I want to talk today very briefly about subjects that cannot be briefly discussed: journalism, democracy and diversity. My perspective is as a Chicagoan, a Jew, an elected official and a news company executive.
I began my career as a day to day sub at CPS. The phone would ring at six am telling me what school I would work at that day. I got to know the city. Then, as an alderman, I visited wards with my colleagues. I got to know the city even better. My education continued when I ran the CHA.
The Chicago I know is beautiful, and complicated, and tragic, and resilient, and above all, diverse.
In the decade before coming home to Sun-Times, I worked all over the world. Many places are beautiful. Most are complicated. Some are more tragic or resilient than others. No place on the planet is diverse like the United States. And city’s like ours are the laboratories where our human species experiments with diversity’s power.
I look ahead and wonder whether, in the upcoming mayoral election, we will reprise the 1980s and divide along racial lines. I wonder whether it is possible to forge a set of ideas that resonate in our different communities.
At sixty years old, I wonder why there are neighborhoods in our city that are as marginalized as they were when I was a boy.
These are not just questions for political candidates that journalists cover.
This is an existential reckoning for journalism itself because in a democracy journalism makes a difference. If you overlook a community, ten years from now it will still be on the margin. If you try to tell a community’s story but do it in a voice that is not genuine, no one will hear it.
Everyone here knows about financial difficulties journalism faces. On that score, I am an optimist. We looked widely for great talent and ended up with women and people of color sharing corporate leadership with white men. Together, we proved that a well-managed news organization can cut its losses while it expands its coverage.
A far more challenging task than righting the business is find a path to what is genuine.
In a time when our democracy faces grave challenges, when our social fabric is rent, we need great journalism, not just good journalism, journalism that reminds us who we are and helps us carry out our civic responsibilities.
In recent years, African American and Jewish communities have a shared and terrible tragedy. When Dylan Roof murdered the men and women who had invited him in to pray at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, the nation was shocked. The community came together, supported each other, refused to let hate into their hearts, and began the long process of healing.
When Robert Bowers murdered the women and men in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh after declaring that all Jews should die, the national was, once again shocked. Once again, a community came together, supported each other, refused to hate, and will eventually heal.
The facts are similar. The grief is similar. But Jewish history and traditions, and African American history and traditions are not the same. We talk about these tragedies in different voices. One heals by the grace of god, the other by tikkun olam- ethical behaviors designed to heal the world. It was appropriate that President Obama sang out at Mother Emanuel. It was appropriate that worshipers in Pittsburgh marched to protest hateful speech.
We can understand each other. We can empathize with each other. We can love each other. We cannot always tell each other’s stories.
Some of the best writers and editors I’ve ever met are white men. But in a city with our crime, it is only a small exaggeration to say that if every editor is a white man, then every front page is a mug shot and sixty years from now someone else will wonder why our communities have not come together.
The only path away from the tribalism that threatens our democracy is to listen to each other, and in journalism that means making sure that there are diverse voices to hear and diverse points of view deciding what stories are worth hearing.
Genuine storytelling, whether that is poetry, fiction, or journalism, unifies us by connecting us to what is real. MaryAnn Moore, the English poet, said she disliked poetry, except that once in a while it “presents for inspection imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Something, she said, raw and genuine.
Journalists must be great story tellers without the imaginary gardens. Their path to the genuine is a dedication to fact finding, fairness, and balance. But that path must run, like the marathon, through many neighborhoods. If journalists rise to this hard calling, then the city you cover will start to reflect the strengths of the people who live here. The all of us who make up we the people.
It is this genuine, that will save journalism and the democracy together. It is the antidote to confusion about what is real and fake. It is the foundation upon which coverage of the rich and powerful becomes meaningful. It is the trust that gives us all, once again, a shared body of facts upon which to do our jobs as citizens- make policy, choose leaders, serve on juries, build civic institutions, promote social justice.
I am very proud to have led the READER and the Sun-Times through a period of great financial peril, and to leave them with viable paths forward. Yet the improved business prospects would mean nothing to me if I had not also worked hard to bring diverse voices and points of view to both companies. The Sun-Times now has the backs of Chicago’s working women and men. But whether a publication in this city focuses on business, or arts, or politics, or sports, the coverage cannot be complete and genuine and unifying if it does not speak with all our voices.
The READER and the Sun-Times are works in progress. The READER is now African American owned, and the chair of its board is an African American woman. At the Sun-Times, women now have leadership roles on the corporate and the editorial sides of the house. I recruited an African American woman as Chief Operating Officer, and she is now the interim CEO. I recruited a woman to lead the digital team, and fully half of her digital team hires are people of color. There remains much to do, particularly in the editor ranks, but we can now emphasize the progress part and continue to urge them forward.
William Faulkner closed his Nobel Prize acceptance speech by saying,
“The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”
Well, here’s my challenge to you: be sure the journalist’s work is not merely a record of the democracy, make it, and especially right now, a pillar to help that democracy endure.
Dorothy R. Leavell
Greetings to the Luncheon officials, Maudlyne Iherjirika, President of the Chicago Journalism Association, finalists of the Dorothy Storck award: Mark Brown of the Sun Times, Deborah Douglas, Chicago Reporter and Vice News contributor and Mick Dumke of ProPublica Illinois. The winner who must be a bit unsettled as the announcement of the winner is still to be announced. Members all of the Fourth Estate . . .
This luncheon named for Dorothy Storck is significant and I must admit I did not know Dorothy but I have done a little research about her and know that she was an outstanding journalist, having worked at the Chicago American among other noted publications., is an honor within itself.
I am honored to be asked to speak to you today. You may know that to speak twice in one day is quite something especially for someone who is rarely asked to speak at all. Later this evening I will speak, albeit briefly, at the Chicago Urban League’s 57th Golden Fellowship Dinner and receive the Lester McKeever Individual Service Award.
But more importantly I am honored to be asked to speak and I would never have imagined that a Black newspaper publisher would have the opportunity to speak or have been thought to have anything of value to say to such an esteemed audience.
Journalism and the Press may soon be added to the saying “politics makes strange bedfellows. Revised to say Black and white journalists of all genders and politics make strange bedfellows.
Back to things at hand, I assume that news – fake and real – brings us to the point that a lot of news organizations are in the news. From Donald Trunk, to bombs being mailed to outstanding citizens among which are former presidents and a vice president of the U.S., United States Congresspersons, CNN, even the national organization that I serve as chairman, the National Newspaper Publishers Association has been threatened because we honored Congresswoman Maxine Watts.
Yes, we also have our own local news that seems to be news. It all began for me, and it seems so long ago now, that at the annual convention of Rainbow PUSH in June of this year, it was announced that I would be Publisher of the Reader Newspaper. The Reader newspaper has a storied history of its own over 48 years or so and highly regarded in years past for its investigative reporting, cultural events reporting and all-things Chicago. But not known for its diversity of readers or writers and contributors. Well things have changed since that announcement. I am no longer Publisher of the Reader and with my work load I am not unhappy about it. Publisher brings much more responsibility and work than being named Chairman of the Board of the Chicago Reader. Being chairman is important however, and my job will really begin when the final severing of the cord of the Reader from its former parent company the Chicago Sun Times is complete, and our staff settles down. I see my role as being one to oversee what I found attractive enough for me to get on board from the beginning. You see I have this wild idea that this publication can somehow be a benefit in bringing about cultural equality to this city that has long been pegged the most segregated city in the country. I know it is a big job, but I believe this newspaper can be the catalyst for equality, but it must first set the example of diversity and understanding of cultural differences.
I am also chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, members of which number approximately 200 of African American descent, also known as the Black Press. You would not envy my job if you were just to think how difficult it must be to keep an organization of so many opinion makers going forward.
Finally, 57 years of my life has been devoted to my own two newspapers, the Chicago Crusader, now 78 years old and the Gary Crusader 57 years old. I now know why I have devoted this much time to this job, it’s because I believe that I have made a difference in the lives of Black people in particular and perhaps indirectly of some white lives. The Crusader has not been without its own controversy of late. I have been fortunate enough to finally find a young Black journalist that loves investigative reporting. He has meant the difference in a ho hum publication, to one that is sought across the city after our expose’ of aldermen who have been at the trough of financial gain and not being accountable to those who elected them.
Now I’ m not going to get into the details of the story but suffice it to say it has been a hot one and other stories of getting an almost astronaut honored after 40 or so years, finding Aunt Jemimah’s grave in Oak Woods Cemetery before Blacks were buried there, are just a few stories that we have reported in the truest journalistic values.
But I also want to let you to know that I was a part of a discussion earlier this week of Black, Hispanic and white journalists that were discussing ways to collaborate. How about that??? I don’t know where it may lead or if it will just be a discussion, but we’re talking . .
It is my belief that mainstream media has finally discovered that we all have similar problems of finding our way to a clear path in this new digital world. Us to a lesser degree than them whose problems are just magnified by the size, but very much similar.
Another factor that brings us closer together is that there is an angry man in the White House that has a low regard for the press and never
let’s an opportunity go by that he does not restate his disdain for the press.
But we see changes every day. We were saddened to hear that Edwin Eisendrath has left the Chicago Sun Times. Which brought me to the thought that the city of Chicago may be a one mainstream newspaper town. That thought frightens me.
And I reiterate things change and at a rapid pace, but we must all work hard to contribute to a sane and safe environment.
So, the gist of my words today is to quote a woman I greatly admired. Known as the Little Warrior, Rev. Willie Barrow, “We are not as much divided as we are disconnected.” I say let’s connect, let’s move forward to diversifying our lives and livelihood and set an example for the rest of the world.