Publisher’s Note: The First Amendment’s nervous breakdown at 230
230 years after its ratification, the First Amendment is having a nervous breakdown.
Billions of bits of information and misinformation flood the public sphere every day leading people to throw up their hands because they can’t figure out what or whom to believe.
Bedrock principles of Enlightenment philosophers and great First Amendment champions, Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, are no longer certainties. We’re not sure anymore that truth will emerge from the marketplace of free expression or that a democracy can depend on free speech to disinfect public debate and find the path forward.
The consequences of information chaos are frightening. Thousands, maybe 10s of thousands of Americans are tricked by misinformation about vaccines and end up getting seriously ill and dying. A large part of the electorate believes former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and seems energized by the false claim to take back power. Many Americans are not outraged by Jan. 6 – the riot, insurrection, coup – when Trump tried to block the peaceful transition of power that is fundamental to democracy and never before has been challenged as he challenged it.
A year ago GJR called the election a “stress test” for American democracy and said, “The transfer of power has happened so many times we take it for granted, Yet with this self-absorbed man in the White House nothing can be taken for granted.” It seems Vice President Mike Pence needed the advice of former Vice President Dan Quayle to stand up to Trump. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff feared a coup.
As part of its annual First Amendment celebration, GJR called on some of the best First Amendment thinkers in St. Louis to write about the health of the First Amendment and 1A controversies bubbling around us – from the fields of Washington University, to the school boards of Webster Groves and Kirkwood, to the Missouri Legislature to the governor’s mansion in Jefferson City,
GJR also interviewed Claire McCaskill, former Missouri senator turned MSNBC/NBC commentator. Jo Mannies, retired dean of political reporters in Missouri, asked her about the presss, media literacy and the First Amendment during an hour-long zoom event.
One contributor to this special First Amendment issue is Mark Sableman, one of St. Louis’ leading media lawyers and a partner at Thompson Coburn. Printers’ ink flows in his veins. His hobby is his print shop in his basement. Sableman, who has spent a lifetime defending the media, writes in this issue that it’s time to rethink protection of anonymous speech, rethink the extraordinary legal protection that allows Facebook to send users to ideological extremes and reconsider Enlightenment assumptions.
As he put it, “legal thinkers need to move on from simplistic Enlightenment assumptions about human rationality. We know from modern neuroscience and physiological research that humans are far more irrational and susceptible to manipulation than our Enlightenment forbearers realized, and that psychologically targeted and high-emotion content often leads people astray.”
Those wonderful little computer phones people stare into for hours every day are providing that targeted, emotional content pushing people to political extremes.
McCaskill told Jo Mannies that all public school students should be required to take media literacy in the 7th grade. She pointed out that candidates for office are no longer expected to tell the truth or to have any experience in government. Former President Donald Trump broke those molds.
McCaskill wondered if an inexperienced businessman in Virginia could win the governorship by courting Trump voters but not embracing Trump himself. We know now that the answer was yes. Glenn Youngkin won partly by attacking the bogeyman of “critical race theory” – even though it isn’t being taught in the Virginia schools.
The same thing is happening here. Don Corrigan, the former editor of the Webster-Kirkwood Times, reports in this issue on the good-government sounding group, Missouri Prosper, that brought its roadshow to Webster Groves and Kirkwood opposing the teaching of critical race theory – which isn’t being taught here either.
Meanwhile the Missouri Legislature talks about outlawing CRT and some state legislatures are considering measures to ban use of words such as “equity,” “inclusive,” “multiculturalism,” “patriarchy,” as well as “social justice” and “cultural awareness.”
Mitch Eden, the adviser of the award-winning Kirkwood Call newspaper, knows the antidote to this narrow thinking – uncensored student journalists. Eden asked McCaskill in her zoom interview to support the effort to persuade the Missouri Legislature to pass the Cronkite New Voices bill to overturn Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 Supreme Court decision allowing principals to censor student journalists in public schools. The decision is one of the most regressive First Amendment decisions of the past half century and 14 states have effectively overturned it. Illinois has, but Missouri has not.
McCaskill told Eden she supported New Voices but was not encouraging. “My candid hat is coming on now,” she said. “Have you been to Jeff City lately? School board meetings have gotten crazy. This whole CRT (critical race theory) thing is out of control. (Attorney General) Merrick Garland writes a letter that just says we want to cooperate if there is a threat of violence….and all of a sudden it turns into the FBI is coming after parents who are protesting. So I’m not sure there is going to be much success in Jeff City.”
Maddie Myers, former editor of the Kirkwood Call and a journalism student at Mizzou, followed up by sending Eden an email explaining how press freedom for student journalists liberates them to seek the facts. “By not having my voice censored,” she wrote, “I have been able to give a voice to the voiceless and shed light on important issues” such as “intruder drills, inequality in sports, and racial equity.”
That is if schools are still allowed to use words like “racial equity.”
Academic freedom is under assault from both the left and right at universities. North Carolina balked at giving Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure even after she won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1619 commentary. And a Yale Law School diversity director, threatened a student who invited fellow students to a party co-sponsored by the Federalist Society. The diversity director told the student the invitation was “triggering” to Black students partly because “FedSoc belongs to political affiliations that are oppressive to certain communities.”
At Washington University this fall, Fadel Alkilani, student vice president for finance, removed flags that College Republicans had planted on Mudd field to commemorate those who died on 911. He said they represented “American imperialism.” Chancellor Andrew Martin condemned the removal of the flags, but then shrank from condemning the wave of Islamophobia directed at Alkilani.
Gregory Magarian – the Thomas and Karole Green professor of law at Washington University and a noted First Amendment expert – called Martin’s failure to condemn Islamophobia “baffling and shameful,” adding that for the university to “embrace the College Republicans’ political view of 9-11 and then to ignore hateful attacks on a student in its charge…cause far greater harm than Alkilani’s errant action to the culture of free speech and open debate on our campus.”
Our cover story looks at the long-dead Fairness Doctrine at a time when no one seems to want to be fair anymore. And in truth, it’s gotten hard for a professional journalist to be fair when a huge segment of the electorate believes fictions. Fairness doesn’t require the media to act as if the vaccine falsehoods or election lies or QAnon conspiracies are reputable ideas.
Susy Schultz, who recently left the Museum of Broadcast Communications, doesn’t kid herself about the Fairness Doctrine being revived. But she believes in media literacy that stresses the value of stories that are reported by professionals. “When you listen or read something, you have to feel confident that you know where the information came from, how the information was obtained and who has what stake in this news getting out there,” she writes.
Meg Tebo, a Chicago lawyer, writes about talk among Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch about tossing out New York Times v. Sullivan. Tebo worries about the “immense harm ill-conceived tinkering” could have.
One harm would be to snuff out the “breathing space” that Justice William J. Brennan Jr. said was so important to public debate – important then during the Civil Rights era when segregationist politicians like L.B. Sullivan wanted to drive the national press out of the South because they broadcast TV images of police attacking young civil rights demonstrators with high-powered fire hoses and police dogs. Breathing room is as important today when 21st century states’ righters would wall off Texas from the reach of constitutional rights.
McCaskill said it was important for citizens to rely on information from sources where there are reporters and where “reporters must run their stories past editors.”
Whistleblowers, professional journalists with editors, minority voices, local news organizations serving as watchdogs of government wrong-doing – all are vital to democracy, the contributors to this edition agree. That is why GJR honored Kay Drey for her half century of whistleblowing, Anna Crosslin for helping make St. Louis a comfortable home for refugees and immigrants, and Donald Suggs for publishing the most outstanding newspaper in the country rooted in the Black community.
When Missouri’s governor starts a criminal investigation of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch because it has performed its watchdog role and disclosed a security breach in state records on teachers, he not only shows he doesn’t understand the role of the press as a watchdog, but also that he doesn’t understand computer coding, Sableman and Post-Dispatch lawyer Joe Martineau told GJR.
And the importance of whistleblowers has been illustrated in recent weeks as whistleblowers at Facebook disclosed that Mark Zuckerberg chose profits over civic duty by pushing users toward the political extremes. A recent story described how a 2018 change in Facebook algorithms in Poland destabilized that country. Social media has been almost as effective as Vladimir Putin in destabilizing democracies, including our own.
Yes, let’s celebrate the First Amendment this year and next and every year after. But we can’t take it for granted or assume it will automatically lead us to truth and the right path for our democracy. We can’t let our democracy’s future rest on Dan Quayle telling Mike Pence the right thing to do in the face of a mob chanting, “Hang Mike Pence.”
All of us as citizens are going to have to work hard to become media literate, to check our sources, to shun prejudices and ideologues and to see through the manipulation of master demagogues who would upend our entire, wonderful experiment in order to grab back the power of the White House.
Remembering William ‘Reck’ Recktenwald
Remembering a great journalist, investigator, teacher, mentor and friend
When I woke up the day after William A. Recktenwald died this week, the first thing I heard in my head was his gravelly voice asking, “How are you doing my friend?” It was a greeting I had heard from “Reck” dozens of times over the past 15 years at the SIUC School of Journalism where we were colleagues.
I don’t think I know of anyone who stayed in touch with a wider network of friends, colleagues and former students than Reck. Almost every vacation he flew to visit them in far-flung places around the globe. On one of those visits he survived the deadly Sri Lanka tsunami.
If this were August, 2020 rather than August, 2021, I know where Reck would have spent this past week. He would have been at the SIU dorms helping students and their parents move in. He never missed a move-in week – including last year’s as he headed toward retirement – and he had the muscles to get the job done because worked out at the SIU gym late into his 70s.
There are half a dozen categories of greatness that apply to Reck. Great journalist, great investigator, great mentor, great teacher, loyal friend. But despite all that greatness, it was never beneath him to grab suitcases and boxes and tell the students and parents that SIU was a terrific school and they were wanted here.
I knew Reck by reputation before I knew him as a friend. Reck, Phil Greer and I were three journalists whom Mike Lawrence had recruited for the SIU School of Journalism. Mike, himself a journalist and former press spokesperson for Gov. Jim Edgar, was at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, which he went on to head.
When I came to SIU, I knew about Reck’s role in the fabled Mirage tavern sting, which revealed many of Chicago’s inspectors were crooks. And I knew he was a storied investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who was a finalist for a Pulitzer prize multiple times and worked on two teams that won Pulitzers.
What I didn’t realize was that Reck would be my savvy, hard-working, collaborator on some of our biggest projects in the School.
One of the worst days of our lives was April 29, 2008 when Ryan Rendleman, a talented young photojournalist on the Daily Egyptian, was killed when a truck totaled his car as he drove along Highway 127 to an assignment. On the day of his death, Rendleman had been offered a hand-out photo of a child afflicted by a disease for which there was a scheduled fundraiser near Carbondale. He could have just stuck the hand-out in the paper with a short story. But Rendleman thought he would bring the story to life by taking photos of the child and was on the way to the photoshoot when the truck struck him.
We were devastated. Reck, Greer and I had been particularly close to him along with the students and the faculty managing editor at the DE, Eric Fidler. We started a scholarship in Ryan’s name and planted a redbud tree outside the School of Journalism. Reck worked hard on both projects, tending to the health of the tree as years passed. And he took it a step farther by getting Ryan recognized at the Newseum in Washington D.C. as one of the journalists who had died in the line of duty. He remained close to Ryan’s family.
The day the Leap Day Tornado hit Harrisburg in 2012, Reck made sure that DE reporters and photographers got to the scene immediately and then called friends at the Tribune to tell them about the disaster. DE photos were on the front of the Trib the next day thanks to Reck’s intercession.
But it was what Reck did next that was special. He headed up a project to publish a book on the Leap Day Tornado to help raise funds for those hurt by the storm. Not only did Reck lead the project, he also lined up the support of the chancellor and himself sold some ads to help fund publication. He presented the book to the community the following August.
Reck also took the lead in our retrospective on the first century of the Daily Egyptian. He spent hours pulling together the names of past editors and making sure their names were all spelled right – not an easy task. He also lined up Geoff Ritter, a former student working at the Carbondale Times, to write the lead piece.
Geoff was one of scores of students with whom Reck stayed in close touch. In the end, Geoff was Reck’s power of attorney and had to deal with difficult decisions over these past five weeks as his health declined rapidly. Ritter’s obit on Reck captures the man beautifully.
As we approached the 100th anniversary edition of the DE, Reck and I talked often about the sad fact that there hadn’t been a Black editor and that Blacks often didn’t feel at home in the newsroom. We were grateful that Tyler Davis broke through that year to become the first Black editor. (And this year, Oreoluwa Ojewuyi became the first Black woman EIC.)
During most of his years in the School of Journalism, Reck was the faculty sponsor of the local National Association of Black Journalists chapter. He often found ways to fund trips for the reporters to national NABJ conferences. Reck also kept in close touch with Ugandan students we had met on trips there. He often updated me on students I had met but that he had really gotten to know.
If memory serves, Reck also once bought a car for a poor Hispanic student to drive to a far-off summer internship. And another time he lined me up to join him interceding with the court to reduce the punishment of a promising DE cartoonist who had broken a window in downtown Carbondale.
Students loved his classes. I’ve heard from many in the past few days. Reck treated them to a wry, understated sense of humor as he imparted the wisdom of half a century. One example was the story he told to stress the importance of ending an interview by asking if the interviewee had anything to add. Reck told of an interview he had with a coroner after a young man had died unexpectedly and his parents suspected foul play. When Reck asked the coroner if there was anything to add, the coroner said there was one last matter – the note found in the man’s stomach. It was a suicide note.
There were many paradoxes in Reck’s life. He was a storied reporter even though he couldn’t write or type well. He didn’t have a close family life but kept up with dozens and dozens of close friends. He didn’t have children but mentored scores of young people who remained his devoted friends. And he didn’t graduate from college, because of his undiagnosed dyslexia, yet rose to be president of the SIU Faculty Senate.
In our journalism faculty meetings he was the most savvy of operators. I was the director but always made sure I was on the same side as Reck – not only because he usually was right but also because he almost always won. His keen reading of the departmental operating papers left those of us with so-called “terminal” degrees in the dust.
Most of my journalistic mentors are dead now. But I sometimes hear them in my head – not their voices but their nuggets of wisdom. For years to come, I think I’ll be hearing Reck and his greeting, “How are you doing my friend?”
William H. Freivogel is a professor and former director of the School of Journalism at SIUC. He is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review.
‘Front Page’ to Ferguson: A memoir of half a century of St. Louis journalism
As a rookie reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch five decades ago, I sat directly in front of Ted Link, a Post-Dispatch legend.
Link never said a word to me. I never said a word to Link. But I looked up to him as one of those crusty veterans who had made the Post-Dispatch great.
One thing about Link unnerved me. Each morning, he walked to his desk, opened the bottom right drawer, took his gun from his gray suit and put it in the drawer. No one questioned whether Link had a good reason to carry a gun–the man wrote about the mob.
Link seemed a little dangerous. The police chief at the time, Eugene Camp, had told me Link should have been convicted for killing his gardener, even though he beat the charge. A Jefferson County deputy added to the mystique telling me Link was so well-connected he once had filed a story on a mob killing before the killing. That’s probably apocryphal but it gave new meaning to getting a scoop.
One of my early stories was about corruption in St. Louis’ municipal court and the bail-bond system. Considering the municipal court corruption uncovered in Ferguson 40 years later, it seems big stories return every 30 or 40 years–like comets. It’s also a reminder that injustice persists across lifetimes.
The municipal courts beat reporter, John J. Hynes, was a friend of Link’s. Hynes, an intimidating presence at 6-foot-6, had covered the mob too after a stint with the CIA. Once, upset at a young rewrite man, Dana Spitzer, Hynes stalked down 12th St. and punched him out. When I found out Hynes was accepting bribes, such as TVs, from bail bondsmen, he was removed from the court beat. Link’s friends made it clear Ted wasn’t happy with me getting his friend demoted.
There were other instances when punches flew among reporters. One famous one was when the otherwise mild-mannered political reporter Fred Lindecke punched the Globe’s John V. Colt in Jefferson City because Colt had broken the release time on a press release.
As the reader may have gathered, the Post-Dispatch newsroom of the 1970s was closer to “Front Page” than the modern newsroom with its computers and band of survivors breaking news on Twitter.
Link’s heyday was a period when he and other reporters, such as Roy J. Harris, won five Public Service Pulitzer prizes during the 15 years between 1937 and 1952. The last of those Public Service Pulitzers was for Link’s disclosure of “widespread corruption” in Truman’s IRS.
Over a period of several decades, the paper also won Pulitzers for editorial cartoonists Daniel Fitzpatrick and Bill Mauldin, editorial writers Robert Lasch and Bart Howard and three Washington Bureau reporters–Paul Y. Anderson for his Teapot Dome disclosures, Charles G. Ross for his essay on the Great Depression, “The Plight of the Country” and Marquis Childs for his nationally published columns.
Has the Post-Dispatch of the past 50 years lived up to that heritage and to Joseph Pulitzer’s eloquent, progressive platform?
Not always, but the Post-Dispatch has done a lot of good work to make St. Louis a better community.
Some of us in the Washington Bureau joined Laszlo Domjan and other St. Louis reporters to dig deeply into dioxin contamination in Missouri. “Dioxin: Quandary for the 80s” may have been an exaggerated headline. But it was a big story and part of the even bigger scandal at Reagan’s EPA. Jon Sawyer dug into defense fraud at General Dynamics. He, Bob Adams, Rob Koenig, Charlotte Grimes and J.B. Forbes, a photographer from the St. Louis office, told international stories with a local sensibility. Thomas Ottenad was the first reporter to identify Jimmy Carter as an up-and-comer and my wife, Margie, wrote groundbreaking stories on women in politics – including Phyllis Schlafly.
Grimes told the tragedy of five nuns from Ruma, Il. who were murdered in Liberia in 1992. Koenig brought us back pieces of the Berlin Wall. And Sawyer, following in the steps of Richard Dudman and Childs, traveled the world, writing stories a reporter couldn’t get from the safety of the American consulate. He was there with photographer Odell Mitchell Jr. for Nelson Mandela’s triumphal election in 1994.
Lou Rose and Michael Sorkin disclosed the sexual escapades that landed the law-and-order Circuit Attorney George Peach in prison. Terry Ganey uncovered Missouri Attorney General William Webster’s misuse of the Second Injury Fund. Bill Lambrecht wrote about the environmental degradation of Native American lands when no one else was paying attention. Most people still aren’t.
The editorial page helped block Attorneys General John Ashcroft and Jay Nixon’s attempts to kill the St. Louis school desegregation plan and crusaded for the sales tax that continued it for two decades into the 21st century. In the tradition of Irving Dilliard, Richard Dudman and Robert Lasch’s pieces exposing the folly of Vietnam, Jon Sawyer and the editorial page challenged the false narrative that weapons of mass destruction justified the invasion of Iraq.
Who can forget the PD photographers’ Pulitzer images of the Ferguson protests or Tony Messenger’s Pulitzer winning columns that grew out of an enlightenment brought on by Ferguson. And just last year Jeremy Kohler’s disclosures helped send the St. Louis County executive to prison.
Martha Shirk wrote about children as no other reporter in the country; her stories reformed Missouri’s handling of child deaths. Sally Bixby Defty was the first woman to lead the City Desk and provided a model for young reporters. Jo Mannies dished political scoops at the P-D and St. Louis Public Radio. And no other paper in the country was graced with the elegance of the column Editor William Woo wrote weekly to readers.
Kevin Horrigan was a terrific sports editor and editorial writer. He and I competed each year to write the most editorials; he alway won. Harry Levins had a gift for making complicated things simple and Tim O’Neil for bringing St. Louis history alive. And Bill McClellan was the franchise player as the local columnist.
Dave Nicklaus and Jim Gallagher have outlasted us all at the Post-Dispatch covering business, which also was the domain of Roland Klose and Ed Kohn.
This list leaves out many great stories and people with a big impact and is slanted toward events and people I knew best. I apologize for its egocentricity. It is a memoir not a balanced history. So it’s a quirky recreation of some important events, leaving out many others – Pat Rice’s coverage of the Pope’s trip to St. Louis, the sports and photo staffs’ great work on the World Series, Vahe Gregorian’s singular Olympics coverage to say nothing of the Rams’ Superbowl and Blues’ Stanley Cup.
I confess my contributions to sports and business were nothing to brag about – poor coverage of the purchase of the Rams and later complicity with a terrible editorial stand favoring taxpayer support for the new Busch Stadium.
The events recounted here certainly looked different to other journalists who have their own stories to tell about events that seem much more important.
And, like a lot of what I’ve written over my career, this memoir is way too long.
But the point is the Post-Dispatch often has lived up to the Pulitzer platform. It and other media newcomers often have made St. Louis better.
Yet, much has been lost in 50 years. The Post-Dispatch newsroom has lost more than two-thirds of the reporters. The seven-person Washington Bureau is gone. So is the Springfield, Il. Bureau. The days of Fitzpatrick, Mauldin, Engelhardt, Sherffius and Matson are over – although Dan Martin and his Weatherbird hang on gamely. The Editorial page is a shadow of itself and has been out of touch with the Black community, although it recently hired Antonio French, a strong Black commentator. Still the paper blasts popular black officials and recently editorialized to keep the Workhouse open without addressing whether too many people are locked up before trial.
Other robust news organizations also have lost muscle. The robust At Your Service news programming of KMOX is a distant memory. Who remembers that Jack Bush inaugurated it in 1960 with an interview with Eleanor Roosevelt? Search for At your Service and KMOX today and you get Second Amendment Radio. And from 11-2 each day Rush Limbaugh proselytizes the faithful with fact-free propaganda.
Other important news providers were born over the past half century — St. Louis Magazine, the Business Journal and the Riverfront Times, for example. The St. Louis Beacon thrived and merged with St. Louis Public Radio, cutting its teeth with in-depth coverage of Ferguson. And Emily Rauh Pulitzer’s support along with Jon Sawyer’s drive have turned the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting into one of the nation’s most robust new sources of news, taking its content into schools in St. Louis and around the country.
Chapter 1 – The 1970s: Ignoring civil rights
The Link era may have been golden and the city desk a bustling place with more than a hundred reporters. But it was almost all white and male and old. Ted Wagner and the veteran rewrite men would go off to Miss Hullings for breakfast after the first edition – although others traveled a shorter distance to the Press Box bar across the street to have mid-morning drinks.
Some of the jaded rewrite reporters would laugh when Ed O’Brien, the Globe-Democrat’s lone Washington reporter, beat the fancy pants crew in the Washington Bureau. Sometimes news gathering by these rewrite men devolved into calling up the cops or city hall and asking – “The story on p-1 of the Globe – is it right?” If the answer was yes, the rewrite man would just copy it.
Blacks and women were just arriving in the newsroom. Robert Joiner, Ellen Sweets, Fred Sweets, Don Franklin, Tommy Robertson, Tony Glover and Damian Obika joined the staff with Gerald Boyd, Sheila Rule, Kenneth Cooper and Linda Lockhart soon to follow. A number of the Black reporters were the product of the visionary Pulitzer scholarship at Mizzou. Cooper later won a Pulitzer prize and Boyd won three Pulitzers as managing editor of the New York Times. Carolyn Kingcade became the PD’s top-ranking Black editor and Cynthia Todd the recruiter.
Most of the women, including my wife Margaret Wolf Freivogel, had to start on the Women’s Page. Sally Bixby Defty, Connie Rosenbaum, Linda Eardley and Charlene Prost were among the first women on the city desk. By the time Margie and I arrived on City Desk in the spring of 1972, there was a sprinkling of women in the rear rows of the city room. Margie, Sally Thran and Karen Van Meter were among them. The brilliant, irascible E.F. Porter Jr. sat among them. That was about 12 rows back from the editors and almost out of sight.
Mike Milner, the short, gruff, military veteran who was assistant city editor, was shocked when Van Meter, in her 20s, threatened to throw him out the 5th floor window for butchering her copy.
Seated in the front rows were the gray-haired or balding veteran rewrite men who took stories from legmen on the beats. They were the graying princes of the newsroom. Eardley once described them as “row after row of white men typing, smoking and screaming.”
Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed sex discrimination, newsrooms weren’t paying attention. This was before Betsy Wade Boylan sued the New York Times. It was six years before the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the same year Title IX passed.
Newspapers openly discriminated. When my wife tried to get a job at the Boston Globe in 1971, the interviewer asked why he should hire her when she would just get pregnant. He could do that. It was legal.
The Post-Dispatch didn’t live up to the Platform in its coverage of civil rights. The second Joseph Pulitzer favored Brown v. Board but cautioned editorial editor Dilliard not to push for desegregation of hotels and restaurants. When Richard Dudman happened upon a civil rights sit-in in the 1950s and rushed back to the paper, he was told not to cover that kind of story for fear of riots. James C. Millstone, a mentor to many of us, filed stories on the civil rights movement in the South, but his dispatches never ran as written but were blended into wire stories – to his horror. Coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream speech” was buried far down in the story. The liberal editorial page patronizingly advised the Jefferson Bank demonstrators in 1963 to pull back from blocking bank entrances, lecturing, “does it not not owe the business efforts to end discrimination a chance to prove successful?” And in 1972, when Percy Green’s ACTION group unmasked Monsanto VP Tom K. Smith Jr. as the Veiled Prophet, the Post-Dispatch joined the Globe in keeping his identity secret.
One day in 1972 Charlie Prendergast, a beloved executive city editor, assigned me to investigate the death of Joseph Lee Wilson in police custody. Wilson was white. Police said he had fallen off a barstool; Mike Royko, the witty Chicago columnist, quipped the barstool must have been on top of the John Hancock building. Prosecutors confided that the damage to Wilson’s ribs was in the shape of an imprint of an officer’s shoe. No officer was charged.
As Prendergast sent me off on the story he gave me a final warning. He opened the bottom left drawer of his desk and pointed to a stack of stories. He told me it was a big project on racism that never had made it into publication. Make sure you don’t make the same mistake, he cautioned.
It wasn’t the only time a big racism project at the Post-Dispatch that failed to make it into print. A months-long project in 1999 also never saw the light of day.
Meanwhile, the Globe-Democrat was an accomplice of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO undercover intelligence program intended to hound King into killing himself. One 1968 document obtained by the Post-Dispatch read:
“The feeding of well chosen information to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, a local newspaper, whose editor and associate editor are extremely friendly to the Bureau and the St. Louis Office, has also been utilized in the past and it is contemplated that this technique might be used to good advantage in connection with this program.”
Another read: “The St. Louis Globe-Democrat has been especially cooperative with the Bureau in the past. Its publisher [name deleted] is on the Special Correspondents List.”
And just before King’s assassination in Memphis, the Globe carried an FBI ghost editorial complete with a misspelling.The March 30, 1968 editorial read: “Memphis could be only the prelude to a massive bloodbath in the Nation’s Capitol [sic]”
The only blood spilled was King’s in Memphis.
(For a more detailed account of how the press flubbed coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, see our special issue on race.)
The Globe, where Pat Buchanan wrote editorials before becoming a Nixon speechwriter, also attacked Dudman, the Washington Bureau Chief. Dudman reported from Vietnam about the Pentagon’s lies about the war and obtained the Post-Dispatch’s copy of the Pentagon Papers on a tip from I.F. Stone.
Dudman had reported after a trip to Vietnam, “The South Vietnamese government…may be losing and the Viet Cong winning.” Nixon blew up. A week before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Alexander P. Butterfield relayed to Henry Kissinger Nixon’s view that “Dudman is a ‘violent leftist’ and that these statements are completely opposite from the truth.”
The Globe ran an unheard of front-page editorial – “For America or For Hanoi” – essentially calling Dudman a traitor. Nixon put Dudman on the Enemies List.
On its news and editorial pages the Globe championed Juvenile Court Judge Gary Gaertner who had replaced Theodore McMillian, a splendid Black judge who went on to serve on the federal appeals court. The Globe praised Gaertner for bringing down crime after years of McMillian “coddling” young criminals. It turned out some of the court’s top staffers were horrified by Gaertner’s operation of the court. Gaertner and the Globe were cooking the figures on juvenile crime and Gaertner even was holding juveniles in custody to keep control of detention cells.
A court source mentioned Gaertner had appointed the publisher of the Globe, G. Duncan Bauman, to serve as “guardian ad litem” in some cases. This was a cushy, well-paid court appointment. I was having trouble confirming the tip. But Rep. Bill Clay volunteered to help get court records through his patronage employees in the circuit clerk’s office. Those records proved payments of taxpayer money to Bauman.
The Post-Dispatch wouldn’t run my story even after it was confirmed because it was critical of the competitor’s publisher. So I went to Charles Klotzer whose St. Louis Journalism Review, which had disclosed that the Post-Dispatch and Globe were in league having signed a joint operating agreement. I had been in Klotzer’s living room along with Ted Gest during one of those inaugural meetings of the Journalism Review. Klotzer gladly published the story on Bauman.
About 20 years later, when I had returned from the Washington Bureau, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt put forward Gaertner’s name for a federal judgeship. I reprised my stories and women’s and Black groups voiced their opposition, with Harriett Woods in the lead. The Clinton White House took the extraordinary step of rejecting Gephardt’s choice and Catherine Perry was named instead.
The Wall Street Journal reacted to Clinton’s action by accusing me by name of “Borking” Gaertner – in other words getting him rejected for politically unpalatable positions like Robert Bork had been rejected. A top PD executive who palled around with Gaertner complained to the publisher and I was asked to defend my reporting, which I did. It was the only time that ever happened.
Perry in place of Gaertner made a difference. Recently, Perry has written groundbreaking opinions protecting peaceful protesters from police abuse during Ferguson and beyond.
Chapter 2: Getting things done
After witnessing the municipal court system and its corrupt mix of bail bondsmen, disreputable defense lawyers and prosecutors on the take, I shelved the idea of going back to law school.. “Let’s get something done,” Prendergast, my editor would say. And I soon discovered that journalism was a force for getting things done.
With Paul Wagman we cleaned out a brutal Maplewood police department where Thomas Brown had been shot dead in the police station in1977 and other officers forced suspects to play Russian roulette with guns in their mouths. Gov. Christopher S. Bond sent me a pen he had used to sign a bill reforming the bail system. The head of the St. Louis pound, a color announcer on the Football Cardinals broadcasts, quit soon after a story about how he spent most of his time running his tavern – a story that required many hours of drinking beer at his bar. Monsanto Co. ended its questionable political contributions program after I met confidentially at a hotel near the airport with a top executive who provided a checkbook showing Monsanto’s Washington lobbyist directed executives’ donations to CREEP – the Committee to Re-elect the President.
I lucked out and spent a day in 1972 observing lax security at Lambert; it happened to be right before Martin McNally hijacked a plane and parachuted from the rear with his cash. When a judge ordered the St. Louis School Board to negotiate with the teachers union, I put my ear to the door in the Jefferson hotel room where they were negotiating and got a scoop. The judge laughed the next day that I had overheard how the mediators excoriated the School Board for a proposal “straight out of the 19th century.” When the South County bomber frightened St. Louisans in 1977, a six-pack of Michelob outside the hotel door of a St. Louis County cop got me a big scoop – the boyfriend of the first victim had been seen at later bombing scenes.
There were threats along the way. I started getting calls from Franklin V. Chesnutt who announced he was a card-carrying member of the KKK – literally a card carrying member because he sent me his business card and threatened to burn a cross on the lawn. City desk got a bomb threat in connection with stories about bail bondsmen. Paul Wagman – my partner on Maplewood police stories – started getting threatening calls at home, sending him to a friend’s house to spend the night. I put plastic tape on the door to our garage in Parkview because I was covering car bombings involving labor leaders connected with the mob.
So in 1980 I welcomed the idea of going to Washington and covering the Supreme Court.
But Margie and I had a new idea about how to do it. We had just had our third child, Meg, and proposed splitting a job. That way we could each have time with the children and keep our careers going.
Dudman, the bureau chief, was a liberal but had strict ideas about work. He wasn’t so sure about our proposal. One night, at a dinner party on his front porch, he asked his friend, Betty Friedan, what she thought. She told Dudman it was exactly what she was writing about, the second wave of feminism.
Dudman became a believer the day Reagan was shot. Margie went to George Washington Hospital. Close to midnight I loaded our kids into a Barwood taxi and met her at the hospital. She took the kids, I took her notes. And Dudman got what he always wanted – a reporter who could work 24 hours a day without sleeping.
Joseph Pulitzer Jr. called it “our little experiment” and we thought it might pave the way for more job-sharing. A couple of other reporters tried it, but it wasn’t the wave of the future. Still it was the best decision we made for our family.
Chapter 3: The 1980 – Chronicling Reagan’s demolition of civil rights
For the next eight years I watched as the affable movie star president charmed the American people while turning his back on civil rights, trying to kill the Legal Services Corp., ignoring toxic wastes, closing his eyes to defense fraud, campaigning against “welfare queens” and conspiring to send arms to Iran in the Iran-Contra scandal.
Some thought the big Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau was a luxury. But it was a way to explain to readers back home how St. Louis fit into the national picture.
As soon as Reagan took office, Missouri interests began lobbying the Justice Department to abandon cases and prosecutions. The Justice Department dropped a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prosecution against four McDonnell Douglas executives, including James McDonnell III, son of Mr. Mac, the McDonnell Douglas founder. The charges were dropped after Associate Attorney General Rudolph Giuliani met secretly with the corporation’s lawyer. Yes, same Rudy Giuliani same shady practices. Line prosecutors sharply criticized the secret meeting, held without them present, and blasted dismissal of the charges that grew out of paying bribes to sell aircraft to Pakistan.
About the same time, Attorney General Ashcroft was busy getting the Justice Department to reverse the Carter Justice Department and announce opposition to the St. Louis-St. Louis County interdistrict school desegregation program. The program, crafted to remedy decades of legal segregation, was just getting underway in St. Louis.
When I walked into the office of the Justice Department lawyer handling the case, I found the documents reversing the position sitting on the desk. But the lawyer wasn’t there. Having studied at the elbow of investigative reporter Lou Rose, I simply read the papers upside down on the desk and filed a story for the last edition. It wasn’t the best move for a person who later became a professor of journalistic ethics. And for a while I was persona non grata at the Justice Department.
It turned out that backtracking on school desegregation in St. Louis led to a story on a much bigger Justice Department offensive against civil rights enforcement. That retrenchment, led by Assistant Attorney General Civil William Bradford Reynolds, included attempts to end affirmative action, reverse the belated desegregation of the University of Missouri, stop suing state prisons and hospitals for unconstitutional treatment and to reinstate tax breaks for segregated institutions like Bob Jones University.
The Bob Jones case blew up on Reagan. It went to the Supreme Court, which batted down Reagan’s initiative. The Supreme Court also ignored the Ashcroft attempt to stop the St. Louis school desegregation program, which went on to become the largest and arguably most successful school desegregation program in the country. It was responsible for desegregating thousands of classrooms in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
The dioxin contamination of Missouri horse corrals and Times Beach soon became an all-consuming story. The mismanagement of Superfund sites like Times Beach by Assistant Administrator Rita Lavelle contributed to her conviction on perjury charges. The broader mismanagement of EPA doomed Administrator Anne Gorsuch as well.
Christmas 1982 was wrecked because the Centers for Disease Control recommended the Times Beach buyout on Dec. 23. To make matters worse, the Globe beat us to the story.
Working with Jon Sawyer on the General Dynamics defense fraud story was a lesson into the power of congressional chairmen and investigators. The General Dynamics investigation was led by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mi., – who always had “powerful” attached to his name – and his wily investigator Pete Stockton.
Reporters loved Stockton because he leaked information the committee had subpoenaed from companies. He’d usually leak the day before the hearing in order to raise interest. The day before General Dynamics Chair David Lewis was to testify, Stockton leaked juicy tidbits to us and other media.
One of those tidbits concerned General Dynamics charging the government $155 a day kennel fees for Furston the dog at Silver Maple Farm in St. Louis.
Sawyer and I were a high-minded pair and this story about the dog seemed beneath us. Of course, none of the other reporters saw it that way. Mary McGrory, the Washington Post’s great columnist, wrote a wonderful take down of Lewis all centered around Furston.
Before we left Washington to return to St. Louis there was one last big story with repercussions back home – the retirement of Thurgood Marshall and his replacement by Clarence Thomas. Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., was Thomas’ mentor and political ace, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” with him as he prepared to denounce his “high-tech lynching” before the cameras.
Thomas had worked at Monsanto Co. and in Danforth’s Missouri Attorney General’s office before moving quickly up the Reagan administration until he headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Marshall, the legendary civil rights lawyer, had won Brown v. Board in the Supreme Court. I remember, him enfeebled, walking with a cane, to his retirement press conference. He didn’t make it a secret that he considered the man in line to replace him to be a “snake.” Thomas went on to cast the deciding vote to end the era of court ordered school desegregation in Kansas City in 1995 – bringing down the curtain on what Marshall had begun 41 years earlier..
Having interviewed Thomas when he was head of the EEOC, I knew he was nothing like the taciturn, silent judge he projects, but rather a gregarious raconteur who enjoyed telling funny stories while smoking a good cigar. And having talked to Thomas’ colleagues in the Missouri Attorney General’s office, I also knew his jokes could sometimes be blue enough to make one devout young colleague, John Ashcrfoft, stomp off indignantly.
Anita Hill could well have viewed Thomas’ “humor” as sexual harassment – a phrase just beginning to take on a legal meaning as a form of sex discrimination.
The anger that our Post-Dispatch coverage of the Thomas hearings induced on the talk radio in St. Louis was an introduction to the deep partisan divide that was approaching.
Chapter 4 – Woo v. Campbell – journalism as a public trust vs. public journalism
When Joseph Pulitzer Jr. named Bill Woo as editor, many staffers hoped he would bring a new golden age. Pulitzer saw Woo as his protege and a believer in what Pulitzer called a “tradition of conscience.”
Two careful, novel decisions as editor ended up backfiring. One was to offer Mayor Vince Schoemehl a front page response to a tough series called “The Mayor’s Money Machine,” linking campaign contributions to city contracts. Schoemehl’s response called the series ”Half-truths, innuendo and bold faced lies . . . (reminiscent of the Nazi propaganda machine of the 1930s.” Some reporters who worked on the stories never forgave Woo for giving Schoemehl a front-page platform for his diatribe.
Woo also was proud to have set up a staff committee to replace Managing Editor David Lipman, the brash, aggressive managing editor who had been chosen over our mentor Millstone. Woo’s committee chose Foster Davis from the Charlotte Observer. Soon Davis and Woo were at odds over such things as the role of the Washington Bureau.
By 1995 Woo had become one of the nation’s leading critics of a popular form of journalism referred to as “civic” or “public” journalism. In the 30th Press-Enterprise Lecture he delivered that year, Woo advocated instead for journalism as a public trust.
He described public or civic journalism this way. “Editors sit on public boards or commissions or action committees. Newspapers are becoming the conveners of their community, the master of ceremonies of the new democracy. Journalists no longer serve or inform the electorate; they become it.”
Woo argued that traditional values of objectivity and detachment shouldn’t be dismissed so easily. “Can a paper objectively report on a burning community issue when the editor sits on the commission that is promoting a particular point of view on the matter?” he asked.
“ ….Damn right …we should listen to the public. But should the consensus at the town meeting automatically become our agenda?”
As eloquently as Woo argued for journalism as a public trust, his days as editor were ending. Joseph Pulitzer Jr., had died in 1993 and Michael Pulitzer’s choice of a successor was the anti-Woo. It was Cole Campbell, one the nation’s champions of public journalism.
Campbell’s editorship was tumultuous and short. Harry Levins likened his demise to the Caine Mutiny and sent Publisher Terry Egger a copy of that novel after Egger forced Campbell out in April, 2000.
Don Corrigan wrote in the St. Louis Journalism Review about the drastic shift from the opponent of public journalism to a leading evangelist. And Ellen Harris wrote a damaging 1998 SJR story about Campbell picking Christine Bertelson to be editorial editor at a time they had a social relationship.
Trying to head off the story, Campbell wrote Ed Bishop, then SJR’s editor, “If you publish any statements alleging that [editorial page editor Christine A. Bertelson’s] appointment was made for personal reasons, that will be libelous on its face — to her and to me.” Campbell denied this was a threat to sue but added his legal understanding had been “confirmed … in connection with this inquiry with counsel for the Post-Dispatch.”
It didn’t help Campbell’s reputation that a few years later the Pulitzers had to send attorney Bob Hoemeke of Lewis Rice to apologize to a top editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune for Campell making a pass at his wife.
By the time Campbell arrived at the annual James C. Millstone Memorial Lecture in March, 2000 and joined a discussion with Gerald Boyd – former Post-Dispatch reporter and New York Times managing editor – Campbell looked haggard and was deeply unpopular.
Boyd did not want to debate Campbell about public journalism. But Campbell immediately took after the Times as a paper for “elites” drinking Bombay martinis. He said elites buy the Times “so at cocktail parties they can say to each other: ‘Did you see the story about such and such in the New York Times?’ And then they can say: ‘Yes, I did see that.’ And then they give each other high fives. ‘We are elite. We are elite.’ “
Although Campbell bragged of having been a debating champion, it was the kid who grew up bagging groceries in North St. Louis and attending Soldan High School who won the day.
Egger, the publisher, asked for a recording of the exchange with Boyd. He also met at the Missouri Bar & Grille with Levins, the respected writing coach, McClellan, the star columnist, Carolyn Tuft, an investigative reporter, and John McGuire, a legendary feature writer. As Alicia C. Shepard reported in the American Journalism Review, Levins told Egger, “We are the officers from the Caine, and this time we are not going to chicken out.”
A few days later, on April 5, Campbell was out.
One person who stabilized the paper during this era was Managing Editor Richard K. Weil, long a source of good judgment in the newsroom. Campbell pushed him aside toward the end of his editorship.
Chapter 5: Legacy of the Editorial Page
I spent my last 10 years at the Post-Dispatch on the editorial page, which I considered the conscience of the newspaper.
I joined under Ed Higgins, the smart, blunt, clever writer who was editor. The staff was loaded with talent – Susan Hegger, who knew the ins and outs of TIFs; Bob Joiner, an authentic Black voice; Donna Korando, who published the best op ed page in the country; and the deputy Dale Singer, who knew everything about Missouri politics and education. All four later were a core staff for St. Louis Public Radio a decade later.
I regret I didn’t listen more carefully to Joiner. He was highly critical of the disparity between crack and cocaine sentencing as well as the Clinton compromise cutting back on welfare. He also immediately saw the disaster of a former Brooks Brothers executive coming in to manage the St. Louis schools. I rolled over him and later Linda Lockhart in what I now realize was a white privilege sort of way. Bob was right; I was wrong but able to control the editorial position.
Campbell threw Higgins overboard and put Bertelson in charge. He claimed the editorial page was “moribund” under Higgins. Not true. But the page was lively and had notable accomplishments during Bertelson’s tenure.
An editorial campaign by the brilliant Philip Kennicott helped defeat a voter referendum to allow carrying concealed weapons – although that victory was short-lived because the Legislature overrode the people–as the Missouri Legislature is wont to do.
When Attorney General Jay Nixon came to the steps of Vashon High School and launched his effort to end the St. Louis-St. Louis County school desegregation program, the editorial page opposed him as did Rep. Clay, former Washington University Chancellor William Danforth and the NAACP. Danforth lined up Civic Progress and an editorial-a-day series urged St. Louis voters to tax themselves to keep the interdistrict program going. Miraculously, they did and it has continued to function while gradually phasing out.
We put out a special edition within hours of the Sept. 11 attacks. “WE are living through another day of infamy. September 11, 2001, will live alongside December 7, 1941, as a day when America changed,” said the editorial. “The United States will be a different, more vulnerable place. Daily life as an American will never seem as safe or as free.”
And we cautioned in the third paragraph, “Inevitably, this fight will constrict our everyday freedoms. It could test our commitment to civil liberty.”
It did. John Ashcroft, had been named attorney general after President George W. Bush’s election and Achcroft’s loss to Mel Carnahan, who had died in a plane crash before the election.
We had opposed Ashcroft’s confirmation because of his history of opposition to the St. Louis school desegregation program and his racially fraught and successful effort to block confirmation of Ronnie White as a federal judge. I had even gone to Washington D.C. to write daily editorials in opposition to Ashcroft’ AG appointment, although that plan fizzled because the new editor, Ellen Soeteber, had promised Egger to tone down “red meat” editorials – or so I was told.
Soeteber was an excellent journalist and rebuilt the credibility of the paper. But this was one of a couple of run-ins I had with her. Another occurred when she forced out the talented cartoonist John Sheriffius for a cartoon blaming Republicans for protecting “pork” in a spending bill. She wanted more donkeys in the cartoon; Sherffius angrily drew them in and quit.
Soeteber was supportive as we criticized Ashcroft’s civil liberties abuses in the wake of 911, including rounding up 5,000 Middle Eastern men with no evidence of wrongdoing. The “enhanced interrogation techniques” – aka torture – approved by the Justice Department made a mockery of the Geneva Conventions.
A couple of things temper my criticism of Ashcroft as I look back. One is that Ashcroft stood up to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card when they pressured him to approve anti-terrorism measures that Acting Attorney General James Comey refused to approve. Comey tells of putting the flashing light on the top of his car as he and FBI Director Robert Mueller raced the White House crew to Ashcroft’s hospital room. Ashcroft, his wife at his bedside, backed Comey.
In addition, when Matt Blunt was inaugurated governor in Jeff City in 2005, Ashcroft handed Ronnie White a note of apology for the way he had blocked his federal court nomination. White told Ashcroft he was too late, but in a day when no one apologizes, I thought Ashcroft deserved credit. I also remember the old days, before the bitter election of 2000, when Ashcroft was often charming when he’d pull off his suit coat to debate Post-Dispatch editorial writers around our conference table.
The legacy of Irving Dilliard and Bob Lasch was an important reminder when Bush turned the war against terrorism into the invasion of Iraq in the fall of 2002. Dilliard had warned against U.S. involvement in Vietnam as early as 1954. Lasch had won a Pulitzer in 1965 for making the Post-Dispatch among the first newspapers to oppose the Vietnam War.
There are times when newspapers outside the Washington-New York media axis can exercise greater independence from the power structure. Vietnam was one; Iraq another.
Sawyer’s stories and our editorials challenged Bush’s claim that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction justified an invasion of Iraq. But the Pentagon’s brilliant tactic of embedding journalists with the troops in Kuwait meant that Ron Harris’ stories on local troops preparing for the invasion were on page 1 and while our work was farther back in the paper.
Most editorials take an afternoon to write. This one opposing the Iraq war took two months under Soeteber’s close supervision. She was nervous enough that we were talking on the phone even after the first edition of the Sunday paper had gone to the presses.
The editorial – A War Too Soon – explicitly harkened back to Dilliard’s and Lasch’s thinking: “The echoes of Vietnam provide a clearer warning. America feared a series of threats in Asia as nations fell to communism like dominoes; Mr. Bush sees a series of evil states threatening U.S. security. America’s military seemed omnipotent in 1964; it seems unstoppable today. America sought to contain the powerful idea of anti-colonialism wrapped in communist ideology; now it confronts a threatening strain of Islamic pan-nationalism that also has anti-colonialist roots. The Lyndon Johnson administration created a ‘credibility gap’ by stretching the facts; the Bush administration has strained its credibility by unconvincingly trying to link Iraq to bin Laden and arguing that Iraq is a more of a threat than North Korea.”
Chapter 6 – Leaving the PD and entering the 21st century
When it became known that the Pulitzers were selling the Post-Dispatch, Jon Sawyer, Bob Duffy, Margie and I had a truly bad idea – an employee buyout. Jon and I sat through a meeting one afternoon during which financiers told us how easy it would be for an employee-owned PD to take on $400 million in mezzanine – whatever that is. Suffice it to say we didn’t get too far and Pulitzer sold to Lee Enterprises. Emily Pulitzer, the chief stockholder and a friend, invited our buy-out group to lunch and nicely said this was the only sensible way to go.
Whenever we think back on our crazy idea, we breathe a huge sigh of relief that we failed. The 2005 sale date was the moment newspapers fell off a cliff. The Pulitzers walked away with $1.46 billion, while Lee Enterprises ended up filing for bankruptcy by 2011.
We joined the communications revolution and started online news operations. Many of us started the St. Louis Beacon in 2008 with Margie as editor, Weil chair and Duffy fundraiser extraordinaire. Meanwhile Sawyer had started the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in D.C. and soon was joined in that enterprise by his wife Kem. The Pulitzer Center has become a burgeoning new media nonprofit telling untold stories from abroad and at home. They are the biggest source of funding for international reporting in the country. Emily Pulitzer was key to both startups.
Margie decided to try again to publish a race project at the Beacon. She travelled around town to line up media partners. Many said it was a good idea but all had reasons they could not participate. One media executive actually said it was “too soon” to write about race in St. Louis. The Beacon ended up publishing the project with the Missouri Historical Society as a partner. It was called: Race Frankly, which included my stories on Kirkwood’s Journey.
Charles “Cookie” Thornton had killed five officials in the Kirkwood City Hall in 2008. I spent a year listening as people in my hometown described the racial hurt they still felt from racial discrimination.
I remember Harriet Patton, the strong leader of Meacham Park, tell of a junior high teacher at Nipher ripping up an English essay she had worked hard on as a child. The teacher ripped it up because it was too good – no Black child could have written it without cheating, the teacher claimed.
A few years later when Mizzou’s doomed president Tim Wolfe tried to block the Beacon’s merger with St. Louis Public Radio, Emily Pulitzer and other St. Louis civic leaders were again key to closing the deal.
As a result, the Beacon and St. Louis Public Radio newsroom had merged by the time of Ferguson and provided some of the best coverage. St. Louis Public Radio devoted the entire staff to Ferguson reporting, curating a live blog to keep up with the rapid news developments, recreating what happened in One Year in Ferguson, explaining the legal investigations and launching the “We Live Here” podcast on race and class.
Now, only six years later, the newsroom is troubled by persistent complaints about discrimination against staff members of color. Tim Eby, a champion of the merger, didn’t address the complaints effectively enough. After he acknowledged systemic racism last summer, he was forced out under intense pressure.
Overall, Ferguson was a journalistic revolution that marked the triumph of the citizen/activist journalist over the traditional mainstream media. Gone forever was the day when an editor at the Post-Dispatch or KMOX could decide a black kid killed by a police officer on a Ferguson street wasn’t big news.
The first tweet reporting Michael Brown’s death was two minutes after he crashed to the pavement on Canfield Drive. There were five million tweets in the week after Brown’s death and 35 million in the months that followed. There was no putting this story back in the bottle.
Protesters with cell phones seized the national agenda, told the story from their points of view, knit together a new national civil rights movement and scratched the scabs off the nation’s racial scars.
The Black Lives Matter movement came alive and journalists here and across the nation realized that what they had done to cover civil rights was not enough, just as what the nation has done to remedy the sins of slavery and segregation was not nearly enough.
In the Front Page days of Link, the police reporter on Saturday afternoon would have just called up the Ferguson police and asked, “Anything happening?” I know. It was my job. The police would almost always say, “Everything’s quiet.”
Police shooting a suspect from a strong-arm robbery on a Saturday afternoon in the middle of summer wouldn’t have made the front page on a Sunday paper back then. The story – which would have been based entirely on what police told a reporter – might not have been published until the following week, if at all. It would have been forgotten by mid-week.
But the communications revolution had changed everything. Never before in America had a story exploded so fast from the people who were disenfranchised. Even though the Twitter story had big mistakes, it told the essential truth about white police officers killing black suspects. And it awakened journalists to the wider truth about race in America and their responsibility to finally tell the truth about it.
William H. Freivogel is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review.
Jan. 6 insurrection raised misunderstood 1A issues about censorship and incitement
The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol raised a host of questions about free expression where the law of the First Amendment is widely misunderstood.
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who went to Stanford, graduated from Yale Law School and clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts, claimed Simon & Schuster assaulted the First Amendment by canceling his book contract because of his effort to throw out the results of the 2020 presidential election. He was wrong.
Donald Trump Jr. said “Free-speech no longer exists in America” because Twitter and Facebook suspended the president’s social media account after he stirred up supporters to march on the Capitol Jan. 6. He was wrong.
The New York Times Editorial Board claimed the president “incited his followers to violence” for which he should “be held accountable” through possible “criminal prosecution.” It was probably wrong.
Rather than violating the First Amendment, Simon & Schuster and the tech companies were exercising the First Amendment – the free editorial discretion they possess under the First Amendment to decide they did not want to publish what Hawley and Trump had to say, legal scholars said.
As for criminal incitement described by The New York Times, the inciter must specifically urge unlawful acts when there is an imminent likelihood the acts will occur. Calling on people to “fight” and to march to the Capitol wouldn’t constitute illegal incitement, absent additional evidence.
Even though Hawley, Trump and the Times’ editorial page were wrong on the law, they have a point in the broader discussion of a free society.
Many people see free speech as more a cultural norm than a legal one. They view it much broader than protection from the government. Big tech seems just as ominous a threat to many people as the government. And many conservatives, such as Hawley, argue Big Tech acts as an arm of “cancel” culture, directing most of its editing toward conservative speakers – a claim not supported by research but believed by many conservatives.
In addition, one important theory of free speech is that it serves as a “safety valve” to allow partisans – even ones spouting QAnon fictions – to let off steam – whether it’s in conspiratorial postings or in marches on the Capitol. Justice Louis Brandeis expressed it this way when, a century ago, prominent San Francisco suffragist Charlotte Whitney was prosecuted for helping form the Communist Labor Party of America. Brandeis wrote: “fear breeds repression; . . . repression breeds hate; . . . hate menaces stable government; . . . the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.”
The “woke mob”
Conservative and liberal legal scholars ridiculed Hawley’s statement “on the woke mob at Simon & Schuster.”
Hawley said: “This could not be more Orwellian. Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment. Only approved speech can now be published. This is the Left looking to cancel everyone they don’t approve of. I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.”
Donald Trump Jr. also brought up Orwell after his father’s social media accounts were shuttered. “We are living Orwell’s 1984,” he said — on Twitter. “Free-speech no longer exists in America.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Ted Cruz, R-Tex., chimed in with Pompeo likening the actions to the Chinese Communist Party, Rubio to “erasing” political opponents and Cruz to censorship.
One basic of the First Amendment is that it protects people from the government – Congress shall make no law – not from private parties such as a book publisher and social media companies.
If the government were to force a book publisher or social media company to publish certain statements – that would violate the First Amendment. But for the private companies to refuse to publish a public official’s claims – widely debunked – is an exercise in editorial discretion.
Mark Sableman, a First Amendment lawyer at Thompson Coburn LLC in St. Louis, said in an email that he supported both Simon & Schuster’s and the tech companies’ editorial decisions.
“I support publishers who make editorial decisions about the books they publish, and I think S&S made a credible decision in concluding that, now that they know more about Hawley, they don’t want to be associated with him and they no longer trust (or at least have much less faith in) his judgments.”
Sableman said he supported Facebook and Twitter exercising their editorial discretion rather than sitting back and doing nothing. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects social media companies from lawsuits growing out of third-party postings – such as Trump tweets – so social media companies can sit idly on the sidelines while their platforms are abused. That’s what most social media companies have done until recently.
But Section 230 also has a so-called “Good Samaritan” provision intended to encourage social media companies to remove indecent or otherwise objectionable posts. Still for many years the social media giants didn’t fully exercise that power to delete highly objectionable content – partly because there were no consequences for leaving it up and because more traffic meant more business.
Sableman is glad they are now acting more deliberately.
“There was one plainly wrong call by the social media companies. It was what they often did until a few months ago – stand on the sidelines, let their facilities be used for great harm, cover themselves with Section 230 immunity, and disclaim any responsibility for how their facilities were used (even though section 230 both encourages them to take action and even immunizes them from liability for doing so). Morally, it is indefensible to turn a blind eye to seriously misleading, harmful content.”
Don’t worry about Trump
Gregory P. Magarian, a First Amendment expert at Washington University law school and former clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens said he is concerned about the power of social media giants but glad to see them dulling the power of leaders to use social media for ill.
“I want a wide range of ideas, even those I loathe, to be heard,” he told The New York Times and I think Twitter especially holds a concerning degree of power over public discourse. (but) The First Amendment doesn’t require any private forum to publish anyone’s speech. Neither Twitter nor Simon & Schuster has any obligations under the First Amendment.”
He added: “Any suggestion that people like Trump and Hawley, and the viewpoints they espouse, will ever lack meaningful access to public attention is ludicrous. We should worry about private power over speech, but presidents and senators are the last speakers we need to worry about.”
Magarian added in an email, “Donald Trump and Josh Hawley will always get their messages out. Almost nobody else enjoys that unearned advantage. These men used their expressive power to do world-historically terrible things. Private publishers are responding by dulling their expressive power. Thank goodness that little thing, at least, is going right.”
American Civil Liberties Union Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane put out a statement of concern about the social media companies actions. “It should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter yield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable to the speech of billions – especially when political realities make those decisions easier.”
Clarence Brandenburg in a farm field
Clarence Brandenburg, a KKK leader, invited a Cincinnati TV reporter to cover a KKK rally in a Hamilton, Ohio farm field in August 1964. The small Klan crowd dressed up in the obligatory sheets and even had a goose-stepping Nazi there giving a Heil Hitler salute.
Brandenburg promised “revengeance” (sic) if the federal government and courts continued to “suppress the white, Caucasian race.” He also announced that the Klan members were planning to march on Washington, D.C., on Independence Day. Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington had occurred the previous year and the Civil Rights Act had just passed.
Although Brandenburg was convicted of criminal syndicalism in the lower court, the Supreme Court decided there was no way he was about to take over the government. The Supreme Court held that advocacy of violent overthrow of the government is protected speech unless “such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”
The Brandenburg test of imminent lawless action elevated the protection of free speech and long has been celebrated by civil libertarians.
The test supports the view that Trump may not have engaged in illegal incitement. Legal experts point out that Trump didn’t specifically advocate illegal action.
“If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” he said. He told his supporters to “show strength” and to “fight much harder.”
But he also stated, “I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”
Advocating that protesters fight or fight harder is not clearly advocating illegal action, particularly when followed by advocacy of peaceful protest.
On the other hand, Trump still was tweeting about Vice President Mike Pence’s betrayal as rioters were pursuing senators.
In a much-watched video, rioters pursued Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman up stairs to the corridor leading to the Senate chamber. That was 2:14 pm., one minute after the Senate suspended it election debate. Ten minutes later, with rioters invading the Senate chamber, Trump tweeted this:
“Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!”
Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” were heard in the Capitol and it became a trending Twitter handle until Twitter deleted it.
Benjamin Wittes, editor of the politically balanced Lawfare blog, wrote that, “With several people dead and the Capitol invaded, and the president having both called the rioters to town and told them to march on the Capitol, there is no way that Trump’s role in the events of last week will escape investigation…
“Did Trump merely give an incendiary speech and then sit back and watch with pleasure as the mob attacked Congress? What was his role while these latter events were taking place? Did he have contact with anyone actively involved in the mayhem during the attacks? Did anyone do so on his behalf or with his blessing? Law enforcement needs to seek answers to these questions, and for public accountability purposes, Congress does too. These investigations need to happen—and they will.”
On the day of the attack, Wittes tweeted about Trump’s action, “it doesn’t border on sedition. It is sedition.” He went on to cite the Seditious conspiracy statute that makes it crime punishable for up to 20 years in prison to conspire “by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”
Trump’s War on Truth: Year 4. The final act?
The 2020 election and Trump presidency are stress tests for American
democracy and its first principles of freedom, equality and democratic
elections. In our democracy, an enlightened citizenry, informed by a free
press, renders its judgment and a losing incumbent peacefully transfers power
to a new president.
The transfer of power has happened so many times we take it for
granted. Yet, with this self-absorbed man in the White House nothing can be
taken for granted.
Will the pillars of this freest and most successful democracy in
history withstand this one man’s assaults on values, customs and norms that
have made our republic an example to the world? Will they withstand his
four-year assault on truth during which he has set loose upon the world a Pandora’s
box of 20,000 lies?
The great story of American democracy is the ever-growing equality,
freedom and enfranchisement that have turned a nation of propertied white slave
owners into a land where every man and woman has a piece of sovereignty – that
piece of sovereignty being the ballot.
The ever-expanding temple of democracy rests on the pillars of five remarkable stories of nation-building, all of which Trump works against.
1. The 400-year fight against slavery, segregation, lynching, discrimination and racism has brought legal equality to Blacks. Yet the knee on the neck of George Floyd showed true equality is elusive especially with Trump calling Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate” while pleading with suburban women to love him for saving their suburbs from Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
2. The centuries-long expansion of suffrage transformed a country founded by propertied white men into a nation of near universal suffrage. The 15th and 19th amendments and the Voting Rights Act paved the way. Yet the Supreme Court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act and GOP-controlled states continue to this day to disenfranchise voters based on Trumpian fictions about voter fraud. Trump is even planning to change reapportionment to base it on voters, not all people.
3. Women’s Suffrage and the women’s rights movement stopped schools from firing pregnant teachers and employers from paying women less. Advocates for LGBTQ rights won their own victories against sex discrimination, including same-sex marriage. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrought many of the changes. Yet Trump brands strong women nasty or monsters and the Equal Rights Amendment’s simple statement of legal equality remains unfinished business that will stay unfinished with another Trump term.
4. The Statue of Liberty’s invitation to the world to “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” gradually led to a nation of immigrants living up to the E Pluribus Unum motto on the Great Seal of the United States. Yet Trump built a wall and branded many immigrants as drug dealers, rapists and criminals. He used that language of hate again in the final presidential debate just days before the election.
5. Over the past century the First Amendment has become a powerful shield protecting free speech, freedom of religion and the press from government interference. The press became a fourth estate to check the Congress and president when they lie about wars, weapons of mass destruction and pandemics. Yet Trump invents an alternative universe of false information as he wars against the legitimate news organizations he calls “enemies of the people.”
Without this national story of ever-expanding freedom, equality, diversity and enfranchisement, America would be a false promise. The greatness of our nation isn’t the freedom and equality that existed at our founding but the ever-growing freedom, equality and enfranchisement won by wars, rights movements and votes.
The thing is that this republic only works smoothly when all of these elements
are working together. Everyone – man, woman, gay, straight, Black, white,
Republican, Democrat, old, young, rich, poor – must have a vote and must feel
they have an equal stake. The free press must sort facts from fictions to
inform an enlightened citizenry to make the best democratic decisions.
But this election is different. These past four years have been
Unlike any other president, Donald J. Trump threatens to arrest his
opponent, his last opponent and his predecessor for invented crimes that not
even his lapdog attorney general will prosecute. These desperate actions follow
four years of evading investigation, obstructing justice and flouting the rule
of law by freeing henchmen convicted of crimes related to the last election.
Unlike every other president Trump won’t promise to turn over power if
he is beaten, instead threatening weeks or months of court challenges on a
Supreme Court he just packed. That is the act we expect from a tinhorn dictator
in some remote corner of the globe, not of a U.S. president.
Unlike every other president Trump freely spreads false claims about
his opponents. Recently he retweeted the claim Joe Biden “had SEAL Team 6
killed” to cover up President Obama’s supposedly failed assassination of Osama
bin Laden. Trump admitted he did not have proof because there is no proof. He
said he was just getting “it out there.” Journalist Savannah Guthrie reminded
him he was president, not a “crazy uncle.”
Unlike every other president, Trump has flatly called fake news real
and real news fake. When it was reported that he had ordered White House
counsel Don McGahn to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Trump called it
fake, even though McGahn said it was true.
Unlike every other president he has appeased the Russian dictator,
finding it impossible to criticize President Vladimir Putin for interfering
with our elections or for placing bounties on the heads of U.S. troops.
Unlike every other president, the most respected leaders of his party
and his highest appointments say he is unfit for office. Read the words of
Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, Powell, and Bolton. The military leaders whom Trump
once called “my generals” aren’t taking orders any longer.
Unlike every other president who praised war heroes, this president
ridiculed them. In a fit of anger he complained about having to fly the flag at
half-staff for the late Sen. John McCain, a true war hero idolized by Democrats
Unlike every other president who released his tax returns, Trump
didn’t. He’s claimed in TV debates for
four years that he really wants to release them, even as he has fought in court
to keep them secret. Turned out he paid only $750 the year he was elected, less
than tens of millions of hard-working Americans who voted for him.
Unlike every other president, Trump continued to profit from his
businesses while serving as president, even trying to force world leaders to
meet at his resorts. In fact, Trump’s
personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, admitted negotiating with Putin’s aides for a
Trump tower in Moscow until a few months before the 2016 election. Cohen went to prison for lying about it to
Congress, but Trump blithely went on making money and ignoring the Constitution’s
prohibition of emoluments.
Unlike every other president, this man uses the bully pulpit of his
Twitter account to actually bully Blacks, women, Hispanics, immigrants, black
professional athletes, female athletes, Gold Star parents. He insulted hundreds
of people on Twitter and told more than 20,000 lies, by the Washington Post’s
count, with the rate of lies doubling this past summer.
Unlike every other president, this president when faced with the
national crisis of Covid-19 has failed to bring people together but has instead
separated them by floating false information about ineffective cures and by
ridiculing those who take safety precautions such as wearing masks. He lies
again and again about the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci on masks and repeatedly
pressures scientists to bend to his political will.
And then there is this man’s indecency. He brags about the way he assaults women,
calls women who complain about his assaults liars and writes checks while in
the White House to reimburse his lawyer for hush-money to an adult entertainer
who said she had sex with him.
Oh, and don’t forget there were some good people among the torch
carrying Nazis in Charlottesville, or that the Proud Boys should “stand by,” or
that Q Anon is working hard against pedophelia when it is falsely claiming top
Democrats are operating a sex ring. And yes, lock her up – the her this year
being Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, even if that’s what the 14 Michigan
militia members were trying to do as part of their terror plot.
But there is nothing so disturbing as the president’s ineptitude
during the Covid crisis and its 220,000 deaths. Trump stubbornly refused to get
the message, even after he got sick himself after ignoring his experts’ safety
The 220,000 death toll is more than five times the battlefield deaths
in Vietnam and approaches the 290,000 battlefield deaths in World War II when
losses reached into every American community and altered the lives of families
forever. That’s happening again today but there is no FDR.
And, yes, World War II is another lesson Trump refuses to learn as he
offends European allies, cuddles up to dictators, supports Saudi leaders who
cover up the torture and murder of a U.S.
journalist and undermines the carefully constructed world alliances
created to avoid a World War III.
The question is whether the
temple of democracy can stand when the president is undermining all its pillars
– fighting against expanded suffrage, against racial equity, against women’s
rights, against immigrant rights, against reliable news organizations, against
the rule of law, against the post-World War II order, against free elections
and the peaceful transfer of power.
If all these pillars are weakened can the temple of democracy stand?
And if there are four more years of this unprecedented assault on the American
story, will we still be the freest most successful democracy in history?
William H. Freivogel is the publisher of GJR, a former editorial page deputy editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and contributes to St. Louis Public Radio. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.