In 1912, something very bad happened in Forsyth County. But if you live in Atlanta -- and rely on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for information – you may have found out about it just seven weeks ago.
What occurred during the intervening 95 years has a lot to do with the South's collective amnesia over its racial sins. And, according to a new book by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, the AJC has contributed over the years to the memory loss.
The book – Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America, written by Elliot Jaspin – argues that AJC editors eviscerated an earlier newspaper series he wrote on racial cleansing in 14 American counties, including Forsyth. He wrote the articles for Cox Newspapers, which owns the AJC.
Jaspin claims the series – penned after five years of research – was spiked locally because the articles would have embarrassed the AJC by reporting previous whitewashes by the newspaper of racial cleansing in Forsyth County.
Failing that, Jaspin says, the AJC prevailed upon the Cox brass to soften the mentions of the newspaper's accounts, or as he puts it, "bowdlerize" his groundbreaking reporting.
Although the AJC didn't run the series, "Leave or Die," other Cox papers did, as well as other non-Cox publications. That created the odd circumstance in which the chain's largest newspaper didn't run high-profile articles by its own Washington bureau, stories that highlighted events in the AJC's own backyard. The series was co-sponsored by the Washington bureau and by the Cox-owned American-Statesman in Austin, Texas. The print version ran 16 full pages.
AJC editors "are afraid of angering white people," Cox Washington Bureau Chief Andy Alexander is quoted as saying by Jaspin in his book, which will be released March 12 and expands on the series' reporting. Alexander, who is Jaspin's supervisor, in a statement last month to a journalism blog concedes he uttered the quote but attributes it to the "heat of the editing process."
Jaspin contends Cox Newspapers "jumped back as if it had brushed against a hot stove," when the AJC's "checkered coverage" of race was mentioned in the series. "The stories I had written were edited to obscure the Atlanta newspaper's lackadaisical coverage," he says in his book. "Editors ignored clear conflicts of interest while editing the racial cleansing series."
Cox and the AJC even planned an "anti-marketing" public relations strategy to keep knowledge of the series from Atlanta readers, according to the book. Jaspin writes that he was ordered to adhere to specific "talking points" in discussing his articles, including one that commanded: "Do not proactively mention ... the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's past coverage of racial expulsions."
AJC Executive Editor Julia Wallace and Managing Editor/News Hank Klibanoff refused requests to respond to Jaspin's accusations. "I think we've said all we will on this topic," Wallace wrote in an e-mail. Cox and the AJC's only comment has been to a blog run by Washington Post columnist Richard Prince. Wallace and Washington Bureau Chief Alexander, in their statements to Prince, don't dispute factual allegations in Jaspin's book: that the series was killed in Atlanta, that versions published elsewhere toned down criticism of the AJC and that the newspaper company attempted to choke off knowledge of the series in Georgia.
"We read the series, questioning what new ground would be paved in this story," Wallace wrote. "As we went through the editing process, we had more fundamental questions about selective use of facts and interpretations. In the end, we didn't believe the series answered enough of the questions we raised." Wallace refused to give specific examples of her concerns.
Alexander, who originally backed his reporter's work, now portrays Jaspin as a disgruntled journalist who "didn't like the editing process."
Jaspin volleyed back to the Prince blog: "The uncontested facts are that the Cox editors openly discussed among themselves the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's shoddy reporting but would not print what they knew."
In Jaspin's book, that assertion is backed by other Cox editors. "Why are [we] pounding on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for being apologists who look at race relations in Forsyth County through rose colored glasses?" David Pasztor, who edited the series for the American-Statesman, is quoted as saying. "The reason we are doing that is because the Atlanta Journal-Constitution have been apologists who look at the race relations in Forsyth County through rose colored glasses. It's just true."
A CONFIDENTIAL MEMO written by Klibanoff before the series was published, and which CL obtained, offers more direct criticism of Jaspin. Klibanoff is himself a highly regarded reporter on race matters, who last year co-authored a book, The Race Beat, that recounts the experiences of journalists covering the Civil Rights Movement. In the memo, he chastises Jaspin, often in personal terms.
"With the zeal of a new convert, [Jaspin is] just cranky that no one has summoned the same outrage today about what happened 65 years, 75 and 90 years prior to those stories running," Klibanoff writes in one passage of the seven-page memo. In another, he argues that "the series read like one man's serendipitous exposure to, and belated outrage at, a fascinating period of history that he felt remiss he had not known about."
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