By: George Garneau
Black columnist Earl Caldwell says New York Daily News spiked
his column, then fired him; paper defends spike, says he quit sp.
A DISPUTE ABOUT a racially charged column has cost New York Daily News columnist Earl Caldwell, the paper’s most prominent black writer, the job he has held for 15 years.
Editorial page editor Arthur Browne said he spiked the column, which reported allegations that a white police officer used his badge and gun to rape six black male livery cab drivers, because it was unfair.
“In essence, he convicted the cop of the alleged rapes,” Browne said. The column showed no sign “of any effort to get the cop’s side of the story.”
“I couldn’t in good conscience publish that column, and I was unable to edit my way through it,” he said, adding that discussion with Caldwell on “how to make it fair proved fruitless.”
Browne denied firing Caldwell but said that because the columnist failed to return a phone call and made statements to the press that he had been fired, “we don’t think we have any choice but to accept his severance,” Browne said.
Caldwell, who said Browne fired him during an argument on the phone, defended the column and accused the Daily News of “practicing the most blatant censorship I’ve encountered in more than a quarter century in this business.”
He called it “an insult to the First Amendment.”
“I’m surely going to contest this,” Caldwell said, “and if needs be, I will do it in a court of law . . . . I think racial discrimination is involved here and slander is involved here and so is illegal and improper firing.”
Browne said the column “was subjected to the normal editing process and judgment and if that’s censorship, it’s done every day at every newspaper in the country.”
“Opinion has got to be based on fact and fairly expressed,” Browne said.
“I’m a columnist,” Caldwell countered. “My column is supposed to be my opinion.” He said he saw nothing wrong with it.
“I look at my column as I am the other side. I try to give some voice to the voiceless,” he said. “Now they say we only want one point of view and you get in lockstep with that or you get out.”
He said Browne “has a problem with black men and a problem with race. He feels he has to be the great protector of white people.”
Browne called the comments “hurtful and unfair.”
“We never tried to squash his opinion,” he said.
Since he was named editorial page editor, Browne said, he has added two black columnists to the lineup, Stanley Crouch and Playthell Benjamin.
Caldwell said the story of the charges against the officer ? already widely reported in the black media, where the alleged victims have become known as the “Far Rockaway Five,” for the area of Queens, N.Y., in which they and the officer worked ? needed to be told in the mainstream press.
He said the Daily News’ account, in the zoned Queens edition, ignored the racial element that has incensed the black community.
“Of all the complaints of police brutality, nothing matches what is being charged in Queens,” Caldwell said. “We are talking about a brutal serial rapist.”
The officer is still on the job a year after the first complaint was filed against him and after six drivers came forward with the same allegations.
Caldwell said the black press has informed readers about the story but the mainstream press has not.
“If this were a black officer accused of raping six white citizens, he would be assigned to desk duty and newspapers would be publishing this story. There’s no doubt in my mind,” he said.
Browne said he particularly objected to one quote in Caldwell’s column in which a lawyer for the alleged victims, who are suing the police department, suggested that the officer also may have killed.
Caldwell said he volunteered to remove the officer’s name but was rebuffed. Asked about the officer’s side, he said, “The cop’s not about to talk.”
Browne said deleting the officer’s name would not have made the column fair nor would a routine denial from his attorney necessarily because the “presentation” was unfair.
Browne said that because the column involved serious issues, “You have to present them in such a way as to show readers they’re dealing with allegations not conclusions.”
The Queens district attorney’s office and the police department are investigating allegations against Officer Reggie Rivera, who is named in a $20 million lawsuit filed in federal court in Brooklyn charging that the drivers were raped in separate incidents while Rivera was on duty.
The plaintiffs, four Africans and a Trinidadian, said they were pulled over and questioned before being taken to secluded areas, handcuffed and raped. A witness who interrupted one incident was chased away at gunpoint, the plaintiffs’ attorney said.
Prominent blacks ? including the Revs. Al Sharpton and Timothy Mit-chell and the leader of a group of black police officers ? have demonstrated outside the prosecutor’s office three times in three weeks to protest the lack of action.
Scant coverage in the city’s four dailies has prompted callers to black talk shows to complain of a double standard: Blacks who commit crimes against whites get front-page headlines, while crimes by whites against blacks are ignored or downplayed.
Others agreed, citing recent front-page coverage of a gang of black youths accused of raping a white woman in a housing project and in Coney Island, the beating, robbery and gang rape of a Russian woman allegedly by a band of black teen-agers.
“Black against white sells,” Caldwell said. “This is what they lust for. In this case, they are covering it up.”
Caldwell, 52, is best known among First Amendment lawyers for the landmark 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Branzburg vs. Hayes. Caldwell, then a New York Times reporter, was charged with refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating the Black Panther Party. He and two other reporters lost the Supreme Court case, but the decision spawned a qualified protection for reporters who are ordered to testify about confidential sources.
Despite the chaos at the Daily News in recent years, where his liberal views appeared thrice weekly, a succession of editors has upheld Caldwell’s right to express his opinions, he said.
In the 14 years before Mortimer Zuckerman bought the paper last year ? and moved Browne to editorial page editor from managing editor ? only one column was spiked: It described 42nd Street porn shops in vivid detail.
But in the past year, Browne has killed about six of his columns, Caldwell said.
He linked his firing to the ouster of all the black male journalists, along with many whites, from the city room when Zuckerman bought the paper and to a 1987 lawsuit, in which a jury found the paper guilty of discriminating against four blacks, who settled for $3.1 million.
Caldwell said the Daily News under Zuckerman has “withdrawn support” for his column by canceling his phone card and leaving him without a contract since last year. He called his last contract offer “insulting.”
Browne said he killed one other Caldwell column and defended his decision. That column quoted a black man whose son had been killed by a car full of Orthodox Jews, an accident that ignited a riot, as saying that state investigators failed to contact him, an account that conflicted with the investigative report, Browne said. He said both columns were based largely on single sources.
Adam Thompson, attorney for the black cab drivers, said charges first were filed with the police department’s Civilian Complaint Review Board in early 1993. The victims, who are named in court papers, have asked the court to order the officer off the beat for allegedly threatening an eyewitness at gunpoint, he said.
Thompson called press coverage of the case “totally unusual” for its absence, except in the black media. A police officer accused of being a serial rapist on duty “has so many different angles there’s no rationale it would not be a national story,” he said.
Caldwell’s departure made front-page news in the city’s black press. The City Sun printed his column.
A City Sun story by former Daily News journalist Joan Shepard, one of the plaintiffs who won the 1987 discrimination verdict against the paper, said support for Caldwell in the black community is growing.
Bill Tammeus, president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and a Kansas City Star columnist, called Caldwell’s ouster “disturbing” and said, “Readers now are deprived of the provocative insights of a man with long experience.”
After Curtis Austin at the Dallas Morning News and Lisa Baird at the Bergen County, N.J., Record, his loss makes three black columnists who lost jobs in the past two years in disputes with editors, depriving readers of their “special wisdom,” Tammeus said.
Already short on minority columnists, he said, editors should be adding to their numbers “not finding ways to silence their voices.”
Wilbert Tatum, editor and publisher of the black-oriented New York weekly Amsterdam News, said Caldwell “has an enormous following” in the city’s black and liberal white communities and his loss will be felt deeply.
?(Earl Caldwell’s departure made front-page news in New York’s black press. The City Sun printed his column.) [Photo & Caption]