On a sunny Friday morning at the end of April, I drove to Saratoga Springs from my home in Columbia County to attend a gathering of the New York Publishers Association. This is not the type of gathering I usually attend. Being a mostly solitary person, I’m uncomfortable in large crowds and tend to avoid them like the plague. Every year of my 34 years at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, I was invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and talked myself into going only three times.
The reason I went to the NYPA conference had nothing to do with the Hudson Register-Star or its owners. I went to meet people who I didn’t know to tell them about my forthcoming book, The Winding Road: My Journey Through Life and the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Although I didn’t go there as a reporter or op-ed writer, I found a story that had me thinking about journalism in general and local journalism in particular.
The keynote speaker at Friday’s luncheon was Ken Paulson, the director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University. He reminisced about his childhood days when he would watch Superman reruns every night at 6:30. Recalling the mantra, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way,” he noted that he couldn’t manage to leap over the shrubs in the backyard, much less leap over tall buildings. But he could become Clark Kent; he could become a journalist. And that’s what he did in pursuit of promoting truth, justice, and the American way. That, he said, is what the American press has been doing before there even was an America. At every turn in America, journalism, in whatever form it comes, has played a vital role in preserving and promoting those lofty goals.
By way of example, he pointed to 8 pivotal moments in America’s history in which journalism has played a significant role, including the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and more recent events.
I imagined the crowd of newspaper publishers, mainly of papers like the one you’re reading, nodding in approval, agreement, and perhaps with some self-satisfaction. After all, they all dedicate an essential part of their lives to telling people what is happening of interest or importance in their local communities, what has changed between yesterday and today, who is living and who has died, what their local government and the business community is doing or not doing. They hold to the goals of promoting truth, justice, and the American way.
Looking around me at this sea of faces, between 200–300 people, I couldn’t help noticing that every single one of them was white. All the owners, editors and reporters at the conference were white. Except that is, for Warren Dews Jr., publisher of the Greenville Pioneer and the Ravena News-Herald. In the sea of white faces, his was the only Black face.
If you ever come across Warren, you’d immediately notice him. He is not the shy and retiring type. He’s sizeable, certainly in circumference, and dresses colorfully. That day he was wearing a pink suit. No one else in that crowd was similarly dressed. And he is ebullient, more so than most people I’ve met. Even if he wasn’t Black, Warren in his pink suit would be hard to miss, and maybe that’s the point. I’d met Warren previously and so felt little hesitancy in asking him how it felt to be the only Black person in that crowd. “I’ve gotten used to it,” he said. Maybe he’s gotten used to it, but he wants to make it hard for us not to see him.
As I listened to Ken Paulson and looked at all the white faces, I wondered what they thought as they looked at their fellow attendees. What did they see, and what did they miss? Do they see Warren?
I remembered “Invisible Hudson,” the first piece I did for the Register-Star. It was about how invisible Hudson’s Black population seemed to be, certainly to tourists strolling down Warren Street, but also to the second homeowners, to the folks from the city who have emigrated here in the years since 9/11, as well as those who consider themselves the “real” inhabitants of the town. So imagine my surprise when a couple of years later, Hudson elected a Black mayor. Maybe not so invisible after all. Or, perhaps, visible to just enough whites that combined with the out-or-sight, out-of-mind Blacks, Kamal Johnson could win an election.
I wondered what stories all these publishers and editors missed because none of them are Black. Likely, few if any of their reporters are Black, a problem made even worse by newsroom layoffs in local papers all across the state and country because of declining ad sales and circulation.
Although most of us are sure that our news sense is good, it isn’t perfect, and some stories will slip by us because we aren’t sensitive to them and don’t recognize their importance. Many of those stories involve minority populations, Blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and all the other minorities that constitute our communities. We all have our blind spots, our prejudices, and biases. We see only what we are willing to see. I think, for example, of all the Help Wanted signs I’ve seen over the past year or two, and can’t help wondering what the Latinos in our communities make of them, what stories have we missed.
I think back to Ralph Ellison and “Invisible Man,” to the work of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, August Wilson, John Edgar Wideman, and so many others in every minority community of yesterday and today. I think back to Martin Luther King and the origins of Black Lives Matter. I think of Warren Dews Jr.
I think they all have one thing in common: they are all insisting, “Look at me! See me!” And too many of us, including the publishers and journalists in the room that April day, too often find nothing to see.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now retired, senior producer for what is now called “PBS Newshour.” He resides in Hillsdale.