Did Newspapers Douse Fire Story? p. 14

By: MARK FITZGERALD

W HEN ARSON consumed black churches, ministers could not get newspapers interested in the story for almost three years, a National Council of Churches official says.
“It is a story that built very slowly. Most of the media was absent. They were not there ? period. Black or white, African American or otherwise,” the Rev. Mac Charles Jones recalled at the recent National Association of Black Journalists convention in Nashville.
Editors were skeptical to the point of hostility, Jones said.
“They wanted to put the onus of proving this was racially motivated on us,” he said. “They said, ‘Show us some proof.’ Well, we thought that that was your job, that you should investigate it. We thought the way this thing worked was we would say, ‘Hey there’s a problem over here ? come look.’ And the response we got was, ‘Prove it.’ “
Particularly disappointing, Jones said, was the apathy of the black press.
“We couldn’t initially get anything in the black press ? until the white press validated it. Now that’s a telling statement. If you are getting your news from other media and institutions and never talk to the principals, it raises questions about the nature of that journalism,” he said.
Jones was part of a major NABJ panel discussion about how well news organizations covered the continuing rash of fires, which clergymen in the South and the NAACP had noticed building in 1993.
At the beginning, Jones said, there were only two papers giving thorough coverage to the fires: the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun and the State in Columbia, S.C.
The dynamics of the news coverage really changed, however, when USA Today reporter Gary Fields, as he described it at NABJ, “lucked into” the assignment to investigate the fires.
His Feb. 16, 1996 story put the first hard numbers on the scope of the arson: To that point, at least 23 black churches had been burned since two Mississippi churches did on the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
Over the weeks and months that followed, Fields and other USA Today reporters pursued the story vigorously. By the middle of this summer, for instance, Fields had written 61 articles about the fires.
USA Today, he says, gave him free rein to pursue the story.
“They said those words every reporter loves to hear: ‘spare no expense.’ . . . There were days I am completely convinced no one knew at USA Today what I was doing except me,” Fields said.
Fields, an African American, said it was not just journalistic ambition that motivated him to pursue this big story.
“I’m number one, a Christian and, two, a black man, so the story on churches to me has been a no-brainer from the beginning,” he said.
The acclaimed USA Today church fires project is also a concrete example of the value of newsroom diversity, Fields told the NABJ.
“My immediate superior, Dennis Cauchon, is a white man from New Hampshire. He knows nothing of what it is to be a black person in the South. But he does know that I can tell him ? and he listened to what I’m telling him I
saw. . . . That’s what diversity has to be about,” Fields said.
Indeed, diversity is a key difference in the reporting of these fires, and the burnings of black churches ? more than 44 in the summer of 1963 alone ? during the civil rights struggles three decades ago, says Jack Nelson, chief Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
“To begin with, one of the things I see as a marked difference in the coverage is you have blacks covering it now,” Nelson said. “There were no blacks covering the church burnings in the ’50s and ’60s. That’s obviously a good thing.”
Newspapers themselves have changed, Nelson noted.
“You had newspapers that were segregationist. Not just segregationist ? they were white supremacist,” he said. “There was little outrage. One of the reasons was there was no coverage.”
At the same time, however, Nelson observed that it was easier to identify an enemy in the church arson decades ago: They were clearly burned by Ku Klux Klan members and other openly racist groups.
That is not the case in the 1990s, and Fields’ reporting is probably best remembered among the public for its conclusion that there was no racist conspiracy behind the arsons.
Fields himself, however, says he is not content with explanations that most of these arsons were youthful vandalism.
“What we found was yes, beyond everything, there was an undercurrent of racism . . . that was in every place I went. What we weren’t going to say is, OK, this is a racist fire, this is a hate-related crime. The only thing we wanted to do is lay out the facts for readers and let them make up their mind,” Fields said.
“My grandmother used to have an expression: Turn on the kitchen lights to see where the roaches are,” he added. “Well the kitchen lights are now on ? it’s time to find the roaches.”
John Seigenthaler, chairman of the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center in Nashville, urged journalists to continue to look for deeper causes of the arsons.
“It’s a hell of a thing that it took churches to burn down for the American media to take a look at the problems of poverty in rural America,” he said.
Rev. Jones of the National Council of Churches had much the same message for NABJ: “Journalists have got to talk about racism,” he said. “I understand the pressure you’re under. . . but some kind of way there’s got to be courage and will and the network that allows you to make a pact to make that happen.”
?(The dynamics of the news coverage really changed, however, when USA Today reporter Gary Fields, as he described it at NABJ, “lucked into” the assignment to investigate the fires. His Feb. 16, 1996 story and the accompanying graphic (above left) put the first hard numbers on the scope of the arson: To that point, at least 23 black churches had been burned since two Mississippi churches
did on the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Over the weeks and months that followed, Fields and other USA Today reporters pursued the story vigorously. By the middle of this summer, for instance, Fields had written 61 articles about the fires, including a major investigative piece which ran the end of June (above right).) [Caption]

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