Notes on Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History (2007) by Wallace Terry

Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History by Wallace TerryThough they are far from over, the massive global protests that have arisen in response to the murder of George Floyd, police violence broadly, and white supremacy generally have produced a number of remarkable and much-needed effects already. Of special note: the longstanding movement to defund police departments has experienced a quantum leap forward in just the last several days, as you’ve probably noticed. Additionally, as Oliver Darcy puts it in a recent analysis piece for CNN:

The media is at another inflection point. In the way the Me Too movement reshaped newsrooms, sparked debate, and purged bad actors from positions of authority, the Black Lives Matter movement is bringing about a similar upheaval by putting questions about race and reporting on the center stage.

He goes on to note that no less than “four top editors have resigned their positions in the last few days.” (Though there have been even more in the days since this piece was published.) It is probably fair to say, though, that one of these has stood out a bit more than the others in terms of recent news coverage. For the uninitiated, Jeet Heer offers a rather efficient summary in his write-up at The Nation:

On Sunday [the 7th], James Bennet, editor of the [New York Times‘] opinion section, resigned his post. His departure was a messy one. Since Wednesday [the 3rd], the newspaper had been rocked by an internal staff revolt against a controversial op-ed by Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton arguing for the use of military troops to quell the uprising, which the lawmaker portrayed as legitimate protests hijacked by nihilistic, violent rioters. The op-ed was inflammatory, demagogic, and contained major factual errors.

More than 1,000 Times employees signed a letter complaining that Cotton’s “message undermines the work we do, in the newsroom and in opinion, and is an affront to our standards for ethical and accurate reporting for the public’s interest.” The push against the op-ed was spearheaded by African American journalists, who had justifiable grounds for arguing that the article “puts Black @nytimes staff in danger” in any escalation of conflict between the government and the protesters.

Predictably, pundits who are apparently unwilling or unable to face up to the necessary work of anti-racism have cried foul, accusing the Times and its critics of being intolerant of differing opinions and acting as enemies of “free speech.” As ever, though, Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson has their number:

We hear it so often: oh, everyone should listen to “people they disagree with” or “I publish the opinions of people I personally disagree with.” I’ll tell you why that phrase is so grating: because it pretends not to endorse the “disagreeable” opinions, but it actually does, by labeling them merely disagreeable rather than completely toxic and wrong. Just as publishing an opinion suggests it’s within the bounds of reasonable discussion, saying a person is someone you “disagree with” implies that their difference from you is mild enough to merely be something you “disagree with.” But political conflicts are more than mere disagreements: I do not just “disagree” with those who defend the slaughter of Palestinian children. I think they are morally repellent. A person who defends slavery is not someone I “disagree with.” I mean, I do disagree with them, but that puts it too mildly. It makes an “interesting debating society question” out of something that has serious human stakes. An op-ed editor needs to understand that “whether the military will be used to crush dissidents” is not a matter simply to have polite disagreements over. We have to take a firm stand in favor of civil liberties and fight those who would impose military rule. A good opinion editor should have good opinions, and not simply believe that all opinions are equal.

This is doubly true in a time of crisis, when every person has a duty to take important moral stands.

On its face, this last statement may seem anathema to traditional journalism, which stereotypically aspires to “objectivity.” But, as Margaret Sullivan writes in her Washington Post column:

Every piece of reporting — written or spoken, told in text or in images — is the product of choices. Every article approaches its subject from somebody’s perspective. Every digital home page, every printed front page, every 30-minute newscast, every one of the news alerts blowing up your phone, every radio talk show is the product of decision-making.

We choose what to focus on, what to amplify, what to investigate and examine.

That’s why the simplistic [goal of] “just the unadorned facts” can be such a canard. And that’s why the notion to “represent all points of view equally” is absurd and sometimes wrongheaded.

“Journalism is not stenography” is a refrain from an astute editor I know.

The real answer is to make better, wiser choices — ones that best serve our important mission to find and tell the truth.

Among these “better, wiser choices” are, of course, hiring choices. As I mentioned in a post from a few years ago:

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University’s 2015 Census found that “the percentage of minority journalists has hovered between 12 and 14 percent for more than a decade…[and] the number of minority leaders has dropped by 3 percentage points, with 12 percent of participating organizations saying at least one of their top three editors is a person of color.” ASNE hopes “to have the percentage of minorities working in newsrooms nationwide reflect the percentage of minorities in the nation’s population by 2025,” though things will have to change quickly and dramatically to make that happen: as they note, “minorities make up 37.02 percent of the U.S. population,” and the U.S. Census bureau predicts “that number will increase to 42.39 percent by 2025.”

Similarly, while the findings of the Radio Television Digital News Association and Hofstra University’s 2019 report on “local newsroom diversity” show improvement in terms of broadcast journalism, there is certainly room for much, much more progress there as well. (On that note, the Nieman Journalism Lab’s recent Twitter thread inviting stories from journalists of color “about the racism and discrimination they’ve faced” has yielded and continues to yield devastating and troubling accounts from across the professional spectrum.)

Reflecting on all of this recently, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about Wallace Terry’s posthumously published Missing Pages: Black Journalists of Modern America: An Oral History (2007). Though his Pulitizer Prize-nominated Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History (1984) is perhaps much better known, the author’s only other book is no less significant: in much the same way that the former sheds essential light on the Black experience in Vietnam, the latter fills gaps in the history of professional journalism with the memories and stories of Black reporters based in the United States. By doing this, Missing Pages also forcefully underscores the necessity for news organizations to make those aforementioned “better, wiser choices.”

In the page-long author’s note, Terry, who taught journalism at Howard University, tells the story of encountering an unnamed and “acclaimed book on the history of war correspondents” that made no mention of the black correspondents who “covered World War II, the Korean Conflict, and the Vietnam War.” While he didn’t necessarily expect to see their contributions noted, what he found next was much more of a shock (pg. vii):

What stunned me…was the story of a British correspondent who claimed that he had rescued the bodies of four white journalists murdered by Viet Cong sappers in the Vietnam War. I knew this story was a lie because I was there, and he wasn’t. In reality, the rescue was made by me and another American correspondent. This was a major and very dangerous event in my life.

Why, I asked, was I left unmentioned? Was it because I was black?

As a result of encountering this slight, Terry resolved to “research and write a book about black journalists, beginning with World War II and taking them through the civil rights movement in America and the Vietnam War” (pg. vii). In the epilogue, his widow Janice — who assembled the book after her husband’s death from “a rare vascular disease called Wenger’s granulomatosis” — further notes that he had originally planned a much larger two-volume work (pg. 329). But only the interviews for Missing Pages, the first volume, had been completed at the time of Terry’s passing. (All of the author’s other research, plans, and unfinished work can be found in the “Wallace Terry papers” collection at the New York Public Library.)

The book is comprised of interviews with an impressively wide range of print and broadcast journalists, twenty in all. There are some household names in this group of trailblazers, including no less than 60 Minutes‘s Ed Bradley and CNN’s Bernard Shaw, but each and every one of the narrators is revealed to be an extraordinary and impressive journalist in his or her own right. And, in a lovely touch, the final interview is with Terry himself. As Janice explains in the epilogue (pg. 329):

…I asked Zalin Grant to adapt a piece Wally had written for the July 1, 1990, issue of Parade magazine entitled “A Friendship Forged in Danger.” This was one of Wally’s favorite articles, because it captured his optimism about relations between blacks and whites, and I knew he intended to include it in this book. The photograph that accompanies the piece illustrates the truth — and proves the mendacity of the British journalist — as Wally recounts in his opening Author’s Note, about what really happened in Saigon on that Sunday morning in May 1968.

Missing Pages also creates a lot of space for its narrators to address issues of diversity within the community of Black journalists. For example, Ethel Payne (the “First Lady of the Black Press”), Karen DeWitt, Barbara Reynolds, and Carole Simpson all speak to additional challenges that they faced in newsrooms as women of color. And Joel Dreyfus talks a lot in his interview about feeling set apart because of his point of view as “a Haitian immigrant.” Among others, he offers this instructive story (pg. 35):

I once had a colleague at the Washington Post who got exasperated by my rather outspoken and critical attitude about race relations at the paper. He was annoyed by my lack of tact and reserve. He was black and a rather senior writer.

He said to me, “You act like you discovered discrimination.”

I said, “Well, I have.”

And that was it, too. I was an immigrant. So my perspective was different because of that.

But of all the book’s many fine qualities, one, in particular, stands out from our vantage point in 2020: the way Missing Pages pulls back the curtain on professional journalism, giving us a much clearer picture of the racism and implicit bias Black reporters have faced both inside and outside of their newsrooms. The narrators’ stories describe all manner of micro- and macro-aggressions, which often lead to searching and difficult questions. “How then should a black journalist consider himself?” asks the AP’s Austin Scott. “As a black first? Or a journalist first?” (pg. 260).

As if this weren’t enough to grapple with, some of the narrators’ experiences also have rather enormous implications in terms of the fourth estate’s very wellbeing. One particularly dramatic example is that of Earl Caldwell, who “covered the Black Panthers for the New York Times, and was involved in a press freedom issue that was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court” (pg. 263). Recalling his refusal to testify before a federal grand jury, he tells Terry about the chilling effect it would have had (pg. 278):

If I appeared before a grand jury, I would only verify my news stories. So we argued that if I went before the grand jury and put on the record what was already on the record, it would be a barren performance. The FBI wouldn’t learn anything. But it would be destructive to me as a reporter.

We argued that there were only a handful of black reporters with the major newspapers. We brought all my stories to show that I was able to get on the inside of the Panther operation to write effectively about the organization. Even the FBI said that everything they knew they learned from the New York Times and other newspapers. But the very action they were taking against me would make sure there would be no more stories. No more enlightened stories.

[My attorney] Tony Amsterdam argued that I still had a legal right to refuse because if the government would not gain anything they didn’t already know from my appearance, then why were they doing it? Why were they pushing it? To embarrass me? To destroy my reporting?

Fortunately, this story ends well for Caldwell. And there are more than a few other truly inspiring stories of triumph and overcoming these and other sorts of adversities. Perhaps because of this, Terry emerges as an optimistic voice in his own book. His closing interview would seem to indicate that the possibility of reforming professional journalism — of making those “better, wiser choices” — is always there, waiting on us (but especially the White people among us). Recounting the true story behind his and Zalin Grant’s rescue of the bodies of the four American journalists in Vietnam, he explains (pg. 327-8):

All the absurd distinctions society would make between us — black and white, North and South — vanished that day. Zalin Grant and I found what many soldiers were discovering at the same time in Vietnam. A bonding took place, as much for us as it did for the soldiers who risked their lives to pull their comrades out of the line of fire.

In one solitary moment, in the horror of it all, we discovered what Dr. King dreamed of: The sons of slaves and former slaveholders could sit at the same table. We found a better vision of ourselves and of our nation.

We became more than friends. We became brothers.

In order for most professional journalism organizations to progress in a more just and purposefully anti-racist direction, an awful lot of practical changes will need to be put into place. Time will tell how many are actually up to that challenge. For those that earnestly want to try, Missing Pages is an indispensable resource: among the voices, past and present, that we should all take care to heed at this particular moment are most certainly those of Wallace Terry and his book’s narrators.

About Daniel Clarkson Fisher

Daniel Clarkson Fisher is a Toronto-based oral historian whose most recent work is the Chinese Jamaican Oral History Project (CJOHP.org), a digital storytelling initiative inspired by his partner Stephanie Lyn and her family. He holds a Master of Fine Arts in Documentary Media from Ryerson University, and is currently a contract lecturer in that program.
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