New democracy editor position at Associated Press should be model for all newsrooms

By Jackie Spinner

The Associated Press recently announced that it was creating a new position for a “democracy editor.” It tapped a long-time AP veteran and state government editor for the position. When Tom Verdin, who is in Sacramento, steps into the new role, he will oversee coverage of stories about voting rights and election processes. 

In making the decision, AP’s executive editor Julie Pace acknowledged that such topics were often covered by political and government journalists. “The challenge that a lot of news organizations are facing when it comes to covering democracy is that, yes, this is of course a national issue, a macro issue, but it’s playing out all across the country in very local ways,” Pace told CNN.

She pointed, in particular, to a standoff in a New Mexico over certifying local election results. One of the key figures in that dispute was a county commissioner who was just sentenced for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

AP’s move is a good one and should be replicated in every newsroom in America, including the smallest ones. 

Far too many of our readers, as evidenced by the support the Jan. 6 insurrectionists still have, do not seem to understand how government works and why threats to it undermine the core of our democratic principles.

Half of Americans (49%) said it was accurate to say that arresting those who entered the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to disrupt the certification of the presidential election violated the Constitution because they were exercising their constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. An equal number (49%) said the statement was inaccurate, and arresting those who entered the capitol did not violate the Constitution, according to the 2021 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.

It certainly doesn’t help when politicians themselves spread misinformation about how government works. Or when partisanship so taints the conversation that it becomes difficult to hear each other. That misinformation then leads to distrust.

A late 2021 poll by Pew Research found that just a quarter of Americans had faith in their government, a striking and near historic low.

We need a new approach.

In addition to covering local school boards and local elections, we owe it to our readers, and to ourselves as watchdogs of our democratic institutions, to explain better how the system works. In fact, we can and should do a better job of explaining to our readers what our role is in holding these institutions and processes accountable.

This doesn’t have to cost us money to add new staff to our newsrooms. We can follow the lead of the City Bureau in Chicago to deputize our readers to help us cover local government. 

The Documenters Network has trained more than 1,600 people across four cities to attend and annotate government meetings. Part of the training involves teaching people how to document objectively, without a partisan agenda.

With their mobile devices, our readers can help live stream public meetings, provide multimedia reports and take notes. It will give them a bigger stake and provide us with partners in holding government accountable.

In Detroit, a network participant reported recently from the Board of Water Commissioners on an affordability plan. Another provided coverage of a City Council meeting where a new tax abatement was debated. In Cleveland, a citizen tweeted from a school board meeting in which members unanimously approved a ban on guns in schools. 

With a slight reframing of our coverage and with new involvement from our civic-minded readers, we don’t have to wait for the national and bigger media outlets to find us when controversy erupts, as it did in New Mexico.

We need more “here is how it works” features, community forums, invitations to our readers, transparency.

We do not yet have the trust of the public back after the battering we took under the former president. One way we can rebuild that trust is by inviting people into the process, by taking away the mystery of how reporters do their jobs, how we cover government, how we watch.

Because the fact is that we are watching. We’ve always been watching.

A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.

Nonprofit news outlets bolster statehouse coverage across the country, including in Illinois

Full time statehouse reporters are now a luxury for many news organizations. 

Brenden Moore, who reports on state politics and government for Lee Enterprises, said It’s impossible to talk about the decline of full time statehouse reporters without talking about the decline of the newspaper industry as a whole.  

“If you’re struggling to cover city council, school board, and cops in courts in your own community then the statehouse beat takes a back seat,” Moore said. “It’s not even really a thought. Why would you spend resources to have somebody in Springfield, [Illinois] when you need them covering your community?” 

(Photo by Randy von Liski via Flickr)

While there has been a decline in full time statehouse reporting roles, nonprofit journalism organizations have provided a heighthed amount of part time roles for the beat.

“Nonprofit organizations have come into statehouse reporting with a lot of force,” said Katerina Eva Matsa, associate director of Pew Research and co-author of a recent Pew study on statehouse reporting. “The numbers have almost quadrupled since 2014.”

Full time and part time nonprofit reporters constitute 20% of the statehouse corps. There are 353 statehouse reporters who work for nonprofits, up from 92 in 2014. This phenomenon largely has to do with the decline of the newspaper industry, which significantly spiked between 2014 and 2022. However, newspapers still account for the largest portion of statehouse reporters nationally — making up 25% of the statehouse corps. 

Last month, the Pew Research Center published a study that found the total number of U.S. statehouse reporters has increased by 11% since 2014, which was the last time the study was conducted

Although, within that number, there are significantly fewer full time reporters. Pew identified 1,761 statehouse reporters in their most recent study with just under half (48%) being full time. The study defined full time reporters as those who “are assigned to the state’s capitol building to cover the news there on a full-time basis – either year-round or during the legislative session – reporting on everything from legislative activity to the governor’s office to individual state agencies.” 

The study further highlights how being “fully devoted to this coverage often provides the greatest opportunity to engage with the statehouse and produce stories that go beyond the basic contours of daily news.”

Jason Piscia, the director of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at University of Illinois Springfield, gathered industry colleagues to discuss these findings in a Zoom panel titled, The State of Statehouse Reporting, on May 4. Among these colleagues were Katerina Eva Matsa, associate director of Pew Research and co-author of the study, Brenden Moore, state politics and government reporter for Lee Enterprises, Jerry Nowicki, statehouse bureau chief for Capitol News Illinois and Hannah Meisel, the state government and politics editor for NPR Illinois.  

“I’m alway very excited and thankful when our research gets into these types of conversations,” Matsa said. “It’s important to think about Americans and how they get their news and how it affects their lives. What happens on the state and local level is important for helping Americans make decisions that actually have an effect on their daily lives. That was our goal and our purpose and we are going to continue looking at local news [through our research].”  

With a limited number of full time statehouse reporters on a national scale, which has been generated by significant layoffs in the newspaper industry, there are no longer sufficient amounts of veteran journalists who young reporters can look up to for guidance when it comes to the ins and outs of the beat. 

“We have lost so much institutional knowledge,” said Hannah Meisel, the state government and politics editor for NPR Illinois. “Along with institutional knowledge, we’ve also lost a lot of folks to look up to and model our journalism and our approach to statehouse reporting. If you don’t have model journalists and model editors with institutional knowledge then the guardrails are off.”

On top of this loss of institutional knowledge in statehouse reporting, there has been a loss of access to state politicians due to COVID-19. Throughout the study’s in-depth interviews with reporters and academics, Eva Matsa said COVID-19 flooded all of the conversations. 

Jerry Nowicki, the statehouse bureau chief for Capitol News Illinois, said there’s always something to learn being in-person on session days, a form of engagement that has been limited by COVID-19. 

“In terms of the access at the Capitol, it’s absolutely gotten worse since COVID-19,” Nowicki said. “There’s a lot of locked doors in the senate. Sometimes the elevators are off. You can’t even get up to the areas where lawmakers mingle and where you might learn something that you won’t print but it will help inform the type of stories that you print.”

Meisel agreed and said this lack of access prevents reporters from getting to the meat of legislation in their stories and prevents them from providing substantive information. 

“There’s an old cliche that says Statehouses are the laboratories of democracies,” Meisel said. “If we don’t have adequate coverage of that then we have a government that is unaccountable.”

Editor’s Note: GJR has published numerous stories about statehouse reporting, along with the importance of small organizations’ roles to provide coverage. In this story, GJR detailed the nonprofit, Capitol News Illinois, an initiative of the Illinois Press Foundation. The organization provides free statehouse coverage to its members with full time staff members at the bureau. 

Nick Karpinski is a writer and M.A. student at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he studies topics surrounding media ecology and expanded media environments.  

Libel decision shut down segregationists clinging to Jim Crow

To understand why New York Times v. Sullivan is one of the great First Amendment victories of the past century, take a journey back to the segregated America of the1960s.

America was a place where racial segregation and discrimination were the law of the land and a way of life in the South, Midwest and much of the North. Restaurants and hotels were segregated by law. Billboards called for Earl Warren’s impeachment. George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. Parents spit on Black children integrating Central High School in Little Rock. J.Edgar Hoover’s FBI snooped on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and tried to get him to commit suicide. The FBI sent anti-King editorials to friendly newspapers, such as the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. One Globe editorial printed immediately before the King assassination said, “Memphis could be only the prelude to a massive bloodbath in the Nation’s Capitol [sic] ….”

All across the South, segregationist politicians tried to intimidate the national press by winning big libel judgments in biased southern courthouses. TV images of Bull Connor’s police using fire hoses and police dogs on teenage demonstrators were changing the minds of people in the Midwest and North. And the segregationists wanted to shut them up.

The $500,000 judgment that L.B. Sullivan won against the Times in the trial court – even though he hadn’t been mentioned by name – was a small indication of the financial threat to the media posed by libel suits.

(Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk via Flickr)

Harrison Salisbury, the legendary Times reporter and editor, estimated that the Times faced about $3 million in libel and criminal libel verdicts in the South, all flowing from civil rights coverage. Justice Hugo Black noted in his concurrence the opinion wrote that the Times had 11 libel suits against it in Alabama alone, seeking a total of $5.6 million. CBS faced another $1.7 million, he noted. This situation came at a time when the nation’s leading newspaper was financially vulnerable, having just started to recover from a financially damaging strike. George Freeman, a former New York Times lawyer, said that the advertising side of the Times argued in favor of the paper pulling out of the South editorially because of the financial threat of the libel suits.

In short, New York Times v. Sullivan wasn’t just about protecting the press. It was about making democracy work. News stories and commentaries about cutting back on its protections in the wake of Sarah Palin’s failed libel suit against the Times, sometimes skip over how important the decision was at a seminal moment in American history.

Breathing room for democracy

The case was argued in the Supreme Court on Jan. 6, 1964 with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the courtroom. Five months earlier, Dr. King had led the huge March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Kennedys had pleaded with King to cancel the March for fear it would backfire. Instead the largest crowd in United States history marched on the National Mall for civil rights. Five months after the case was argued, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (On the day of the oral argument, Justice Arthur Goldberg sent down to King a copy of King’s book of the Montgomery bus boycott – “Stride Toward Freedom” – asking for an autograph.)

Justice William J. Brennan Jr. emphasized the importance of providing “breathing space” for democracy by allowing the media to make mistakes in their pursuit of a story.

“We consider this case,” wrote Brennan, “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials….Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and (it) must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ they ‘need to survive.’”

The decision constitutionalized defamation law and just about insulated the press from suits over stories about public officials or public figures – whether or not the stories were 100 percent accurate. To win, a public official or public figure must prove not just falsity but also “actual malice,” by which the court meant “reckless disregard of the truth” or knowledge of the falsity of the allegation. 

Heed Their Rising Voices’

The controversy began with a mistake-riddled full-page advertisement in The New York Times with the stirring title “Heed Their Rising Voice.” That admonition was aimed straight at Congress quoting a New York Times editorial that had urged, “Let Congress heed their rising voices for they will be heard.” The ad had been placed by southern ministers leading the civil rights movement and by noted entertainers such as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Marlon Brando and celebrities such as Jackie Robinson and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The ad contained several mistakes. Most were minor. Dr. King had not been been arrested seven times, just four. Students were not singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee; they were singing the National Anthem. Students were expelled by the Alabama State Board of Education not for leading a demonstration at the Capitol, but rather for demanding service at a lunch counter in the Montgomery County Courthouse on a different day. Most of the student body, not the entire student body, protested the expulsion. They did it by boycotting class, not refusing to re-register. The biggest mistake was the claim that armed police had ringed student protesters at Alabama State and padlocked their dorm to “starve them into submission.” The dorm had not been surrounded nor were the officials trying to starve the students.

The New York Times advertising department made no effort to check the facts, instead relying on the good name of civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, who vouched for the signatures on the ad. Had the Times checked its own morgue, it could have discovered the errors.  

Confederate regalia at trial 

Almost no one read the ad in Alabama. Only about 394 copies of the editorial circulated in the state, about 35 of which were distributed in Montgomery County where L.B. Sullivan was the police commissioner. Sullivan was not named in the ad, a fact that became important in the decision.

The person who noticed the ad and got the controversy started was himself a journalist, Grover C. Hall Jr., editorial editor of the Birmingham Advertiser. Hall wrote an editorial condemning the ad, titled, “Lies, lies, lies.” Hall himself opposed segregation and was the son of a Birmingham Advertiser editor who won the Pulitzer Prize for opposing the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. But Hall Jr. thought that northern pressure caused pushback from the South. He also was irritated that the northerners turned a blind eye to racism in their own backyards.

The courts’s handling of Sullivan’s lawsuit against the Times was infected by segregationist bias. The trial judge, Walter Berman Jones, denied the Times’ efforts to remove the case to federal court, even though that ruling was contrary to legal treatise on the subject of jurisdiction that Jones himself had written. 

The 100 year anniversary of the Confederacy fell during the trial, and Jones allowed the jurors to wear Confederate uniforms and pistols to court to commemorate the occasion. Sullivan could not prove damages, but several witnesses testified that they knew the ad referred to him because he was in charge of the Montgomery police. The jury returned a  $500,000 judgment, a large sum at the time.

Justice Brennan, the liberal spark plug of the Warren Court alluded to the civil rights backdrop of the case. He wrote that the ad communicated “information, expressed opinion, recited grievances, protested claimed abuses, and sought financial support on behalf of a movement whose existence and objectives are matters of the highest public interest and concern.” And later: “The present advertisement as an expression of grievance and protest on one of the major public issues of our time, would seem clearly to qualify for the constitutional protection.”

Brennan gave several reasons for providing more protection for speech critical of public officials than private individuals. One was that American history demonstrates that the First Amendment does not permit seditious libel. Seditious libel punishes criticism of the government. Brennan referred to the famous crisis of 1798 regarding the Sedition Act. That law made it a crime punishable by prison and steep fines to criticize public officials, including the president, then John Adams. The law was used to jail newspaper editors who supported Adams’ political opponent, Thomas Jefferson. Brennan noted that the Sedition Act never had been tested in the Supreme Court. The controversy preceded the establishment of judicial review in the 1803 Marbury v. Madison decision. But Brennan said that the “attack upon the Sedition Act’s validity has carried the day in the court of history” and that “its invalidity has been assumed” by the justices of the Supreme Court.

Another reason for removing some libel protection from public officials was that the court had recognized that statements made by public officials acting within their public duties could not be actionable unless made with actual malice. Citizen critics should be on a level playing field with public officials, he wrote.

Finally, the court ruled that Sullivan could not collect because he was not named in the ad. The ad was not “of and concerning” Sullivan.

Chief Justice Earl Warren had chosen Brennan to write the opinion because he was the mostly likely justice to win over the entire court for a unanimous opinion. Brennan was known as a schmoozer on the court who was extremely successful in creating majorities and sometimes unanimous opinions. Brennan succeeded in the Sullivan case when Justice John Harlan withdrew his dissent at the last moment.

As a matter of First Amendment theory, the Sullivan decision was viewed as a victory for the theory advanced by Alexander Meiklejohn basing First Amendment theory on self-government. As Meiklejohn put it, “The principle of free speech springs from the necessities of the program of self-government. It is not the Law of Nature or of Reason in the abstract. It is a deduction from the basic American agreement that public issues shall be decided by universal suffrage.” Meikleljohn went on to stress that his source of protection for free speech protected speech about public matters rather than private ones. Because the source of the freedom flows “from the necessities of self-government by universal suffrage” it assures only “speech which bears directly, or indirectly, upon issues with which the voters have to deal…considerations of matters of public interest.” It does not protect private speech about private matters in the same way, he argued.

Public figure, public concern

In 1967, soon after Sullivan, the court extended the actual malice standard to public figures. The court took the action in two cases involving famous figures, one of whom is more remembered for his notoriety than fame. He was retired major general Edwin Walker, who was accused in an Associated Press story of having urged students at the University of Mississippi to riot to bar the admission of the first black student, James Meredith. 

The other public figure case involved Georgia football coach Wally Butts, who was accused in an article in the Saturday Evening Post of fixing a 1962 football game with legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. The court decided that both Butts and Walker were public figures. Butts won and Walker lost. The court differentiated the two stories because the AP story on Walker was on deadline and did not show any violation of journalistic standards. The Butts story, on the other hand, was an investigative report that the magazine had plenty of time to research. The non-sports reporter who wrote the story based it on a source who claimed to have overheard a telephone conversation between Butts and Bryant. The source was unreliable, having written bad checks. In addition, the reporter did not check out the story thoroughly. For example, he did not interview another person who was said to have overheard the conversation.

Chief Justice Warren explained the extension of Sullivan to public figures by noting that the political process does not provide a check on the activities of political figures as it does on public officials. For that reason, he concluded, “public opinion may be the only instrument by which society can attempt to influence their conduct.” In a society where the distinctions between the public and private sphere are blurred, public figures “often play an influential role in ordering society,” and they have access to the media to “influence policy and to counter criticism of their views and activities.”

Prior challenges 

Today’s campaign to overturn NYT v. Sullivan is not the first. During the 1980s two big national libel suits by two generals left media lawyers wondering how much protection Sullivan provided. Gen. William Westmoreland sued CBS for its stories criticizing the general’s conduct of the Vietnam War. Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon sued Time magazine for its stories about his involvement in the Israeli killling of Palestinian refugees in camps in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Both lawsuits were wars of attrition that involved huge defense costs and that damaged the credibility of the media involved.

But the challenge within the court was more serious. Brennan himself didn’t like the way the press had covered the Abe Fortas scandal, which forced Fortas off the court. Justice Byron R. White, had been on board in Sullivan partly because of the civil rights backdrop. But White soon became known for decisions limiting press prerogatives – refusing to recognize the reporter-source confidential relations, allowing principals to censor student newspapers in the St. Louis case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and allowing police to use warrants to search newsrooms, a decision Congress overturned.

William H. Rehnquist also was a critic of NYT v. Sullivan when he came on the court, but ended up as its savior, expanding Sullivan in an important decision involving parody – Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 1988.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell was a nationally prominent and politically influential preacher who frequently provided important support to conservative candidates and causes.

Larry Flynt, the publisher of pornographic Hustler Magazine, printed an ad parody patterned after the Campari liquor advertising campaign in which celebrities talked about their “first times.” Although the ad suggested through double entendre that the celebrities were talking about the first time they had sex, the ads actually talked about the first time that had drunk Campari. The Hustler parody said that Falwell’s first time having sex was with his mother in an outhouse when they were both drunk. It also said Falwell only preached when he was drunk. A label in small type at the bottom of the ad read: “Ad parody – not to be taken seriously.”

Falwell sued for emotional distress and had home court advantage in his home state of Virginia where won a big judgment against Hustler for infliction of emotional stress – $100,000 in compensatory damages along with additional punitive damages. What few people knew about Rehnquist was that he had once been an avid, amateur cartoonist in his days at Stanford University. One of the influential amicus briefs in the case was filed by the nation’s editorial cartoonists. They pointed out that exaggeration, parody, sarcasm and hyperbole were their bread and butter. 

The brief was obviously influential as Rehnquist cited it in his opinion providing First Amendment protection to the Hustler cartoon. The chief justice wrote about the long history of hyperbolic political cartoons dating back to the cartoons that ridiculed Boss Tweed during the Tammany Hall corruption of the 19th Century. He wrote:

“The political cartoon is a weapon of attack, of scorn and ridicule and satire; it is least effective when it tries to pat some politician on the back. It is usually as welcome as a bee sting, and is always controversial in some quarters….Several famous examples of this type of intentionally injurious speech were drawn by Thomas Nast, probably the greatest American cartoonist to date, who was associated for many years during the post-Civil War era with Harper’s Weekly. In the pages of that publication Nast conducted a graphic vendetta against William M. ‘Boss’ Tweed and his corrupt associates in New York City’s ‘Tweed Ring.’ It has been described by one historian of the subject as ‘a sustained attack which in its passion and effectiveness stands alone in the history of American graphic art.’ Another writer explains that the success of the Nast cartoon was achieved ‘because of the emotional impact of its presentation. It continuously goes beyond the bounds of good taste and conventional manners.’

“Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate. Nast’s castigation of the Tweed Ring, Walt McDougall’s characterization of Presidential candidate James G. Blaine’s banquet with the millionaires at Delmonico’s as ‘The Royal Feast of Belshazzar,’ and numerous other efforts have undoubtedly had an effect on the course and outcome of contemporaneous debate. Lincoln’s tall, gangling posture, Teddy Roosevelt’s glasses and teeth, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s jutting jaw and cigarette holder have been memorialized by political cartoons with an effect that could not have been obtained by the photographer or the portrait artist. From the viewpoint of history, it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them.”

Rehnquist conceded “there is no doubt that the caricature of respondent and his mother published in Hustler is at best a distant cousin of the political cartoons described above, and a rather poor relation at that. If it were possible by laying down a principled standard to separate the one from the other, public discourse would probably suffer little or no harm. But we doubt that there is any such standard, and we are quite sure that the pejorative description “outrageous” does not supply one.”

Rehnquist extended the Sullivan actual malice standard to parody and other hyperbolic speech. It is a somewhat unusual application of a standard that requires proof of actual malice, reckless disregard of the truth and knowledge of falsity. The Hustler ad was published with the knowledge that the claim of having sex with his mother in an outhouse was actually false

Steve Wermiel, a Brennan biographer, recalls Brennan was ecstatic with Rehnquist’s opinion. “Rehnquist…wrote an opinion that Brennan could have written. Brennan said the press should just kiss Rehnquist for his opinion in Hustler v. Falwell. He could leave the court in peace. If Rehnquist could write that opinion, New York Times v. Sullivan was safe.”

Heed their rising voices – errors in boldface

The New York Times


The growing movement of peaceful mass

demonstrations by Negroes is something

new in the South, something understandable….

Let Congress heed their rising voices,

for they will be heard.”

– New York Times editorial

Saturday, March 29, 1960

Heed their rising voices

As the whole world knows by now, thousands of Southern Negro students are engaged in wide-spread non-violent demonstrations in positive affirmation of the right to live in human dignity as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  In their efforts to uphold these guarantees, they are being met by an unprecedented wave of terror by those who would deny and negate that document which the whole world looks upon as setting the pattern for modern freedom….

In Orangeburg, South Carolina, when 400 students peacefully sought to buy doughnuts and coffee at lunch counters in the business district, they were forcibly ejected, tear-gassed, soaked to the skin in freezing weather with fire hoses, arrested en masse and herded into an open barbed-wire stockade to stand for hours in the bitter cold.

In Montgomery, Alabama, after students sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on the State Capitol steps, their leaders were expelled from school, and truckloads of police armed with shotguns and tear-gas ringed the Alabama State College Campus.  When the entire student body protested to state authorities by refusing to re-register, their dining hall was padlocked in an attempt to starve them into submission.

In Tallahassee, Atlanta, Nashville, Savannah, Greensboro, Memphis, Richmond, Charlotte, and a host of other cities in the South, young American teen-agers, in face of the entire weight of official state apparatus and police power, have boldly stepped forth as protagonists of democracy.  Their courage and amazing restraint have inspired millions and given a new dignity to the cause of freedom.

Small wonder that the Southern violators of the Constitution fear this new, non-violent brand of freedom fighter…even as they fear the upswelling right-to-vote movement.  Small wonder that they are determined to destroy the one man who, more than any other, symbolizes the new spirit now sweeping the South-the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., world-famous leader of the Montgomery Bus Protest.  For it is his doctrine of non-violence which has inspired and guided the students in their widening wave of sit-ins; and it this same Dr. King who founded and is president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference-the organization which is spearheading the surging right-to-vote movement.  Under Dr. King’s direction the Leadership Conference conducts Student Workshops and Seminars in the philosophy and technique of non-violent resistance.

Again and again the Southern violators have answered Dr. King’s peaceful protests with intimidation and violence.  They have bombed his home almost killing his wife and child.  They have assaulted his person.  They have arrested him seven times-for “speeding.” “loitering” and similar “offenses.”  And now they have charged with “perjury” under which they could imprison him for ten years.   Obviously, their real purpose is to remove him physically as the leader to whom the students and millions of others—look for guidance and support, and thereby to intimidate all leaders who may rise in the South.  Their strategy is to behead this affirmative movement, and thus to demoralize Negro Americans and weaken their will to struggle.  The defense of Martin Luther King, spiritual leader of the student sit-in movement, clearly, therefore, is an integral part of the total struggle for freedom in the South.

Decent-minded Americans cannot help but applaud the creative daring of the students and the quiet heroism of Dr. King.  But this is one of those moments in the stormy history of Freedom when men and women of good will must do more than applaud the rising-to-glory of others.  The America whose good name hangs in the balance before a watchful world, the America whose heritage of Liberty these Southern Upholders of the Constitution are defending, is our America as well as theirs…

We must heed their rising voices-yes-but we must add our own.

We must extend ourselves above and beyond moral support and render the material help so urgently needed by those who are taking the risks, facing jail, and even death in a glorious re-affirmation of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights.

We urge you to join hands with our fellow Americans in the South by supporting, with your dollars, this Combined Appeal for all three needs-the defense of Martin Luther King-the support of the embattled students-and the struggle for the right-to-vote.

Your Help is Urgently Needed…NOW!!

William H. Freivogel is publisher of GJR, a professor of media law at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a member of the Missouri Bar. 

Covering hate: ‘This is not a geographic problem. It’s an American problem.’

In September 2018, racist flyers from a neo-Nazi group were left on cars parked at a community college in Southern Illinois. A few local news outlets reported on the incident and the college’s subsequent denouncement that followed.

But then the story was mostly dropped until the next year when the same flyers from the same group appeared a second time. This time a suspect was found and banned from the campus. He was never named in the media, however, and no additional reporting revealed the extent to which the organization, which is on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups, was active in Southern Illinois.

“The incident received only cursory coverage in the local media, and I think a lot of people — perhaps both in the media and the public at large — might have been taken by surprise that such a fringe element would reveal itself so explicitly,” said Geoff Ritter, managing editor of a string a small community papers, including the Carbondale Times, Murphysboro Times and Benton News.

The lack of coverage of a known hate group, which GJR is choosing not to name to avoid giving it more attention, shows the difficulty that many news outlets face in documenting hate and extremism in their communities, especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. That failed insurrection, which left five people dead, including a police officer, highlighted how white supremacy and political violence has not only grown in recent years but also has been mainstreamed in many ways. 

One person was killed and dozens were injured after a car rammed counter-protestors during a rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. The white supremists and their supporters were protesting plans to remove a Confederate statue. (Photo by Stephen Melkisethian via Flickr)

Even as it has grown, community papers have struggled to document it because of a lack of resources but also because these stories are just hard to tell, especially as distrust and attacks on the media grew under former President Donald J. Trump. A 2020 Knight/Gallup poll found that while 84% of Americans say the news media is either critical or very important for a functioning democracy, 49% of those surveyed think the media is very biased and roughly three-quarters believe the owners of media companies are influencing coverage.

In October 2020, a man was arrested and charged for allegedly threatening to blow up the Belleville News-Democrat newsroom. In a voicemail left for a reporter, he complained that the newspaper was biased against Trump and had refused to publish his letters to the editor.

Todd Eschman, the News-Democrat’s senior editor, said when he first heard the voicemail message he thought about the 2018 shootings in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis in which five staff members were killed. How was it, he wondered, “that we have arrived at such a place in our history, both as a nation and as an industry, where journalists at a mid-sized regional outlets..have to be equipped with protective gear and the windows at our buildings have to be reinforced with bullet-resistant film.” Others in the News-Democrat newsroom had the same concern, he added.

Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which led to Trump’s second impeachment but not a conviction,  the Department of Justice has pledged to renew its focus on domestic terrorism and domestic violent extremism. More than 300 people have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack in one of the largest law enforcement sweeps in U.S. history.

The story is not one that emerged primarily from small and rural communities or even communities that mostly supported Trump, according to an analysis by the Daily Yonder, a Kentucky-based news outlet.

People arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 invasion are less likely than the overall population to be from rural counties, the analysis found.

About 14% of the U.S. population lives in rural, or nonmetropolitan, counties. Only 10% of the people arrested for the Capitol riot list their homes in one of these rural counties. That means rural people are underrepresented on the list of arrestees versus their share of the population, said Tim Marema, editor of the Daily Yonder, which covers rural communities and rural culture.

“It doesn’t surprise me because it’s proportional to where Americans live,” Marema said. “This is not a geographic program, it’s an American problem, and it shows up where we live.”

Documenting Hate

Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, ProPublica began an ambitious project called “Documenting Hate,” in which it ultimately partnered with more than 180 professional newsrooms, around 20 college papers and many journalism schools. All told, the non-profit news outlet collected more than 6,000 reporting tips and thousands of pages of police records on hate crime. It produced more than 230 stories, including a 2019 piece on the history of racism in Anna, Illinois

The Bellingham Herald in Washington state was one of the last news organizations to partner with ProPublica before the project ended after three years. Bellingham, a community of about 200,000 just south of the U.S.-Canada border, is a mostly white community. The marches and rallies for racial justice last summer there were peaceful compared to protests in Seattle to the south.

But the town also has a history of racism in which the newspaper played a role. In 2007, it issued an apology for its role in its coverage of a 1907 riot that resulted in the rounding up of East Indian mill workers. “It’s time to apologize for the venomous racism, for the demeaning talk, for the refusal to defend human beings against a mob because of their skin tone and ethnicity,” the paper notes to its readers “We apologize to the East Indian people in our community today, and to any right-thinking person who is disgusted by the actions this newspaper took in one of the darkest times in our community’s history. We are disgusted too.”

The paper gave readers a way to offer confidential tips of suspected hate crimes, explaining what one was and how to report it. In February of last year, before the summer’s Black Lives Matters protests, it also explained how to fight racism.

Editor Julie Shirley said the paper also has made a commitment to diversifying its sources, making exceptions for people whose voices might not otherwise be in the paper. “During the summer rallies, I allowed reporters to quote people as ‘a speaker’ or just their first name,” she said. “Rallies aren’t organized and there’s no list of speakers. And sometimes it was unclear about who the organizers even were. But we took a leap of faith and allowed for stories we would not have gotten had we required first and last names, city of residence, before we quoted them.”

False equivalency

As news outlets report on hate in their communities, the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has published a list of 10 tips for covering white supremacy and far-right extremism. Among them, author Denise Marie-Ordway cautions news outlets from letting white supremacists use their own terms to describe themselves or even quoting them directly. “That’s because members of these groups often use code words or numbers in their remarks to signal their ideology to other extremists,” she writes. “Reporters who don’t recognize this coded language might unknowingly include it in their coverage.”

She also warns against amplifying the message of the hate groups, something Shirley also wanted to avoid in the Bellingham Herald’s coverage.

“In the past, we would hear anecdotally about hate crimes several times a year,” she told GJR. “But they were rarely reported officially so we found them hard to report on with no official sources. And, we didn’t want to write about incidents that only bring attention to offenders when we knew there would be no consequences. We decided to turn our frustration around, doing stories that explained the law and how readers can be allies.”

Gregory Perreault, an assistant professor of multimedia journalism at Appalachian State University, interviewed 18 journalists in 2019 as part of a research study that sought to understand how journalists conceive of their role in covering white nationalist rallies.

It found that journalists face numerous challenges in terms of not wanting to appear biased in order to gain access to sources but also not wanting to promote false equivalency as Trump did after the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. A few days after the rally, Trump was asked by reporters about the protests, to which he responded that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

“I think one of the important things we know about these groups is that they desperately want the media oxygen to amplify their message,” he told GJR. “Journalists in some ways play right into this in their understandable interest in trying to provide a comprehensive picture of an event. This also explains why white supremacists are so devastatingly effective in their use of social media–leveraging algorithms, memes–to find ways to share their messaging. Their visibility in the last four years is certainly not an accident. They clearly ot only gained a strong sense of how to ‘play’ the social media game, but also felt emboldened by our prior president.”

The trick then is to put white supremacy into context. “A common refrain among journalists was that covering white nationalist rallies was necessary to help people understand an evil side of their community,” according to the research findings. “Moreover, respondents expressed a desire to show members of their communities that white nationalism was more insidiously complex than conventional wisdom would suggest.”

That’s what Ritter, the managing editor of the Carbondale Times, has found.

“I think of the scene in ‘The Blues Brothers’ with the Illinois Nazis,” he said. “We always knew there were hate groups out there, and they were a little easier to identify. Now, at least to me, it seems, the internet has allowed this kind of thinking to proliferate in the obvious ways, but it’s made the hate groups a lot more difficult to identify. That’s part of what was so shocking about Jan. 6; you could see clearly how all of these fringe movements had networked and come together from the grassroots. Some of them might have looked like the ‘Illinois Nazis’ in the movie, but most did not. The profile of the woman who was shot and killed was devastatingly similar to that of a good friend of mine whose mind also seems to have been twisted by these dark corners of the internet, despite her otherwise sound mind and reason.”

He doesn’t have the answer to how local papers like his can better report the story.

“Obviously, more resources would make it easier, but that’s sort of a stock answer to how to fix things in journalism,” he said. “The problem gets even more difficult because the very people pulled into these movements are ones now disinclined toward trusting anything we report, so I don’t know.”

One way journalists could start trying to understand better, he said, is to explore the online reaction to local coverage.

“Some of this ugliness is rearing its head in our own comments sections,” he said. “I see it every day on the local television station’s Facebook page.

Eschman, the senior editor in Belleville, said one of the difficulties is that “it’s not all Klan members or Proud Boys.”

Those organizations “don’t get much ink from us due to the common industry concern that coverage could legitimize their respective messages. But hate isn’t most commonly expressed in cross burnings by people in white sheets. Covering attempts to mainstream it has got to be a concern.”

As an example, he said, Mary Miller, a freshman representative from the 15th Congressional District that represents southeastern Illinois, quoted Adolph Hitler in her first public address in D.C. After the News-Democrat (and others, eventually) reported it, she apologized, saying she regretted the reference but defended the words. Her point, she said, was that movements grow best when the youth are properly engaged. 

“From a reader’s standpoint, isn’t it reasonable to wonder how an elected federal lawmaker, from a sea of similar sentiments expressed by countless others, came by an obscure line from a speech given by Hitler more than 80 years ago?” Eschman said. “Was this an attempt by Miller to mainstream the author of mass genocide? And who, exactly, does she represent besides the people who elected her?”

News coverage can’t ignore those questions, he said, nor can it call comments by an elected lawmaker a “one off.” 

“There is a part of me, however, that has the same worry that covering her legitimizes some potentially rogue ideals to others,” he said.

But it’s also tricky walking the line between true hate and basic fear of the unfamiliar. The News-Democrat’s efforts in that regard have been “more conservative, sensitive and — again, this is strictly my view — useful,” Eschman said.

Kelsey Landis reported on a Black Lives Matter protest in Anna for the News-Democrat last summer. “There were opposing opinions and, of course, some confrontations,” Eschman said. “Kelsey handled the tensions with a lot of care and expressed the varying views fairly and without judgement. It was textbook, street-level journalism that followed the basic rules of style and ethics.”

But there are still barriers.

When the News-Democrat covered another Black Lives Matter demonstration at the public square in Highland, Illinois, in September that drew counter-protestors, the reporter, Megan Vallely tried to talk to both groups. Black Lives Matters demonstrators spoke freely on the record to Vallely, who reports for the News-Democrat through a Report for America grant. “But she was rebuffed by demonstrators on the other side of the police line because they didn’t trust the ‘fake news’” Eschman said. 

Miller, for that matter, also has never returned a call from the News-Democrat.

Jackie Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago. This story is on the cover of the spring 2021 issues of the magazine.