'Printing Hate' looks at the historic role of newspapers in inciting racist violence against Black people – The San Diego Union-Tribune
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While the Black Lives Matters protests during the past couple of years have pushed communities and industries to talk about and reckon with their participation in racist systems, a group of college students spent a summer investigating the role newspapers have historically played in inciting anti-Black hate and violence.
“Printing Hate” (lynching.cnsmaryland.org/) is a project from the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism highlighting the work of nearly 60 students from seven universities and colleges. These students spent the summer of 2021 researching archives and interviewing descendants, historians and other experts to document the power of the press to uphold White supremacy post-Reconstruction and into the 20th century.
Kathy Roberts Forde is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who met with the project’s students, sharing her own research into this topic, and connecting them to critical sources for their work. She’s also an associate dean of equity and inclusion at the university’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, studies the history of American journalism and the press, and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Journalism and Jim Crow: White Supremacy and the Black Struggle for a New America.” She took some time to talk about the “Printing Hate” project, her book, and the new for journalism outlets to diversify and adopt new standards and practices that bend toward correcting the wrongs of the past. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity. )
Q: Can you talk about what led you to first begin looking into this topic of the role of newspapers in perpetuating anti-Black violence and racism post-Reconstruction?
A: I was teaching a class that I created with a colleague when we were both at the University of South Carolina, called “The Black Freedom Struggle in the Press.” It’s a history course that we developed in 2011, and I was teaching the class here at the University of Massachusetts a few years ago. While we were talking about convict labor and the American South, this form of neo-slavery that came after the Civil War, one of the students in the class had never heard of convict labor and was totally outraged. He asked to do an independent study with me, which led a research project that we worked on for three years (that he received a scholarship for), understanding the historical connection between the press and convict labor.
We found the story of a White industrialist (Henry Flagler) who’d gone south to build railroads and hotels, make money and enrich himself through exploiting Black labor and immigrant labor through the convict leasing system and the debt peonage system. Then, he controls public information about his labor practices, among other things, by buying up newspapers. He understood and knew how the press operated, and how important it was to have the press on his side and to have control over the press. That allowed him to whitewash what he was doing. We began to wonder that if this was taking place in Florida, where else could this have been happening in the South? That’s when I started reading a ton of literature on the post-Reconstruction South and finding instance after instance in which White newspaper editors and publishers were building White supremacist political economies and social borders. They were cooperating with other White elites, business leaders, political leaders and building these post-Reconstruction systems using news institutions as a critical tool to either misinform people; spread lies about Black lives in the South; foment racial massacres and racial terror and lynchings; foment political campaigns in which violence targeted at Black Americans is a key part of the political campaign and the strategy to win elections; or to become a weapon through fraud, cheating and violence.
Q: In an interview with Insider, you mention newspapers using their “soft power” of storytelling to spread an ideology of White supremacy through political, economic and social stories. Can you talk a bit about how this kind of storytelling functions as a sort of soft power?
A: An example would be North Carolina in 1898. There were elections all over the state for the state legislature. At the time, there was a racial and political movement called The Fusionists, who were made up of the Republican Party (which was the party that most Black Southerners belonged to) and the Populist Party of White middle class and poor White people in North Carolina. The Populists and the Black Republicans joined forces to create this Fusionist movement and they held the governorship, they held power in the state legislature, and, very importantly, they held power in the port city of Wilmington, which was a Black majority and had a thriving Black middle class in 1898.
The Democratic Party decides that they’ve got to regain control of North Carolina, so they put together a political party campaign. One of the leaders of that cabal of White Democrats working on this plan was Josephus Daniels, the publisher and editor of the Raleigh News & Observer. They decided to publish all kinds of propaganda about Black men sexually assaulting White women, and also published propaganda about supposed “Negro rule” and “Negro domination” as a way of suggesting that Black political power was dangerous. They just publish racist, anti-Black article after article after article. News articles, editorials, opinion pieces, and, very powerfully, these racist cartoons that are incredibly demeaning and dehumanizing, and portrayed Black men as beasts or animals, as vampires preying on White women or having more power than White men.
Democratic White newspapers all over the state republish Daniels’ material, along with their own, to serve the goals of the Democratic Party. They try to drive a wedge between the Blacks and Whites who were part of the Fusionist movement, to disrupt the Fusionist movement, and they are incredibly successful. They whip up all of this anti-Black, racist animus among the White people of North Carolina by making claims that Black men are sexually assaulting White women, that they can’t be trusted with political power, that this way lies the end of the vaunted, honored White civilization of the south, and they also encourage violence. They have speakers who go from town to town doing the same thing, spreading White supremacist ideology through the content of the newspapers. They’re also using the paper as a political weapon in a Democratic Party political campaign to organize people and sentiment. The news institutions are involving themselves in actual political organizing and violent political work. There’s a paramilitary group called the Red Shirts that are an arm of the Democratic Party, and they go around the state intimidating Black people who are trying to register folks to vote. They intimidate Black people on election day who are trying to vote at the ballot box. So, of course, the state legislature is lost to the Democrats through fraud and this campaign. Since that year was not an election season for the City of Wilmington, it was still the center of power for the Fusionists in the state of North Carolina. So, the Democrats put together a very organized mob and they march into Wilmington and orchestrate a coup. At gunpoint, they force all of the duly elected Black and White officials in Wilmington to resign, and they install a set group from among themselves in all of those positions. They also burn the Black press, and force the exile of the publisher and editor, Alexander Manley, who has been a very profound and important voice of resistance as these Democratic Party campaigns have been happening. They burn his press to the ground, and they kill an untold number of people in this massacre that’s now known as the Wilmington massacre.
Q: With today’s journalism outlets and institutions, we understand this commitment to finding the facts, focusing on objectivity, and presenting balanced accounts of the news that gets reported. What was the prevailing attitude about the purpose and goal of journalism during that time, that would lead so many publications to writing deliberately incendiary content?
A: Deliberately incendiary, and in many instances, outright falsehoods. I mean, straight up misinformation campaigns that are being wielded, as in the case of the Wilmington massacre, to serve the ascendance of a particular political party.
So, in 1898 — even though the objectivity standard doesn’t emerge in journalism until post-World War I, in the early 1920s, as a reaction to all of the propaganda that was purveyed by the federal government during the Wilson administration — we still have all kinds of standard news practices and values in American journalism that have come into being, even if they’re not fully articulated. I’ve done studies of the press trade publications of the 1880s and 1890s, and other historians have done this work, so what we know is by 1898, U.S. journalism was committed to facts. It was committed to a process of verification of the facts, it was committed to the separation of opinion and facts, to certain ideas about neutrality, and it was absolutely independent.
Even though many of the commercial newspapers in the North had separated themselves from being directly or officially affiliated with a political party, in the south, many papers were still very much affiliated with a political party, and the Democratic Party was the party of the White elites. In the South, so many of the big, urban dailies in the 1880s and 1890s (and well into the 20th century), are very much associated with, if not the Democratic Party (until the parties began the long process of realignment sometime in the 1930s), then a one-party rule with a White supremacist framework and maintaining White supremacy and a racial caste. Based on our research and in co-writing this book, so many of these large, White, urban dailies were more committed to maintaining White supremacy than they were to journalism standards.
One of my takeaways from this work is that so many Black journalists have said across time, and certainly recently, that claims of objectivity or neutrality or impartiality, can often be a veil for White norms, or misrepresentation in service of maintaining a White status quo.
Q: In thinking about some of these television channels, social media accounts, and websites that clearly align themselves with White supremacy and feeding audiences ideologies like Great Replacement Theory, and stories vilifying communities of color, (i.e. “Black-on-Black” crime portraying Black people as inherently criminal or animalistic when most crime is intracommunal, anti-immigrant remarks during the Trump campaign and presidency, the anti-Asian rhetoric during the early months of the pandemic), it seems like there hasn’t been much change. what’s your take on whether journalism/media is making enough progress away from that kind of incitement?
A: Journalism is such a big tent in the United States. I think there are journalists, editors, publishers, producers, creators, and news media outlets that do a really great job; and I think there are others that do a terrible job. It’s just an incredibly mixed bag, but I guess I would say that there’s an urgent need for us to diversify the leadership in newsrooms. We need as many perspectives and people in positions of leadership who are people of color, and who have the cultural competence to oversee newsrooms and help newsrooms make decisions in what to cover and how to cover it. We need people who are oriented toward journalistic values that serve a multiracial democracy.
Now, what that’s going to look like, exactly, I’m not exactly sure. It’s not up to me to figure out all the answers, but what I’m hoping to do with my own work and advocacy based on my research is to suggest that it’s time for us to have real, profound conversations in the journalism industry about what news standards should be today. How do we escape from this naïve empiricism that we too often practice in journalism, where we try to go for balance when balance isn’t called for? Or, we try to be neutral about matters in which, in my view, there should be no neutrality? There are so many threats to democracy right now, so many threats to pluralism, that we’ve got to orient our journalism toward values that serve building a multiracial, inclusive, and just democracy. What those new standards and values are, is something for diverse journalists to figure out together.
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