Part 1 of Dallas South Blog’s Interview with Chicago Tribune’s Howard Witt
Last March, Howard Witt wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune about the sentencing of a 14 year-old girl in my hometown of Paris, Texas. In the 6-plus months that have followed, the landscape of the internet, the civil rights movement, and the media has greatly changed.
Some, including yours truly, attribute the outcry in the ShaQuanda Cotton and Jena 6 cases directly to the work of Mr. Witt. I'd add to that the newfound interest the media has with Black Bloggers. Howard Witt granted an outstanding interview to Dallas South where he talks about his career, the media, and his work over the past few months.
Dallas South Blog: First, tell me a little about how your career has led you to become Southwest Bureau Chief of the Chicago Tribune.
Howard Witt: I've been with the Tribune since graduating from the University of Michigan in 1982, with the exception of a couple of years (1999-2001) in New York and Washington.
At the Tribune I've done many different things: I've been a national correspondent based in the Midwest and Los Angeles; a foreign correspondent based in Canada, South Africa and Russia; the National/Foreign editor; the editor in charge of the Tribune's Internet sites back when they were first launching a decade ago; the paper's Chief Diplomatic Correspondent based in Washington; and, since 2004, the paper's Southwest Bureau Chief based in Texas.
DSB: Your paper, and more specifically you, have lead national media coverage on some prominent cases that have highlighted race as it relates to the justice system (Shaquanda Cotton, Jena 6, etc.). Why have you been drawn to these types of stories?
HW: Tt is true that I've created a 'civil rights' beat for myself this year, writing more than two dozen stories on topics relating to racial discrimination, disparities and injustice here in the South. (If your readers have an interest, many of these stories can be found at www.chicagotribune.com/howardwitt .
I think it's vitally important that the mainstream media tell these stories, because many Americans-especially white Americans-cling to the comfortable assumption that our nation's civil rights struggles remain tidily locked away in the dark old past of lynchings, Jim Crow, Little Rock and Bull Connor. In fact, I think you can make an argument that racial discrimination is just as serious and wide-reaching today-it just takes different, and much more subtle, forms. And what is going inside the small backwoods towns of east Texas and Louisiana deserves to have a bright light shone upon it.
What really got me curious about this topic was a story I wrote in June, 2005, about a mentally retarded black man named Billy Ray Johnson who was beaten and left for dead by four young white men in the small town of Linden, Texas. The whites invited Johnson to a 'pasture party' and made him dance and sing for their entertainment while hurling racial epithets at him, then knocked him unconscious (he suffered a brain hemorrhage) and dumped his lifeless body next to a trash dump.
Local juries in Linden-a town that features a mural of black slaves picking cotton on the wall of the local post office-refused to convict Johnson's attackers of anything more than minor misdemeanors, despite the fact that their assault left him with permanent brain damage and confined in a nursing home for the rest of his life.
None of the attackers served more than 60 days in the town jail for their crime. After my story about this miscarriage of justice appeared, the Southern Poverty Law Center reacted to it by filing a civil lawsuit on Johnson's behalf against his attackers, and earlier this year Johnson won that suit and a jury award of $9 million.
So that was my introduction the fact that there was a lot of unseen nastiness going on in small southern towns.
DSB: How has the Tribune responded to your covering these stories? Has the response changed over the years?
HW: I have always received very strong support from all of the Tribune's top editors, who continue to believe in the crucial importance of journalists digging out important stories, no matter the expense in time or money. This is, alas, an increasingly rare attitude in these days of massive retrenchments and financial panic at many of the nation's newspapers, which are watching in terror as readers migrate to the Internet.
Yet for the stories I write, the Internet has been a tremendous boon: It is thanks to broad and instantaneous distribution of my stories via blogs like yours, emails and reposting on other websites that my work can have a much stronger national impact. It was, after all, Internet-driven petition drives and protests that built up much of the political pressure that led to Shaquanda Cotton's release and inspired more than 20,000 marchers who showed up in Jena last month.
Has the response of my editors to my work changed over the years? Only in the sense that they, too, want to push Internet distribution as quickly as possible. Just this week, for example, they readily agreed to publish a story I did about what happened to the "white girl" in the Shaquanda Cotton case on the Internet on Monday afternoon, many hours before it appeared in the next morning's printed newspaper. That would have been unheard of just a few years ago.