George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer who held his knee on the handcuffed black prisoner’s neck as he pleaded for air – “I can’t breathe” – has resulted in nationwide demonstrations for several days so far.
For me, it was yet again a revival of the emotions originally raised after the 1967 Detroit riots, ignited by an early morning police raid on an after-hours club that exploded into a deadly riot near my college, Wayne State University. The second time a riot against police actions was especially personal occurred when I was attending Graduate School in 1992, at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications. The campus was shut down as rioting exploded near campus after the police trial and acquittal for the beating of Rodney King. Each time the violence spiraled into flames across the country in a way that feels eerily similar. But one thing is different – this time the media have also been the targets of the police.
I hope the government in Minneapolis is able to hold the officers accountable this time for an abuse of force on Floyd and on protesters. And I hope a dialogue will also expand on why the media also became the target of the police at a riot scene. As a journalist in various stages of my career, I am appalled at this new development and I am ready to battle any attempts to further target journalists doing their job, especially in dangerous situations.
I always look forward to an annual trip to Birmingham, Alabama to visit with my late husband Tim Robinson’s family and attend the Robinson Forum at Samford University. The annual lecture honors the career of my late husband, a pioneering legal journalist and internet entrepreneur. The Robinson family has endowed an annual journalism scholarship, which includes a partnership with the Washington Post that provides an internship each year for a lucky Journalism student. Sadly, this was the second year that I was unable to attend the Forum in person, but instead watched on an electronic hook up.
The 2018 speaker was Professor Jennifer Greer, associate provost for administration at the University of Alabama and previously chair of the Dept. of Journalism. Greer stated that journalism was in her heart and soul – she started her career as a newspaper journalist and also started Horseman Magazine with her sisters when she was young. She still does a talk show for Alabama public radio.
Professor Greer focused her presentation on the subject of fake news –which she noted goes back to the 1800s. She gave two definitions of fake news:
- False or exaggerated to sway actions or change opinions – purposely false
- Weapon to discredit media organizations or journalist
Professor Greer noted that two early publications that featured “fake news”, the New York Sun and Penny Press in 1835, were all about money – selling advertising to a large audience and using an illustration of the moon on the cover, much like the National Enquirer today.
During her speech, she pointed out that President Trump is good at creating a consistent narrative – and his chief one is that mainstream news Is “fake news” – using quotes when talking about the media. Greer also observed that NBC News journalist Kristen Welker told her that she needs a bodyguard because of all the threats against the media.
The full speech is on the facebook page of the Samford Journalism Mass Communication Dept. at https://www.facebook.com/SamfordJMC/ – You can find it under videos (click on “see all”).
By the way, Professor Greer was the first female journalist to headline the Samford Forum and I think Tim would have approved!
A few weeks have passed now since a gunman took the lives of four journalists and a sales assistant In a brutal newsroom attack at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis. That weekend editors from the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News wrote moving editorials.
Nolan Finley of the News revealed that a group of fellow journalists there personally felt the resemblance to the harassment they had also been receiving for five years from a man sending emails spewing some of the most vile vulgar, racist and anti-Semitic poison they had ever read. Peter Bhatia, Editor of the Free Press declared that “we are fact-driven. We are motivated by truth-telling. And the fact that journalists have now joined high school students and concert-goers as targets of gun violence in our country doesn’t change a thing.”
I started my career in journalism and publishing at a newspaper in Michigan and worked my way into an Investigative beat. A fellow reporter on another local paper was Investigating an illegal abortion mill that involved the local mafia. He let colleagues know that he was getting death threats. Calls went around and several of us joined him that evening to play poker all night. We didn’t have guns or even knives. But we knew we couldn’t let him face the threat alone.Nothing ever happened, but I was proud that we looked out for each other.
Today I worry that such threats not only continue. but a disturbed and angry man in Annapolis finally carried out his threats with a firearm. While I am proud that journalists are not deterred, I hope that as a nation, we can find a path back to respect for the important role of the media in a free society. Bhatia concluded his editorial by quoting Josh McKerrow, the Annapolis photojournalist. “The shrill chaos seems to be winning. But it’s not winning – and it’s not going to win.”
In a column this week, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman described the complex America he witnessed in a four-day car trip through the heart of the nation. As he wrote, the tour started in Austin, Ind., went down through Louisville Ky, wound through Appalachia and ended up at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
His conclusion was that while we do have an epidemic of failing communities, we also have a bounty of thriving ones – not because of Washington, but because of strong leaders at the local level. (Full column is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/opinion/rusting-and-rising-america.html?_r=0)
What Friedman found this year parallels what Atlantic Magazine’s national correspondent James Fallow found a year earlier and reported in the March 2016 issue, which asked on its cover “Can America Put Itself Back Together?” Fallow described how innovators in centers across the country were reweaving the national fabric in various “laboratories of democracy” and that their progress and goals will soar once the mood of the country changes and embraces it. (Read more at https://www.theatlantic.com/press-releases/archive/2016/02/the-atlantics-march-issue-how-america-is-putting-itself-back-together-by-james-fallows/462180/).
I would add that if you study history, America has always swung back and forth in terms of those voted into political power, with resulting shifts in levels of confidence in the future.
We have just rightly celebrated our military heroes over the Memorial weekend holiday. Now I hope the country will also recognize the greatness of our on-going ability to constantly reinvent ourselves and embrace the challenges of the future. Yes, I still believe America in all its diversity and contrasting landscapes, remains an unmatched super power.
I was back in Alabama this year in time to watch the 2016 Academy Awards with my late husband Tim Robinson’s brother Mike, a retired Air Force Colonel and his wife Carolyn, a talented editor and retired teacher. I had flown in to visit with Tim’s amazing Southern family and friends, as well as attend an annual journalism Forum in my late husband’s honor (http://www.samford.edu/arts-and-sciences/robinson-forum) that was featuring Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Brad Schrade, an investigative reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So it was not only a great surprise, but a special moment that Sunday night for us when the winner of this year’s Oscars for best picture went to “Spotlight,” which chronicles a Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotlight_(film)).
Two days later, Brad Schrade told the assembled audience for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in Birmingham that “we’re at a moment again where popular culture has deemed investigative work important and even pretty cool,” citing Spotlight’s wins as Best Picture and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), coming 39 years after the four Oscar wins for All the President’s Men, a film about the Washington Post’s famous investigation of the Watergate break-in. That failed political espionage eventually caused President Nixon’s resignation and the conviction of many of his top officials. Schrade went on to tell the assembled students in the audience that while newspapers and other printed media were struggling, he hoped this film would inspire a new generation of journalists to “take up this flag.”
What Schrade didn’t know and what I enjoyed telling him later was that the last footage in the film All the Presidents’ Men shows the coverage of the Watergate trials coming off the newsroom tickertape, flashing my late husband’s byline over and over. Schrade also didn’t realize that Tim was a city editor on the desk when his favorite reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were put on special assignment. He was proud to join them on the investigative team as the White House conspiracy unraveled. Tim did such a brilliant job of reporting on the convictions stemming from the Watergate break in that he went on to receive a Ford Fellowship to Yale Law School and become a distinguished legal columnist for the Post. He was recruited to be Editor in Chief of a new publication in New York called the National Law Journal and thus blazed a pioneering trail in the field of legal journalism. My gratitude goes to everyone at Tim’s alma mater Samford University for their support of the Forum and Scholarship program in Tim’s honor, which includes an internship each year at the Washington Post. And I am will always feel grateful for such a special Southern family, which also includes Tim’s sister Terah’s family in Jasper, his brother Nelson’s family in the hometown of Dora and sister-in-law Martha in Fresno, California.
They called James Brown “the hardest working man in show business.” Now an Alabama journalist and friend of mine who has written more than 50,000 news stories in his career has been dubbed “the hardest working man in the news business” by reporter John Archibard in the Birmingham News this month.
I was delighted to see this tribute because Al Benn was also one of my late husband Tim Robinson’s closest friends in journalism. And this young Jewish kid from Pennsylvania Amish country was also my husband’s roommate when Tim was the youngest UPI reporter covering the civil rights movement out of the Birmingham office. Tim, the son of a southern Baptist preacher, was in his late teens when the pair covered some of the greatest stories of the 60s, including the Selma march. Al was in his 20s and had just served six years in the U.S. Marines.
I first met Al when UPI held a reunion for its Alabama correspondents, which included recreating the Selma march. It was a highlight of my marriage and introduced me to some of the bravest journalists I will ever know, including Al and the Birmingham bureau chief Tony Heffernan, UPI photographer Joe Chapman and many more.
Al’s profile can be read online at http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2015/07/good_god_50000_reasons_why_al.html