As on every Friday in the Newsweek newsroom during the late 1960s, reporter Leandra Abbott and assistant editor Ruth Ross worked late into the night. Their boss had just edited a piece about one of the latest issues to emerge from the civil rights movement and the two were not happy with what they saw. The story, she says, lacked nuance and inaccurately represented African Americans.
They marched into the boss' office and politely told him the story was wrong. He went on the defensive and insisted, "I have nothing up my sleeve. I'm a good guy."
To which Ross replied, "Yes, you do have something up your sleeve. You have white skin up your sleeve."
The moment served as an epiphany to the editor, realizing that his uninformed perspective as a white person covering a black issue made for inaccuracies. He quickly acquiesced and made the suggested changes.
Abbott and Ross made up a breed of black journalists who saw their jobs more as a cause than a career. Journalism for them was about social change, especially when it came to the advancement of more accurate portrayals of blacks.
"We all had the unspoken or spoken responsibility that we felt to make sure stories were presented African Americans accurately," Abbott says.
This mantra guided her throughout her journalism career.
Abbott got her professional start at Cosmopolitan Magazine, the first black female on staff. Under the tutelage of Cosmo editor, Helen Gurley Brown, Abbott was exposed to good writing and a bit of the socialite's world. She fit in well with the small staff of women who shared clothes with each other for special events they had to cover.
Ross, whom she had met at the local black journalism organization, encouraged Abbott to apply for a job at Newsweek. Abbott spent about two years at the weekly magazine. Like her colleague, Lenore Jenkins-Allen, she left the magazine and began working for Community News Service, the regional wire service that emerged out of the Kerner Commission report, which charged the mainstream media with providing poor coverage of minority communities.
When Abbott's husband got a job in Zambia, she went to the southern African nation and found a position with the Zambia Times. A rarity as a woman in the newsroom, she covered social issues including a piece about harmful skin bleaching cremes. The article won the attention of a legislator who used it to gain support for a law banning the sale of the toxic cremes.
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