Dorothy Height Coverage Speedy but Uneven
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
N.Y. Times Lacked Advance Obit of 98-Year-Old Icon
Hamil R. Harris of the Washington Post says he went to sleep with his BlackBerry and his Dell computer next to his bed. He had covered Dr. Dorothy Height since the Black Family Reunion Celebrations began on the National Mall in 1986.
The telephone call came from Ron Harris, a veteran journalist who is now a spokesman for Howard University, at about 6 a.m.¬† Height, the longtime civil rights leader who had been at Howard University Hospital for nearly a month, died at 3:41 a.m. She was 98.
Hamil Harris, no relation to Ron Harris, called an early-morning editor at the Post. Working with Robert E. Pierre, the weekend local editor, he had already updated an obituary on Height by a retired Post writer.
E-mail and text alerts went out within minutes, at 6:50 a.m., with the obituary leading the Post website at 7:14.¬† But by 6:30 a.m., Harris said, he had begun to get calls from people as far away as Detroit who had heard the news.
"It's amazing how things can travel at the speed of light" with today's news technology, he said.
April D. Ryan, White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks, was spreading the news via Twitter between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. She told Journal-isms that someone in Height's hospital room alerted her shortly before 6 a.m., and that she began tweeting, e-mailing and preparing a story for her 6:50 a.m. newscast. She said she operated outside the Ron Harris loop.
Harris had been updating reporters and editors on Height's condition since she was hospitalized on March 24, her 98th birthday, and especially since March 27, when an erroneous Twitter posting reported that Height had died.
"For several hours on Saturday, the Internet was buzzing with more than 1,000 tweets and re-tweets repeating the rumors of her alleged passing - it was one of Twitter's hot 'trending' topics - as well as several Facebook postings repeating the false claims," as Bryan Monroe wrote then for the Huffington Post.
While Ron Harris kept reporters abreast of Height's condition, Flo McAfee, a publicist for Democratic Party causes and an associate of Alexis Herman, a Height confidante who was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, helped reporters prepare background material.
Ron Harris and McAfee named such media workers as Vickie Walton-James and Frank James of National Public Radio, Felicia R. Lee of the New York Times, Soledad O'Brien and Devon Sayers of CNN, Kameka Jones and Ann Curry of NBC, Ben Evans, Will Lester and Susan Castoro of the Associated Press, commentators Roland Martin and Donna Brazile, representatives of the local Washington television stations, Washington's WHUR radio, the Afro-American newspapers, students writing for the Howard University News Service and Black Enterprise magazine.
"I appreciated the fact that they were doing fact-checking," McAfee said. "People really understood her power and her impact."
Some news outlets were better prepared than others.
At 6:47 a.m., the Associated Press moved its first news alert, followed by a four-paragraph "News Now" story at 6:53 a.m.
Reports of Height's death aired on the "The Early Show" on CBS and "Today" on NBC, and on the 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. newscasts of ABC's "Good Morning America." NBC's Curry also tweeted the news.
On radio's syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show," Height's death "was mentioned during the BlackAmericaWeb.com headlines, during conversation and during Jeff Johnson's feature today," according to spokeswoman Maiya Hollie. Johnson "dedicated his feature to her and Benjamin Hooks today and remarked on how long he and other young leaders had to go." Hooks, who had headed the NAACP, died Thursday at 85.
At 6:51 a.m., National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" aired an extensive piece by reporter Allison Keyes that quoted Harvard professor Charles Ogletree; Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's representative in Congress; and John Lewis, D-Ga., who like Height is a civil rights icon.
"Took more than a month to get the tape ....and a while to write. Very hard to boil down nearly a century to just over 7 minutes," Keyes told Journal-isms by e-mail.
Host Michel Martin said Herman had been booked for NPR's "Tell Me More."
The Afro-American was ready with a tribute by Talibah Chikwendu, "Heaven's Gates Thrown Open for Dorothy Height."
However, the New York Times was still working on its obituary on Tuesday morning. "This one just went under the radar for us," Bill McDonald, the obituary editor, told Journal-isms. Of Height's illness, McDonald said, "We heard about it yesterday and a reporter started doing the research." He said a Times-written obituary would replace one from the Associated Press on the Web site later Tuesday, along with a video of an interview with Height in which she discussed President Obama.
BET.com and the Afro-American newspapers issued e-mailed news bulletins, but ebonyjet.com and essence.com were among the websites that had no mention of Height for most of the morning.
Hamil Harris had broken the 2004 bombshell¬†about Bill Cosby's comments on "the lower economic people" not parenting properly, posting the audio on the Post website. Last month, his contacts enabled him to record reaction inside a Southeast Washington church after Obama's visit there on Easter.
For Height's death, the onetime reporter for the Afro-American supplied the Post with video of Height at the most recent Black Family Reunion, and he said he plans to write an appreciation.
"She was available and accessible," Harris told Journal-isms. "To have a wheelchair and to be on the Mall with half a million people, she never turned down an interview. Others stood behind bodyguards and ropes.
"For me as a journalist, it's important to chronicle the elders," he said, also recalling that Height always said that civil rights advances benefited all Americans. "I'm so glad for the new technology," he continued. Future generations will "be able to look back to Dr. Height. It really immortalizes our leaders."
- Gwen Ifill, PBS "NewsHour": Remembering Dorothy Height
- Lynette Holloway, theRoot.com: Mourning a 'Lioness' of Civil Rights
From left, Brian Bull of the Native American Journalists Association; Ivan Roman of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; Michelle Johnson, who has guided online student projects; and Onica N. Makwakwa of Unity: Journalists of Color honor Doug Mitchell, at right, at last year's Asian American Journalists Association convention. (Credit: Brian Bull)
Journalists of Color Eligible for Entrepreneurial MoneyJournalists of color with an idea they think can make money could be eligible for a two-day boot camp designed to teach them how to be entrepreneurs ‚Äî and $5,000 in startup money, Unity: Journalists of Color announced on Monday.
The Ford Foundation has given Unity a $100,000 grant to begin the boot camps at each of the associations' summer conventions.
Four people from each association are to be chosen.
"The reason the Ford Foundation has funded New U is that there are so few opportunities in entrepreneurship for journalists of color," said Calvin Sims, program officer at the Ford Foundation, in a news release.
Barbara Ciara, Unity president, added, "One of the best and most effective ways for journalists to evolve in the 21st century is to own their work product. This professional development opportunity will teach journalists the business side of the industry to help journalists of color not only survive but thrive in a changing economy."
Doug Mitchell, founder and creator of NPR's Next Generation Radio project, and Alli Joseph, a producer, entrepreneur and member of the Native American Journalists Association, are the program managers and designers.
Mitchell trained scores of young journalists of color to enter broadcasting while an employee of National Public Radio for more than 20 years. NPR laid him off after announcing in 2008 that it faced a potential $2 million deficit, ending his Next Generation Radio project, but Mitchell continued to work with the journalist of color organizations.
Mitchell told Journal-isms that he went to 1,000 conferences a year, including those where new products are displayed, and "I see all these people who don't look like me."
He said Sims, a former New York Times reporter, approached him with the entrepreneurship idea and that they "tossed it back and forth" for three months. Unity became the vehicle for the project.
"The idea is to get venture capitalists to the conferences and to get training on how to pitch to a venture capitalist. It's a lab where we will bring people to learn how to get projects off the ground. The linchpin is that we're going to give away $5,000 in startup money."
Each participant puts together three pitches of varying lengths, and then members of each association vote on who created the best pitch ‚Äî "democratizing a process that is not democratic," Mitchell said.
The organizations ‚Äî the national associations of black, Hispanic, Asian American and Native American journalists ‚Äî will post the applications on their websites, Mitchell said.
Instead of asking "why do you want this job?" he said, applicants will be asked, "Why should someone work for you?"
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