Press Box

Profiles in Smugness

The Lexington Herald-Leader strokes itself.

The editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader spared herself and her paper no self-congratulation after it ran a package of stories earlier this month documenting how its predecessor dailies, the Lexington Herald (morning) and the Lexington Leader (afternoon), had spiked coverage of the local civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Editor Marilyn W. Thompson, new to the Herald-Leader, touted her paper’s self-exposé as a “powerful examination” and “extraordinary” in a follow-up piece published Sunday (July 11). Spinning her wheels in the rut of redundancy, she applauded the package’s “rigorous reporting,” its “exceptional reporting,” and noted, too, that it was “deeply reported.” Thompson also worked in a 150-word salute to her own recent triumph in righting the “historical record” at the Washington Post, whereshe proved that Strom Thurmond had fathered a child with an African-American family servant. Although Thompson dislocated both shoulders from patting herself on the back with such vigor, she declined medical treatment and returned to her desk to edit packages that decry the Herald’sand Leader’s tainted coverage in years gone by of gay rights, women’s suffrage, slavery, the American Revolution, and the Salem witch trials. (I’m kidding, but barely.)

None of this is to knock the main story in the package, which reports the Herald-Leader’s failings without wallowing in Thompson-style smug self-satisfaction. But how much courage does it take—40 and 50 years after the fact—to trumpet the self-evident proposition that newspapers, South and North, played down coverage of civil right news and demonstrations? How much gumption does it take to pillory the malfeasant editors, reporters, and publisher who turned to compost ages ago? Informing readers that the 1955 Lexington Herald did not abide by today’s news and civil rights standards is about as enterprising and brave as running the Declaration of Independence on Page One every Fourth of July. Apparently there is an endless appetite for painless self-flagellation in Lexington: Thompson tells the New York Times that additional stories about surviving civil rights protestors and the racial attitudes of the publisher are in the works. I hope she’s pre-ordered a bouquet for herself.

For obvious reasons, the distant past can almost never defend itself against the present. If the Herald-Leader had any real editorial guts, it would exhume a defective story from five years ago—a story touched by its current crew of editors and reporters—and run it through the Revisionator. Do that, Ms. Thompson, and the flowers will be on me.

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Why did the journalist shoot the fish in the barrel? Because the fish aren’t armed. Send e-mail, virtual blossoms, and virtual fish to pressbox@hotmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)