward, we will need much more than regret.

 

The history of American journalism is inextricably linked to white supremacy. The News & Observer’s role in the Wilmington coup was hardly the first or final example of a weaponized press. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to examine the underlying causes of civil unrest in Detroit, Chicago, and other cities where racial inequity meant, essentially, the existence of two societies: “One black, one white—separate and unequal.” The report excoriated the press corps for failing to cover the story of race in America and directed news outlets to diversify. “The journalistic profession has been shockingly backward in seeking out, hiring and promoting Negroes,” the commission found. “Along with the country as a whole, the press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” In 1978, the organization now known as the American Society of News Editors (asne) set a goal of building a journalism workforce that reflected the racial makeup of the US population by the year 2000.

That deadline came and went. Black and other journalists of color agitated for meaningful change in newsroom culture. Yet the press remained overwhelmingly white and continued to make egregious mistakes: in the eighties, with slanderous tabloid reporting on the Central Park Five; in the nineties, with alarmist coverage of the outrage over police abuse of Rodney King; and in the 2010s, when the New York Times called Michael Brown, a Black teenager fatally shot by a white police officer, “no angel.” Consider the industry’s hand-wringing over “objectivity” and, in the case of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the barring of a Black reporter from covering Black Lives Matter protests.

In 2000, asne pushed its target date for diversity back five years, and newspapers began to issue apologies for past wrongdoing. In 2004—the fortieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—the Jackson Sun, in Tennessee, acknowledged that it had ignored or downplayed local civil rights efforts in its pages. Next up was Kentucky’s Lexington Herald-Leader, which likewise apologized for failing to cover the struggle for equality in its home city. Mississippi’s Hattiesburg American apologized for ignoring the 1964 Freedom Summer protests; in Alabama, the Birmingham News ran a series of photographs depicting the fight for civil rights—images its editors had previously suppressed. A similar apology ran in the Waco Tribune-Herald, in Texas, for coverage of the gruesome 1916 lynching of a seventeen-year-old named Jesse Washington.

Several apologies appeared in 2018. National Geographic hired John Edwin Mason, a historian at the University of Virginia, to review its archives for an issue dedicated to race. He found that, until at least the seventies, the magazine depicted people of color in exoticized ways, often nude and as “happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché,” Susan Goldberg, the editor in chief, wrote. (In 1916, a photo of two Aboriginal people from Australia was captioned “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”) National Geographic’s attempt wasn’t entirely effective, however: the issue’s cover story fell into the common fallacy of using skin color as a proxy for race—it focused on biracial twins, describing one as white, the other Black—and lent credence to the notion that certain images of mixed-race people represent the future of a blissfully color-blind world. “The framing inspires the kind of coarse racial quantifying from which the issue is ostensibly trying to escape,” Doreen St. Félix wrote, in The New Yorker. “As Mason is quoted in the accompanying editorial, ‘It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.’ ”

In the meantime, the New York Times started “Overlooked”—a project dedicated to publishing obituaries of prominent figures who, upon their death, were not deemed worthy of mention—and produced a book of photos of Black people, famous and anonymous, from its vast archives. In a review, the critic Tobi Haslett observed that, through this non-apology kind of acknowledgment, “The newspaper graciously provides us with the very images it had so imperiously overlooked, as the whole endeavor calmly reasserts the grip of the media on the public imagination.”

Following these was an acknowledgment by the Orlando Sentinel of problems with its reporting on the Groveland Four—three Black men and a Black teenage boy who, in 1949, were falsely accused of raping a white teenage girl. The editorial board wrote in its apology: “We’re sorry for the Orlando Sentinel’s role in this injustice. We’re sorry that the newspaper at the time did between little and nothing to seek the truth. We’re sorry that our coverage of the event and its aftermath lent credibility to the cover-up and the official, racist narrative.” The piece expressed remorse, but it also insisted—far too optimistically—that similar coverage “would not happen today.”

As the regret flowed, Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative established a National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to the thousands of Black Americans who were made victims of lynching. To commemorate the opening, the Montgomery Advertiser published a series of stories examining its complicity in lynchings and other acts of white mob violence. (In 1892, for instance, when a man named Riley Webb was lynched, an Advertiser story opened gleefully with the line “He has been caught!”) “We need to explore the narratives of the victims and our role as a news entity because it has existed since 1829,” Bro Krift, who was then the paper’s executive editor, told me at the time. “One of our big responsibilities as journalists is to cover our humanity. We hold public officials accountable, but we are also documenting who we are.” The Advertiser ran pieces about the lives of people who had been lynched—treating them as human beings, as it never had before. The editorial board published a formal apology that began: “We were wrong.”

The Advertiser’s atonement package was praised by readers. When I asked Krift about the response, he chafed slightly, not wanting to give himself too much credit. After all, the newspaper had made a statement about the past, not the present. “All we’re doing is admitting that we were wrong,” he said. “That admitting you were wrong is bold—it’s actually sad, as a society. I think there is a strength for a community when people are willing to step up and say I made a mistake.”

 

During the Wilmington coup, the press had flaunted its bigotry. The press of today has a different relationship with white supremacy, but the modern manifestations—of language, of omission, of framing—are the offspring of Daniels’s tactics, only softened, normalized, and couched in industry norms. We defer to police officers even though they are incentivized to lie about behavior that results in the loss of Black life. We use passive language to describe police brutality. And in the past year, we have obscured the ways systemic racism has made the effects of the pandemic most acute for Black, Native, and other marginalized people; some articles have minimized or ignored how intersecting crises pose the greatest risk to those groups—the same people who continue to be underrepresented on mastheads.

Over the summer, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, I spoke with Tre’vell Anderson, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists. They described an industry that, being stuck on oversimplified notions of diversity, continues to miss the point. “Even newsrooms trying to grapple with race issues still have conversations about objectivity and whether or not we can say Donald Trump is racist,” they said. “We as Black people know what racism looks like, feels like, tastes like. But we have people in power who benefit from telling us that what we know to be true somehow disqualifies us from having a hand in documenting history.”

Anderson pointed to the distribution of power across the American media landscape—largely male and white—which has held firm despite repeated commitments to diversity. The hard work of equity ultimately requires financial investment, they argued. Anyone who has worked in journalism during this era of gutted ad revenue knows how hard that can be, especially at local outlets, but there would be money found, Anderson said, if only people in positions of power were willing to make personal sacrifices—something to which the industry doesn’t yet seem committed. “We’ve got to think about moving the resources around,” Anderson told me.

In recent months, Black journalists in newsrooms all over have registered similar complaints, and nowhere has the dissent been as coordinated and public as at Anderson’s former employer, the Los Angeles Times. In early June, while demonstrations filled the streets, Black staffers at the Times began exchanging messages about their paper’s reporting: in multiple stories, they observed, the emphasis was placed not on the history of Black American struggle, but on looting. The coverage, they complained, oversimplified a rich history. “We can’t constantly pander to our primarily white audience with stories like this that affirm their biases,” Sonaiya Kelley, a film reporter, wrote on Slack. “One of the responsibilities of the job is to state the facts and tell it true. There’s so much implicit bias.” She expressed disappointment—for herself, as a Times writer, and for the audiences she hoped to serve. Within days, the messages were leaked. Norman Pearlstine, then the executive editor of the Times, promised to conduct a formal review of protest-related coverage. (The results of the audit have yet to be released in full.)

Against that backdrop, journalists at the paper discussed their experiences as employees, identifying patterns of racism that may have been invisible to readers but defined the reality of those inside the newsroom. Since 2017, the staff of the Times has been unionized through the NewsGuild, and, emboldened by the events of 2020, a Black Caucus formed to take collective action. Under the hashtag #BlackatLAT, they published testimonials on social media from current and former employees, who shared stories of mistreatment ranging from microaggressions (e.g., being repeatedly mistaken for another Black staffer) to persistent pay discrepancies. The Black Caucus also sent a letter of demands to Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the Times. The group sought enough Black hires that the staff would match, at least, the proportion of Black residents in Los Angeles County; a correction of pay disparities; a formal pipeline for Black employees to advance their careers at the paper; greater investment in Metpro, the company’s recruitment program for journalists from marginalized backgrounds; a reshaping of how the Times covers people of color; and a public apology to Black staffers and the broader Black community of Southern California for “tone-deaf coverage that has often inflamed racial tensions.”

Inspired by this effort, in July, Latino staffers formed a Latino Caucus and launched a campaign under the hashtag #SomosLAT. They, too, submitted a letter to management: The Times had “covered the Latino community in dehumanizing ways, painting us as criminals or victims or simply ignoring us,” the group wrote. “The Times slurred Mexicans as ‘greasers’ and ‘wetbacks’ and immigrants without legal status as ‘border jumpers’ and ‘illegal aliens.’ ” The Latino Caucus also cited pay disparities and a dearth of Latino employees relative to the area’s population—Los Angeles County is nearly 50 percent Latino, but just 13 percent of employees at the paper identify as such. The group’s list of demands echoed that of the Black Caucus: correct pay disparities, hire more Latino journalists, increase funding for the paper’s Spanish-language imprint, end the practice of relying on Spanish-speakers as fixers without providing a byline, and issue an apology for “fomenting episodes of anti-Latino hysteria in California and the United States.”

In September, the requests for an apology were granted: the Times editorial board published a multipronged atonement package, detailing the paper’s history of racism. “While the paper has done groundbreaking and important work highlighting the issues faced by communities of color,” the editorial board wrote, “it has also often displayed at best a blind spot, at worst an outright hostility, for the city’s nonwhite population, one both rooted and reflected in a shortage of Indigenous, Black, Latino, Asian and other people of color in its newsroom.” Under the banner “Our reckoning with racism,” the Times enumerated some of its most egregious editorial decisions, including endorsing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; victim-blaming Mexican Americans who were attacked by Navy sailors in 1943; and producing a 1965 series on Black residents of Watts that, the editorial board wrote, “heavily implied” police brutality was a problem of the past. The Times also highlighted the numerous Black, Asian, and Latino journalists who had, over the years, agitated from within to address institutional racism—even as they pursued groundbreaking investigations, including a 1984 Pulitzer Prize–winning series on how Latinos were transforming Southern California. There was a video, which relayed that Black Times reporters covering the Rodney King protests considered themselves “cannon fodder,” and a letter, from Soon-Shiong.

The same month, Angel Jennings, a cofounder of the Black Caucus, was announced as the new assistant managing editor for culture and talent. An alumna of Metpro, Jennings was charged with overseeing the program, on top of numerous other responsibilities, including recruitment and promotion of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Jennings—who until recently was the only Black Times reporter working on local news, the paper’s largest section—had been a vocal member of the #BlackatLAT campaign and, for months, had pleaded with her bosses for a raise. (“The last few years have been so painful,” she told colleagues. “Some days, I would cry and ask the editors: ‘Why am I being treated this way?’ It felt like what was happening to me was personal, but it was just institutional.”) She had also recently been one of six journalists to file a class action suit against the Times and Tribune Publishing, alleging “significant pay gaps among the L.A. Times workforce” that gave preference to white men. Jennings had called the environment for Black journalists in her newsroom “shameful”; now, with a case pending, she was tasked with tackling the problem.

Jennings spent her first few months conducting one-on-ones with Metpro staffers and doing aggressive outreach at the California State University campuses, which she calls the state’s “working-class university system.” She rewrote the application for the Times summer internship (which received more than a thousand responses, up from about a hundred the previous year) and helped recruit and hire her replacement on the metro desk. The less tangible parts of her job, though, lay in the business of ushering along shifts in culture. Jennings described her role to me as “just being an ear as people express problems and ideas, looking over coverage, and raising the alarm when something doesn’t meet our new anti-racism lens, in which we’re trying to tell stories as we should have always been telling stories.”

There is only so much a new hire can do, however, when an organization’s white leadership feels inadequate. Throughout the year, editors at major publications—from the New York Times to Bon Appétit—were forced to resign; by October, Pearlstine announced that he would do the same. (He’d also come under fire for mishandling cases of sexual harassment and ethical breaches.) “I believe my work is done,” Pearlstine wrote in a note to staff. His departure was in line with something important to Anderson: “You can’t tell me that the people who got us to this moment will be the people who get us out of this moment—I don’t believe it,” they had told me. “If you are really committed to the cause, you’ll step down. If you are really committed to the cause, you will move out of the way of progress and justice.”

At last, in November, the Times and Tribune Publishing announced a settlement in the class action suit: three million dollars, to be paid out to some two hundred and forty journalists who had worked at the Times between February 2015 and October 2020. In legal terms, the company admitted no wrongdoing.

 

Apologies are crucial to the ongoing work of accountability. It can be heartening to see news outlets engage in acts of penance. But they are not the same as reparations—the subject of which has become more mainstream in recent years, thanks in large part to Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of the most prominent Black journalists in the business. In his “Case for Reparations,” Coates argued, “Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality. They ignore the long tradition of this country actively punishing black success.” He added that, in a complete sense, “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness.” As I dug into the recent history of newspaper regret, I wondered what counted as being sorry enough. What do apologies mean in the context of our existing media institutions and, more broadly, the governmental and social systems that continue to oppress the same communities, including some members of the press?

Just five days after settling the pay discrimination lawsuit, the Los Angeles Times ran into trouble again: Patricia Escárcega, the company’s first ever Latinx restaurant critic, said that she was being paid less than her white male counterpart—and that her bosses did not intend to correct the disparity. In a thread posted to Twitter, Escárcega said that, for six months, she’d been asking for a raise that would make her salary equal to that of Bill Addison, the other restaurant critic for the Times. Through the NewsGuild, she’d filed a pay discrimination complaint (separately from the class action suit), and, over the summer, the Times had indicated that her pay would be corrected. But in mid-November, management sent her a memo with their final decision: Escárcega was a junior critic, they claimed; therefore she deserved less money than her colleague. Escárcega and Addison were confused—the Times advertised them as “co-critics,” and neither was aware of an internal hierarchical distinction. Addison wrote a letter to management in support of Escárcega. In a statement, the Times defended its pay scale based in part on Addison’s having won a James Beard award—itself a problematic proxy of expertise, especially considering that the awards were canceled last year as the James Beard Foundation reckoned with its own lack of diversity. No apology has yet been offered to Escárcega.

Reading about her situation, I thought of the Kerner report, its directives, and how a half century of possibility had passed us by, with much more still owed. And I thought of the News & Observer, which had ultimately issued its apology only after a state commission recommended that newspapers involved in the Wilmington coup acknowledge their role. In its statement of regret, the paper had detailed loss of life, of suffrage, of interracial political alliance. But in Wilmington and beyond, it’s harder to find acknowledgment of the loss of opportunity for an entire class of people, or a reckoning with the pervasive problems of the present. William J. Barber II, the minister and former president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, is part of the News & Observer readership. Known for “Moral Mondays” and as a cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign, Barber follows the press closely. I asked what he thought of apologies like the one that ran in his local paper. “Let me start by saying, I don’t know if the language of ‘media apology’ is even sufficient,” he replied. “I think that’s part of the problem. We see damage done in this country that had great impact on the lives of people. Negative impact. And then we come up with this notion of ‘apology.’ I’ve heard people talk about apologies for slavery or for the Trail of Tears, to Native people. Something seems extraordinarily weak about using that language, particularly for me, as a person of faith.”

I asked Barber to describe the scope of the harm done to Wilmington. “What could have been?” he wondered. “Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina at that time; the wealthiest Black people were in the city at that time. What if Wilmington had become Atlanta?” In the years after the massacre, the number of registered Black voters plummeted—and their story was not covered by local reporters. That omission has had a grave and lasting impact: “The story of the Wilmington riot was so suppressed and wrongfully told that when the United States Congress started considering the formula by which it would cover states under the Voting Rights Act, many of the counties down near Wilmington, even New Hanover County itself, were not covered,” Barber said. “Forty counties in North Carolina were not covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because they said there was not enough evidence of past discrimination.”

The problems persist today, he continued, in light of Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruling that dismantled protections against voter discrimination. That case was decided on June 25, 2013. “Now, ever since June 25, 2013,” Barber said, “the Congress could have fixed the Voting Rights Act. We’ve had seven years now, over two thousand six hundred days, I think, and we’ve not seen an article that has said Thom Tillis”—a senator representing North Carolina—“and the Republicans refusing to put fixing the Voting Rights Act on the floor of Congress is, in fact, a form of racism.” He went on: “There’s not been one story to look at every legislator in our state and raise with them: Why is it that you have refused to act on the duty that the Supreme Court put in your court for over two thousand days? What is your legitimate reason for blocking the restoration of the Voting Rights Act? It’s the depth of the coverage, the probing of the issues, that’s still too often not engaged.”

Robyn Tomlin, who has been the executive editor of the News & Observer since 2018, wasn’t around for the apology project, though she told me, “It’s long past time for news organizations to shine a light on their own role in overtly or covertly supporting white supremacy.” When I asked about the implications for her paper’s current coverage, she replied, “We continue working to make amends through our focus on reflecting the fullness of our community and refusing to shy away from uncomfortable truths by using our journalism to show the ways inequality and injustice continue to affect our community, state, and nation.”

For Barber, any media apology must come with repentance—true corrections, not merely gestural improvements. As we spoke, he recalled a conversation he once had with John Hope Franklin, the scholar of African-American history, about the country’s failure to correct the vast wrongs of slavery. “He put it like this: ‘If you can keep a people in slavery for two hundred and fifty years and build your entire economy off of their free labor, their labor actually allows you to economically jump way ahead of countries much older than you,’ ” Barber said. “And then you are, on top of that, able to invoke a hundred years of legalized segregation and lynchings and abuse. And then at the end of that, the country gets to say, Sorry. We were wrong. And that’s the extent of it.” He added, “It says to me, who wouldn’t take that deal? That is actually a great diminishing of all of the damage that was done.” Regret without restitution is maintaining the status quo.

 

Seeking resolve, I turned to the hundred-page essay released in the fall by Media 2070, which invites journalists and other members of the public to imagine what “media reparations” might look like for the journalism industry. The essay details a history of the damage done to Black people by the American press, but the project is ultimately forward-looking. Alicia Bell, one of the Media 2070 organizers, told me that they began to consider what restitution would look like, with media reparations defined as “a way of holding the reconciliation, the restoration, the repair that needs to happen within the media, but also at a policy level, that transforms the media landscape.” The effort is a call for ideas as much as it is a call to action.

Media 2070 grew from the work of Black staffers at Free Press, a journalism advocacy nonprofit. “We were having community conversations often and visioning sessions, doing media ecosystem mapping with different communities,” Bell said. “One question we’d open up with is, What is your relationship with local news? By and large, Black folks and people of color said, ‘I can’t really assess the relationship, because there isn’t a relationship.’ It’s really a place of deficit and harm.”

It can be hard to see the potential for radical transformation in the world of corporate news media—change that would reconceptualize who and what journalism is for, how it’s produced, and who makes decisions—but I was intrigued by Bell’s connection between ideas of harm reduction and liberation. “Reparations are both a destination and a pathway,” they told me. “Reparations are not the only goalposts.” The revolution that Media 2070 has in mind involves nurturing nontraditional independent media and changes to policy and practice. Money is key, too: recently, Bell and a colleague, Simon Galperin, called upon the Knight Foundation to redistribute a billion dollars of its wealth to media justice initiatives. (As of 2019, Knight was worth $2.4 billion.) In a piece for Nieman Lab, Bell and Galperin described Knight as the successor to the Georgia Telegraph, a newspaper that made its fortune in part by selling ads for escaped slaves. “It continues to make journalism the beneficiary of historic and ongoing injustice,” they wrote.

The American press today is certainly different, if not always better, than it has been in the past. Journalists, led by Black and other people from marginalized backgrounds, have fought admirably to change the way we report on inequity, to shed the baggage of both-sides-ism. But attempts to address structural inequities can feel maddeningly cyclical: there are periods of pressure we call reckonings, then institutions relapse into their old ways. The shifts can be jarring. Recently, the Kansas City Star published an apology to Black readers detailing how “Decade after early decade it robbed an entire community of opportunity, dignity, justice and recognition.” And then I checked Twitter, where I continue to scroll through posts detailing newsroom failures—about editors questioning the role of white supremacy in explaining the past five years of American political life, say, or the Los Angeles Times (still) refusing to call George Floyd’s death “cruel.” Too often, conversations aiming to assess a newsroom’s performance come with an urge to self-congratulate, so as to soften the embarrassment of too-slow progress. We are eager to talk about our gains, yet still too skittish in confronting our failures. After decades of attempting reform, we need to wonder how sincere we’ve been, if we have been truly reckoning with anything at all.

I put the question to Bell. “Black folks are used to being called into conversations without seeing material or structural change,” they replied. “So I think there’s a rightful hesitancy to say this reckoning isn’t going to do anything.” Then they continued, “What it reminds me of is this quote by this farmer up in Virginia. He’s a Black and Indigenous farmer. Folks were asking him about land acknowledgments and people who make a stand not to celebrate Thanksgiving. He said that any gesture regarding dispossession or redistribution that results in white people feeling good, but leaves Indigenous people in the exact same position we were in before, is an affirmation of white supremacy.” I felt a sense of kinship with that man. Apologies are nice, of course, but something else is required. And, certainly, something else is possible. We’re ready when you are.

 

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Krift’s name. 

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at the Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.

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