Disagreement Leads To Resignation p. 14

By: Tony Case

Black columnist resigns from New Jersey paper after
editor asks her to include other opinions in her piece sp.

A BLACK COLUMNIST resigned from a prominent New Jersey newspaper after her editor expressed “serious misgivings” about a piece she wrote.
Lisa Baird wanted to use her space in the Record, Bergen County, to ponder the black community’s response to a December shooting rampage on the Long Island (N.Y.) Rail Road. Colin Ferguson, a Jamaican immigrant living in Brooklyn, N.Y., was charged with killing six and injuring 19 people on an evening commuter train.
In a column submitted the week of the episode, Baird wrote that many blacks “braced for the inevitable” after learning that Ferguson was black ? “a tragic response, but one many black people experience whenever a horrendous crime is perpetrated, especially against white victims.”
Record editor Glenn Ritt refused to run the piece as it was presented and wrote to Baird rationalizing his decision.
The columnist, who had worked at the paper for more than three years, left the following week.
“While I want to give my columnists maximum latitude and autonomy, I remain the editor and I have to feel I can support or defend any column or any editorial,” Ritt said in a note, which Baird provided to E&P.
He acknowledged that the point of the column ? fear of a backlash against all blacks because of Ferguson’s alleged actions ? was valid but suggested that Baird report the views of others as well as her own observations.
“This is the perfect opportunity to reach into the community itself and let the community be reflected,” he wrote, adding, “I strongly believe it would be appropriate to measure the true pulse of the African-Ameri-can community.”
Columns should “percolate from the real world, not your intellect,” the editor maintained, saying Baird’s pieces had “increasingly become commentary.”
He feared that the column might be seen as an “apo-logia” for Ferguson’s alleged actions and could damage Baird’s effectiveness.
“This issue is very raw,” he wrote. “There are lots of shaken and scared people. I would caution that we go slow here and let some days go by at the very least. Let the story develop. Let’s be awfully careful about analyzing it with such raw emotions.”
The column, which focused on an incident that occurred in New York, appeared in the Record’s North Jersey section.
Ritt wrote that if Baird insisted on writing commentary, her piece would have to run on the op-ed page and that “remains at least a month away.”
Baird related in an interview that she offered a revised version of the column the following day, reporting comments by an Englewood, N.J., official who commutes to Long Island.
She said that when Ritt told her to include still more voices, her response was, “This is bullshit. No other columnist around here is required to do that. The rules are arbitrary and don’t apply to any other columnist at the paper.”
When asked what she wanted to convey in the column, Baird said, “When something like this happens, African-Americans aren’t granted the humanity of just being able to respond to it as a tragedy. We also have to respond to the backlash and finger-pointing against the race.
“Also, we have to deal with the internal anger when you see the difference in how the killing of these people affected society at large. People from the president on down were calling for gun control, but blacks and Latinos get gunned down every day. It triggered a lot of emotions.”
In his note, Ritt indicated a desire to argue about the column with Baird intellectually and “work this one out,” saying he was “not at all comfortable trying to do this on the run at this hour.”
Baird, who joined the New York Post as an assistant metro editor in January, retorted, “I try to avoid intellectual discussions with Glenn Ritt like the plague.”
She explained, “He’s always trying to push me in a certain direction with the column, so I’ve always tried avoiding talking with him. He’d never come right out and say he disagreed with a column, so I tried to keep my distance with him since we were not having an honest discussion.”
Ritt, wanting to avoid a “he said/she said” scenario, prepared a statement that said, “I did not kill the column. I endorsed its thrust and its goals. I asked that it be made more convincing by reaching out to numerous readers in the African-American community for their reactions and insight.
“I created the column. I appointed Lisa to the post. I was proud of the column and disappointed by her resignation. Controversy alone associated with any column never is a sticking point; it comes with the territory.”
Record publisher Malcolm Borg had no comment on the matter.
Baird said she “desperately” misses opinion writing but does not know if or when the opportunity to pen another column will arise.
The 200-member National Society of Newspaper Columnists supported Baird in the dispute.
NSNC president Bill Tammeus, a Kansas City Star and New York Times News Service columnist, sent a letter to Ritt saying, “Any time freedom to express [a] voice and personality in service to readers is lost or threatened for one columnist, all columnists are in jeopardy.
“Newspapers should meet readers’ needs by encouraging a broad range of distinctive voices among columnists. Action that produces fewer voices or voices of narrower range must be seen as detrimental to the column writing craft and, worse, harmful to readers, who need all the help they can get to understand the world.”
In an interview, Tammeus said, “We tried in this case, as we have in one or two others, not to get too deeply involved in the details of exactly what happened but tried to point out in broader, more philosophical terms that you should not shut down the voice of a columnist without a damn good reason.
“This appears to be a lesson editors need to hear from time to time, and this seemed like a good opportunity to say that.”
?( Thi bullshit. No other columnist around here is required to do that. The rules are arbitrary and don’t apply to any other columnist at the paper.” -Lisa Barid) [Photo & Caption]
?(” I did not kill the column. I endorsed its thrust and its goals. I asked that it be made more convincing by reaching out to numerous readers in the African-American community for their reactions and insight. I created the column. I appointed Lisa to the post. I was proud of the column and disappointed by her resignation.” -Glenn Ritt.) [ Photo & Caption]

DATE: Sat 23-Apr-1994
PUBLICATION: Editor & Publisher
CATEGORY: Clarification
SUBJECT: Resignation
AUTHOR: Tony Case
LOCATION: Page 14

QUICK WORDS:

clarification disagreement resignation NJ editor black columnist lisa baird colin ferguson long island rail road jamaican immigrant NSNC discrimination

FULL TEXT:

Clarification p. 9

A STORY ABOUT former columnist Lisa Baird’s resignation from the Record, Bergen County, N.J., (E&P, April 9, p. 14) mistakenly said a column she wrote about a December shooting rampage was published in the paper’s North Jersey section. The piece was scheduled to run in the North Jersey section but was not published.

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