I value my work—and my First Amendment duty to serve as a reliable steward of news and opinion.
Last week, I broke one of the Ten Commandments of American Journalism: “If your mother says it’s raining, go look outside the window.”
Last Monday night, in a story about a tense Durham County Board of Commissioners meeting, I failed to verify a source’s assertion and incorrectly stated that the Durham Association of Educators had rescinded its endorsement of incumbent commissioner Brenda Howerton, who is on the ballot tomorrow.
The shoddy reporting didn’t stop there. In the same story, no less, I broke two more commandments: “When in doubt, leave it out,” and “Fact-checking is EVERYTHING.”
I mischaracterized a quote by Commissioner Heidi Carter, who is also up for reelection tomorrow. Carter has been accused by county manager Wendell Davis of an “inherent bias” toward him and “people of color in general.”
During that contentious commissioners meeting a seven days ago, a member of the largely African American audience demanded that Carter apologize. I wrote that she doubled down on her refusal to do so. Listening to the recording of the meeting makes clear that wasn’t accurate.
What she actually said was this: “My relentless and passionate advocacy for our school children is because I believe that public education is the system where we actually have the greatest opportunity to address racial inequities. I will not apologize for that.”
Predictably, the barn fell all the way off the door after the story was published. One representative reader thundered in an email that my inept reporting “seemed to be more focused on starting a war between black and white communities than reporting facts.”
I kind of agree. My failure to make that extra phone call or report fully on a quote turned up the volume on yet another volatile Durham election cycle marked by Davis’s scathing letter aimed at Carter. In the weeks leading up to the city elections, it was filmmaker Rodrigo Dorfman’s incendiary email, to a Latinx team affiliated with the People’s Alliance PAC, about African American voters that did the trick.
On election eve, I remain bothered by the doubts that might exist about the INDY as a reliable news source as a consequence of my gaffes. Journalists are already laboring in a news-sphere compromised by a lack of trust and marred by the perverse observations of a “president” who labels journalists the “enemy of the people.”
Truth be told, the journalists I know—be in print, broadcast, or radio—practice the craft of writing and reporting mostly as an act of faith. Sans the Times or Post, most of us are underpaid and often underappreciated. Our credibility is our only currency.
That reader’s email was a stern and necessary reminder of the need to strive vigilantly for accuracy in the day’s near-Orwellian political climate. There is a significant chunk of the local citizenry that buys into the worst instincts of a national leader who profits from our divisions and tribalism when he attacks democratic institutions.
Trumpian language has seeped into the local conversation, where some public officials in this Democratic stronghold have taken to describing human reporting mistakes as “smear campaigns” and “lies.” I’d ask them to consider Hanlon’s Razor when considering my motives: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
This is Durham, man. Part of the reason I moved here, in 1978, was because it appeared to be the closest place to Africa that I could reach with an old Trailways bus station ticket. During my upperclassman years, I worked at a convenience store at the intersection of Fayetteville and Alton owned by Ralph Hunt Sr. a five-term state senator who died in 2017 at the age of 83. Mr. Hunt was like a second father to me. He taught me something large about integrity and looked out for me time and time again, even when I did not deserve it.
Some evenings, well past midnight, one of Mr. Hunt’s friends visited with me while I swept the store parking lot. (I now wonder if he did so at Mr. Hunt’s behest.) One warm night while sweeping the lot, that older gentleman asked me, “You like the air here, don’t you?”
I thought about his question for less than a second. “Yes, sir.”
Durham is very special to me. It’s where I have raised my children, worked, created art, and nurtured meaningful relationships with people from all walks of life.
And yes, for many years, the very air of this city imbued with the spirit of racial interdependence. The Bull City seemed to be a place where, if a person showed up with next to nothing but nonetheless worked hard or studied in school, they had a fighting chance.
It doesn’t feel like that anymore, especially for longtime, working-class residents who can’t afford the new homes that are springing up or the older homes being bought by wealthier newcomers. This is particularly the case for African American residents in a city where everything is compounded by a systemic racism that’s akin to a gaping, unhealed wound across the anatomy of the American landscape.
Two incidents that happened last week stand out. One was at the commissioners meeting on Monday, when civil rights veteran Lavonia Allison stood behind the public speaker’s podium and said racism is so ingrained in the fabric of America that whites don’t even realize when they are being racially biased.
Three days later, the People’s Alliance published an open letter to city residents that reaffirmed the group’s commitment to antiracism. While noting that “for too long, the pain and prejudice felt by marginalized communities has been invisible,” the PA’s letter echoed Allison’s sentiment: “Too often, progressive whites minimize white supremacy or see it as something that ‘other’ people do.”
The racial interdependence of men like John Merrick, C.C. Spaulding, Dr. A.M. Moore, and Washington Duke was the template that gave rise to a modern Bull City in the first place. Veteran Durham journalist Barry Yeoman last week pointed out how, in the 1980s, members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the People’s Alliance sat down at the Chicken Hut on Fayetteville Street—the “Chicken Hut meetings”—and worked together to hammer out political endorsements its members thought were for the good of the entire city.
Today, by contrast, one veteran black incumbent who did not wish to be identified for fear of racial reprisal told me that we were making better progress a half-century ago, when “that black woman and white man” talked to one another about desegregating Durham public schools.
The incumbent was referring to black activist Ann Atwater and KKK leader CP Ellis, a relationship captured in the movie Best of Enemies. “They listened to each other and got more done back then than we have in the present.”
Durham has always had a robust, two-fisted democracy. It’s time we stopped arguing to make points but to be understood. It’s way past time for us to start listening to one another again.
We can all do better. And that starts with me.
The Ten Commandments of American Journalism*
- Don’t write someone else’s shit and claim it as your own.
- Don’t make shit up. Truth is stranger than fiction.
- When in doubt, leave it out.
- If your momma says it’s raining, stick your head out a window. (Alternatively: If your momma says she loves you, get a second source.)
- Fact-checking is EVERYTHING.
- It’s better to be dull and correct than exciting and wrong.
- Don’t sleep with a source.
- Be a voice for the voiceless.
- Politicians’ downfalls end at one of three destinations: sex, liquor, or gambling.
- Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
*There are a few very different versions of these floating around.
Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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