S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson American newspapers have had a rocky history in covering racism. Now, one is taking tough steps to correct the record and live up to its creed.
S2: I think this is the right city, and I think this is the right newspaper for us to have a conversation about systemic institutional inequality, not only for us to really more fully understand the foundations of many of those institutions, but also for us to acknowledge the present day harm
S1: a big media effort to get it right on race in the City of Brotherly Love. Coming up on a word with me Jason Johnson. Stay with us! Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. As we wrap up Black History Month, we’re going to take a moment to address how racism has affected what many call the first draft of history journalism. While lots of conservatives like to frame the media as too woke or too progressive or too liberal on race, the country’s newspapers have been really reticent or even hostile to the idea of delivering honest information about racism in the communities they cover. The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of several newspapers that’s undergoing that reckoning over media bias. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Wes Lowery recently wrote a blistering account of the paper’s history on race, titled Black City White Paper. It’s the first installment of a special project from the Inquirer called A More Perfect Union. It’s a long term effort to examine the roots of systematic racism through institutions founded in Philadelphia. The person leading a more perfect union is Errin Haines. She’s a veteran political journalist and one of the founders of the 19th, a news nonprofit focused on gender, politics and policy. And Errin Haines joins us now. Welcome to a word.
S2: Thanks for having me, Jason, and thanks for amplifying the project. We really appreciate it.
S1: A more perfect union. It’s very close to you. It’s something that’s obviously important to you professionally and personally. Just tell us a little bit about like what inspired you to create this project and give it a home at the Inquirer?
S2: Philadelphia is my adopted hometown now. I have been here for about seven years and really living here has made me think a lot more deeply about what it means to be a citizen who gets to participate in our democracy. You know what a revolution looks like, and if the American Revolution is indeed ongoing and so, you know, summer of 2020, you know, we’re in the midst of a pandemic already. And then, you know, George Floyd’s killing forces people into the streets to protest the ongoing pandemic of the unrelenting killing of black people by law enforcement and vigilantes. And you know, I see this happening. And the thing about journalism is when things happen, a lot of times people can feel like they don’t really have control or they have no way of really responding to their feelings around that situation. For us, we get to channel into our work. And so I wanted to respond journalistically to that moment. And what I came up with was this idea around kind of the origin stories that we like to tell ourselves about who and what we are as a country, right? The Founding Fathers, the Liberty Bell, the Constitution, the declaration, all of these things that, you know, I’m kind of living and breathing alongside every day as a Philadelphian. But if we acknowledge that this is the cradle of democracy that a lot of our institutions, the first hospital, the first penitentiary, the first university were indeed born in Philadelphia, then we have to also acknowledge that the inequality was also born here. And so that really is what made me want to bring this project to the Inquirer. I’d worked with them before in my capacity at the 19th during the pandemic and said, I think this is the right city and I think this is the right newspaper for us to have a conversation about systemic institutional inequality, not only for us to really more fully understand the foundations of many of those institutions, but also for us to acknowledge the present day harm and the legacy of those institutions so that we can all collectively as Philadelphians and as people in America, finding a way forward together to really try to perfect this union.
S1: The preamble you wrote for the project was published on July 4th, and it was it was real personal, real emotional. Is there a particular passage from that piece that you remember is like the hardest right or hardest to share or most emotional?
S2: You know, probably, you know, the part around the insurrection, you know, because January 6th was traumatic for me as an American citizen, right? As a black person who had just watched black people, you know, regardless of your politics, I mean, participate in record numbers in our democracy. All these years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, but then was under threat watching black people stand up just the day before in my home state of Georgia to do something that had never happened in Georgia before, right? Going from that to watching people stormed the Capitol, partly in reaction to seeing that wave of voters who look like, you know, the changing America. That was very upsetting for me to witness. And it really made me think about where we were as a democracy. And so, you know, thinking back on that moment again, being in Philadelphia and thinking pretty deeply about a lot of those types of things. One of the first places that I was able to go to really kind of process what I had seen on January six is the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. If you were ever in town, you should one hundred thousand percent go because the story that it tells about our early years as a nation. Sean is unlike frankly, anything else that I have seen in mainstream museums dedicated to our history anywhere, and so I went to the museum and there’s this very dramatic film that is kind of the centerpiece of the museum, and it is about the tent that George Washington was in. As you know, the general of the Revolutionary War tells the story of the revolution, but also talks about the people who, even as we get to a declaration of independence, right? There were people who were living in this country and yet were unable and were not certainly not included in that revolution. Talking about women, talking about enslaved people, talking about Native American folks, right, who we know, you know, would continue in the freedom struggle and continue to this day. And so, you know, this tent? Again, centrepiece of the movie, but also the centerpiece of the museum, this tip was passed down for centuries, for generations. And that tent is on display at the museum. They show it at the end of this movie. I don’t know if it’s the dramatic music. I don’t know what it is, but by the time you get to the end of this movie, you’re very moved and you’re very much thinking about how fragile our democracy is, how we have to be vigilant about protecting it, and how it is on generations of Americans to safeguard it lest it be lost to history. That helped me really kind of think about not just history, but how history can really push us forward. And also just the idea that the American Revolution is ongoing. The declaration the revolution are not kind of these fixed things in the story of our country. It is a story that we we can come together and continue to write.
S1: You know, after George Floyd was murdered, a lot of organizations had upheaval. And then a lot of these newspapers and a lot of these magazines would make these grand statements that condemned racism. Maybe they threw some money and said that we care about Black Lives Matter, but then pretty much is back to business as usual. You know, how will a more perfect union be different? How will a more perfect union be a sign of ongoing change and a media outlet as opposed to just sort of a Black History Month display that they do because they feel guilty about something that happened a year ago?
S2: Sure. Look, I mean, that’s an open question. Jason if we’re being honest, right? As you point out, you know, the reckoning at the center of that was an interrogation of institutions. Journalism was not immune from that interrogation. You frankly had uprisings in newspapers because you’ve got black and brown folks out here in the streets covering a lot of these protests and yet our inner work environment, where they are also wondering if they matter, right? They are wondering why their lived experience is something that is not being
S1: valued and appreciated and amplified.
S2: Absolutely. That is certainly not a new conversation to journalism, but in the same way that 2020 felt like a tipping point for some of these other institutions. It did feel like there was a real opportunity in journalism to do something different. And so, you know, seeing the Inquirer in particular just had the distinction of being the poorest and most unequal big city in America. And you know, the newspaper frankly has contributed to perpetuating that narrative, perpetuating a lot of ideas around certain communities here. When I talk to black Philadelphians, you know about the Inquirer. What they will say is that they have not seen themselves, you know, reflect the fullness of their dignity and humanity reflected in the paper of record. And that is not new. But like I said, there is there is a new generation of journalists of color at the paper alongside the veterans who have also kind of lived through the 190 plus years that things were not different or we’re not different enough or permanent enough, right? Because there have been attempts at trying to diversify the paper. There have been attempts at trying to reckon with this coverage before, but but that, you know, that didn’t stick. And so we keep getting in these cycles where we’re dealing with the same things that previous generations of black people of the Inquirer had been through and really just laying out the reality that depending on what color you were, they were very different Inquirer’s, very different experiences at the Inquirer right. People’s opportunities for advancement. You know, even, you know, hierarchy of assignments and prominence, again, not even unique to journalism right there. If you were a black person in the workplace, you know, black professional in the workplace. This experience sounds familiar to you. A lot of what you read in the Inquirer piece sounds familiar. So again, you know, my job is as the kind of architect of this project, Wesley’s job as the writer on on chapter one here of this series is really to show the institution to itself where the institution goes from here and showing them what the work is so that they can do their own work is. That was certainly our aim. Whether or not they will do that, work is really up to them.
S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back more on a more perfect union and historic racism in the media. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson host of a word slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear. Please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcast and let us know what you think by writing. Has got a word at Slate.com? Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about a more perfect union and other efforts to confront racism in the media with veteran journalist Errin Haines. You know, as we mentioned, you were just talking about it before the break. Leading story on the project was titled Black City White Paper. It is a scathing account of the Inquirer’s own history of perpetuating racism through its coverage. What do black people that you speak to in Philadelphia? What do they say about the Inquirer? Is there any part of the Inquirer they’re like now they’ve done good work? Or is it almost as if it doesn’t exist to them because there is still a black newspaper in the city and that’s where black people get their news?
S2: One of the things that I was really heartened by, frankly, when I moved to Philadelphia, was the robustness of ethnic media in Philadelphia, the black press in Philadelphia. I mean, you know, I’m from Atlanta and we certainly have a very active black president, Atlanta. But the community support here is so much more than it was in Atlanta, which is an even blacker city than Philadelphia. I was really struck by that. The daily news was the alternative for black folks here for a long time because what people will say was that they felt like that paper was at least more honest and grittier, if not more honest about them and their communities. At least a more honest depiction, right? Ironically, on the day that on the day that this piece ran in the Inquirer, I was doing a local radio interview about the project and I come on the line and just before I’m coming on the line, I hear these two council people railing about the Inquirer because the day before the city had renamed Richard Allen Boulevard, which Allen, the founder of the AME Church, the AME Church was founded in Philadelphia. Right? So another storied institution that was founded here in response to racism. Right? Two hundred years later, he gets a street named after him. This is a big deal that should be a big deal, right? Not only for the African-American community, but for our country like this man has shaped our national faith community has shaped, you know, you know, the social justice movement in America. The Inquirer didn’t write about it.
S1: And for anyone of yours who doesn’t know, Amy is African Methodist Episcopal Church, so that’s that’s a big deal. You know, Mother Emanuel Church, which had the terror attack about six or seven years ago, that was an AME church. It’s a very important part of the sort of religious fabric for African-Americans, the United States. One other sort of interesting framing of this is this idea that newspapers are an important part of a city like we can’t imagine a city that doesn’t have a newspaper if a newspaper continues to be disconnected from large segments of the city’s population. Will it have a future? I mean, will it just only exist in sort of an online space to be read by elites? Or can newspapers stay alive if they don’t have these kinds of racial reckonings?
S2: Yeah, you’re making a really good point here, and that is really, you know, the idea that, you know, when we talk about this, this is we’re not just talking about this is some sort of moral imperative, right? This is an economic imperative. Philadelphia is an increasingly diverse city. This country is becoming increasingly diverse. On the one hand, I’m a champion of local journalism and you talk about, you know, not being able to imagine, you know, some cities without newspapers imagining Jason because in the middle of this country where there are news deserts, the local newspaper has gone, you know, and we know what is filling the void Fox News and talk radio. Right? That is what is filling the void. And I think that in the pandemic, especially people gained a newfound appreciation for what a lifeline your local community newspaper can be, right? How it is giving you information about the pandemic, how it is, you know, whether that was, you know, where to get coronavirus testing or how to get your PPE, check write real information that was helpful to people as they were trying to navigate a global public health crisis. What did that mean to me on the ground in my community where I live? Local newspapers were essential for that, right? And I think, do you continue to play an essential role in the lifeblood of any community across this country and an essential part of our democracy, holding people accountable, holding the powerful accountable, afflicting the comfortable right, as we say in this business? But no, I mean, the Kerner Commission report laid it out, you know, more than 50 years ago, the prescriptive solutions to addressing the inequity in journalism hire people to go into those communities that reflect those communities higher gatekeepers whose lived experience is going to bring in different perspectives and be more representative of the communities that they purport to cover. Right. I mean, the Inquirer’s slogan is an Inquirer for all. Well, it hasn’t been that it has not been in Inquirer for all, for a hundred and nine. Three years. And if they want to be in Inquirer for all, they’re going to have to go to all of those communities and cover them,
S1: we’re going to take a short break when we come back more on reckoning with racism in the media. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today we’re talking about historic racism in the media with veteran political journalist Errin Haines. She’s leading the Philadelphia Inquirer’s yearlong project exploring systematic racism. It’s called a more perfect union. One of the things that’s really kind of striking about your July 4th essay about the project is how it talks about creating a factual, honest record of how racism plays out in the city and in the country. Look, we’re going through a moment in schools where everybody screaming and yelling about critical race theory or, more importantly, white conservatives are screaming and yelling about critical race theory, all the things they don’t want their children to be taught, all the things they don’t want children and even themselves to insert a stent to learn about this country. Are you concerned about these kinds of attacks on race conscious reporting will scare other outlets away from doing what you’re trying to do with a more perfect union?
S2: Listen, if this was easy, every newspaper in America would be doing it. And that was really the other thing. Jason feels so different from what you have seen happen at some other newspapers that have attempted to kind of examine their coverage, examine their history. While that is certainly an admirable undertaking that I encourage more newsrooms to do, what I really appreciated about what we were able to do was an independent inquiry, right? I’m not from Philadelphia, Wesley is not from Philadelphia. We do not work at the Inquirer. And yet, you know, when I embarked on this project telling the leadership of the newspaper, You know, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to start with the Inquirer that that is the institution that we are going to begin with. You will not be involved in the production of this story. And in fact, you know, the publisher, the editor, you know, folks who were in charge of the paper read Black City White Paper at the same time as the public. Read it When it published at 5:00 a.m. They didn’t read a word of this before it published. That was intentional. They held up their end of the bargain. They were very hands off through this process, even as they participated in the process. Obviously, Wesley interviewed them and and exhaustively interviewed dozens and dozens of people for this 6400 word piece, which is still staggering in my mind that this was published in the pages of the Inquirer about the Inquirer. You know, I think if other newsrooms are going to do this, having an independent look at where they’ve been and where they’re going, I think is useful and something that I would absolutely encourage for anybody else that sees this project and is thinking about it. But the reality is it is daunting and there there is a reason why you are not seeing these kind of reckoning. Journalism does a reckoning with itself very much. Generally speaking, but certainly around issues of race, you are not seeing a lot of outlets reckoning.
S1: You guys are starting with the media, but you’re not stopping with the Philadelphia Inquirer. What’s the next institution that you’re going to be looking at with sort of this project, because this is a bunch of different institutions within the city can be looked at. What’s number two or what’s next?
S2: You know, Old City, one of the neighborhoods in Philadelphia, is home to the Betsy Ross house we all learned in school about Betsy Ross, part of our origin story, right? If not a part of our accurate history. And so the American flag as an institution honestly is a very powerful symbol, very enduring symbol of who we are and how we want to be seen and represented, right? And so that is the next institution, if you will, that that we are tackling because the American flag means different things to different Americans. And that is something that I think we have to talk about. And all of these chapters are meant to be, you know, when when we publish these. That is not meant to be the end of the conversation that is meant to be the beginning of the conversation of these kind of interrogations of these institutions. Part of that work is in equipping people with the tools, with the language, with the foundational history to begin to forge ahead. Right. It doesn’t stop with this history. It doesn’t stop with just this one story that you read and then move on from. We want to engage with Philadelphians. We want to engage with people around the country, around these institutions so that we can all, you know, figure out how they can be better, how they can be more equal.
S1: In conclusion, because this is something. Whenever I hear somebody, they come with a new project, a new idea, whether it’s journalism or creative space or business space, whatever. How would you assess that you’ve been successful in this project when it’s all said and done?
S2: Yeah, I mean, look, Jason, this is not a vanity project for me, for Wesley, for anybody that’s involved in a more perfect union over the course of this year. We do this because we give a damn about our democracy success. Success looks like, you know, my fellow Americans getting involved and understanding that they have a role to play in where we go from here, right? And that that work must continue beyond the summer. Or of 2020? Right? Because I mean, you know, this I mean, you know, just like there’s pandemic fatigue, there’s absolutely reckoning fatigue happening with too much of this country who was already like, Oh, that was hard, we need to move on. We still doing this. Yes, we’re still doing this. But the reality is, yeah, I mean this this is ongoing collective work. And if the project does nothing else, I hope it makes the case for why that work is worth it and for why it is absolutely going to take all of us or this. This doesn’t happen or we just end up in the same place that we have been incremental change that. Addresses maybe individual instances of inequality, but does not address the systems that will have to be different. On the other side of this, if we are going to get to this more perfect union,
S1: Errin Haines is leading a more perfect union. It’s a yearlong project for the Philadelphia Inquirer examining how the city’s institutions have been complicit in historic racism. Errin Haines. Thanks so much for joining us on a word.
S2: Thanks for having me, Jason.
S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts. It’s late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.