Richard Prince's Journal-isms™

Witnessing Tookie's Execution

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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"It Was Something I Wished I Hadn't Seen"

Tony Lopez and Ruby Gonzales were among 17 members of the news media who watched Stanley Tookie Williams die Tuesday morning. Some 225 credentialed journalists were at California's San Quentin State Prison as the convicted murderer, a former leader of the Crips street gang, was put to death by lethal injection, according to a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.

Lopez and Gonzales appeared to be the only journalists of color chosen as media witnesses. Despite the heightened controversy in the black community over the execution, none of the media witnesses was a black journalist.

Antonio R. Harvey, a reporter for the black weekly Sacramento Observer who had been following the case, told Journal-isms he did not know about the procedures for applying. He said he believed, "inhumane as it was," that having an African American media witness would have provided a believable voice for black readers. Others simply waited too long to apply.

Not that death was something every journalist wanted to witness.

"I have been a reporter for 15 years, nine of those spent covering crime," began the account by Gonzales, who writes for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group of eight newspapers owned by Dean Singleton's MediaNews Group. They include the Los Angeles Daily News and the Long Beach Press Telegram.

"I have seen the dead, the injured and the dying, but I've never seen anyone executed in front of me.

"My colleagues asked if I was prepared for this. How could one prepare for such a thing? I kept repeating to myself this was part of my job."

On KOVR-TV, the CBS affiliate in Sacramento, Lopez told viewers:

"It wasn't difficult to talk about what I saw at this legendary prison by the bay, but prior to the execution, as I was shuttled from the media center, to the prison psychologist, to the execution chamber, the knot in my stomach was gut-wrenching.

"As much as I thought I was prepared to witness our justice system at work, when it was over, it was something I wished I hadn't seen."

News outlets apply to the state Department of Corrections for credentials to serve as witnesses. When the number of applicants exceeds the number of slots, the California Society of Newspaper Editors and the Northern California Radio Television News Directors Association select from the applicants according to a system of preferences: the Associated Press gets a seat, and first dibs go to reporters from the location where the crime took place. Out-of-state applicants were turned down, said Bob Swofford, managing editor of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and president of the newspaper editors society.

Applicants must meet a deadline. Black Entertainment Television and a magazine called Street Gang inquired after it had passed, corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. No ethnic media had applied by the deadline, she said.

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A Lesson in Not Getting Ahead of the News

The Stanley Tookie Williams execution provided with a lesson about premature postings. It produced a story about his death and posted it hours before it took place.

Users of the Web site's message boards picked up on it early.

"According to my watch it's still 6:35 pm PST at San Quentin," wrote someone who took the name HoHoHotep. "Tookie still has a few more hours left in this world. He should respond with the famous Mark Twain line:

"'The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.'"

"What if the equipment malfunctions . . ." wrote JM1GuitarDrums.

"It shouldn't have been posted when it was," Neil Foote, spokesman for Tom Joyner's Reach Media, which produces the Web site, told Journal-isms. "We pulled it back and posted it later."

Even after it was posted the second time, the story said Williams "was executed by lethal injection at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning in San Quentin State Prison."

It turns out it took longer for the executioners to find a second vein, and Williams was not pronounced dead until 12:35 a.m.

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Attention Turns to Fallibility of Justice System

"Georgia's criminal justice system ruined Robert Clark's life, imprisoning him for 24 years for a crime he did not commit," columnist Cynthia Tucker wrote today in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We cannot give him back the quarter-century that the state – acting on behalf of all of us, the citizens – stole from him. But we ought to acknowledge our wretched error with substantial compensation. He is a victim as surely as the woman he was accused of raping."

Tucker's was one of several voices discussing the broader issue of the fallibility of the criminal justice system in light of the Stanley Tookie Williams execution.

The headline on a column today by Alberta Phillips in Texas' Austin American-Statesman was, "His name is Ruben M. Cantu, he was framed, and we killed him."

"It now appears that Cantu did not rob and kill Pedro Gomez, a construction worker," Phillips wrote.

"We should be celebrating the release of an innocent man after more than 20 years in the pen. A mother should be welcoming her prodigal son's return during the Christmas season. But that can never be because Cantu is dead. Texas executed him in 1993 for a crime virtually nobody – including the head juror during his trial – now believes he committed."

Lise Olsen, a Houston Chronicle reporter who has been investigating the Cantu case, discussed it on Pacifica Radio's "Democracy Now!"

Other cases and commentary:

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Network News Split Between Pryor, McCarthy

When Eugene McCarthy, the former senator from Minnesota, and comic actor Richard Pryor died during the same Saturday news cycle, CNN and NBC mentioned Pryor first on their evening newscasts, while CBS and ABC went first with McCarthy.

NBC told viewers there would be more Pryor on "Saturday Night Live," which reran a classic sketch in which Pryor and comedian Chevy Chase traded racial insults.

The priorities were too much for Reid Collins, a former CBS and CNN reporter who wrote Monday in the American Spectator, recalling McCarthy's antiwar candidacy in 1968:

"What had been a signal moment in American politics could not hope to compete on a Saturday newscast with the passing of Pryor. How could a politician who inspired youths to shave beards and forgo libertine behavior in a 'Stay Clean For Gene' impulse possibly compete for obit attention with the man who put the 'F' word out there to be marveled at and employed? He couldn't, and in today's America, he didn't."

Needless to say, not all agreed. Ed Gordon, host of "News and Notes" on National Public Radio, said in a panel discussion Monday, "here's the interesting point that I found as I watched the coverage over the weekend . . . I was, quite frankly, expecting to see far more than I saw on Richard Pryor. There were a couple of newscasts [where] he was a 20-second news read and then they went on and then there were some quick salutes to him on some of the programs. . . . here was a true icon, and again, I go back to just the volume of coverage. Should they have to be reminded what Richard Pryor was? I think if someone – you know, heaven forbid, someone like a Robin Williams or a Jerry Seinfeld were to pass away, we would see far more coverage, I would bet."

On the listserve of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, some thought generational divides influenced the newspaper play. "I emailed our wire editor Saturday night and asked him to ask the weekend shift if they even knew who McCarthy was," Alane S. Megna, opinion page editor of the Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, Tenn., wrote. "Only he and the night city editor had a clue. They are both over 40."

But another editor put it in terms of culture vs. politics, saying of Pryor: "I'm not a huge fan of his, but we should recognize that having an impact on pop culture can affect and, in today's climate, likely does affect more change than one can in politics," said Peter J. Wasson, opinion editor at the Gannett Wisconsin Newspaper Group in Wausau.

Most commentators found much about Pryor to praise, hailing him as a genius.

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William Raspberry Ending Column After 39 Years

Syndicated Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Raspberry told Washington Post readers Monday he was ending the column he has written since 1966.

"I'll be retiring from the newspaper where I've worked for more than 43 years," he wrote.

Raspberry, who turned 70 on Oct. 12, had taken a buyout from the paper a year ago, but stayed on as a contract writer. Readers saw no difference in his status.

He loved writing the column. However, Raspberry told Journal-isms, "I also love what I'm doing in my hometown" – an early childhood education initiative in Okolona, Miss., called "Baby Steps," which he founded and funded with his own money. He said he was excited "by the parental enthusiasm and the local support. I'm really hoping to improve things like test scores, and to turn that little town into a community."

However, Raspberry said, his own resources are finite, and "I can't raise money while I work for the Post." It would be a conflict of interest, as donors might expect a favorable mention in his column. "I agonized over it for three-quarters of a year," he said.

If the impulse strikes him, the columnist said, he has permission from the Post powers-that-be to submit opinion pieces. He started at the paper in 1962, working in the news library, and won the Pulitzer for his commentary in 1994.

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Journalists Called Shy in Discussing Own Troubles

"Journalists fearlessly and shamelessly scrutinize every move made by the institutions, companies, politicians and celebrities we cover. But when it comes to reporting the business of our own business, we suddenly transform into spineless wimps," columnist Mariel Garza wrote Thursday in the Los Angeles Daily News.

"As a result, aside from the occasional tearing down of industry celebrities – such as The New York Times' Judith Miller or The Washington Post's Bob Woodward – not much about what goes on behind the key card-controlled doors of the nation's news organizations is reported on our own pages.

"If we did report on it, there would have been a lot of banner headlines in recent weeks about the upheaval happening in the Los Angeles newspaper world, since it will affect millions of people either directly or indirectly."

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On NABJ's 30th, Prez Says "We're Going Backward"

The National Association of Black Journalists celebrated its 30th anniversary Monday, and President Bryan Monroe said "while some things have certainly improved, many of those same issues still exist. We still are woefully underrepresented in newsrooms. We still see an image of ourselves in the media that is incomplete and often inaccurate. And now, the very foundation of journalism seems to be crumbling under our feet.

"We're going backward, not forward."

An NABJ news release said members and supporters would be mailed a "special DVD video package showcasing the past 30 years. They will also be greeted online by a powerful multimedia presentation on

"The special Web package features more than 350 images with four interactive slideshows, a multimedia gallery of past NABJ Journals, and 30 memorable moments from the past 30 years in black journalism."

In conjunction with the anniversary, National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" Monday aired "Papers Still Grappling with Issues of Diversity," in which reporter David Folkenflik looked at Richmond, Va., where Glenn Proctor, a black journalist and Maynard Institute board member, has become editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and the Washington Post, where this columnist was interviewed on progress on diversity issues there.

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AP Analysis Finds Blacks Breathe Worst Pollution

Black Americans "are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger," according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The Associated Press obtained a federal environmental health database under the Freedom of Information Act and, with the help of government scientists, mapped the risk scores to every neighborhood used during the 2000 Census. A three-part series based on the resulting analysis provides an unprecedented snapshot of the social, racial and economic legacy of air pollution from America's factories."

The lead story, by David Pace, moved today.

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"Pissed Off" Editor at D.C.'s Post Wins Office

Shirley Carswell, who administers the multimillion dollar budget for the newsroom of the Washington Post, won election as treasurer of the Washington Association of Black Journalists Tuesday night, saying she ran because "righteous indignation got the better of me. I was really pissed off when I heard somebody stole the money."

President Theola Labbé, a Post reporter, told members that in July, "WABJ discovered that a total of $4,200 in chapter funds was missing." Repeated efforts to contact the treasurer, Dianne L. Cherry, a freelance writer, were unsuccessful, she wrote.

In addition, Jeff Ballou, a former WABJ treasurer who pleaded guilty to second-degree theft in 1996 for embezzling from the chapter, still owes the organization about $5,000, Labbé said.

Carswell, the Post's assistant managing editor for planning and administration, ran unopposed. She said she was drafted for the post. Lee Ivory, publisher and executive editor of USA Today Sports Weekly, was elected president.

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Short Takes

  • "Advertisements featuring Ford Motor Co.'s eight vehicle brands will run in gay publications, the automaker said Wednesday, acting after gay rights groups complained when Jaguar and Land Rover pulled their spots," Ken Thomas reported today for the Associated Press.
  • Newsday columnist Sheryl McCarthy, who said Nov. 4 she had taken a buyout and wrote a farewell column, told Journal-isms today she would return to the paper Jan. 9, writing a column on Mondays for Newsday's New York City pages. She said the new editor of those pages, Mae Cheng, assured her she could write about more than local topics.
  • TV One CEO Johnathan Rodgers took exception to the idea that African American cable channels have an obligation to cover such news events as the Rosa Parks funeral, though he said TV One should have devoted more time to it, according to R. Thomas Umstead, writing Monday on the Multichannel News Web site. "Like other general-entertainment outlets like Lifetime Television, USA Network or Turner Network Television, news is not a regular part of TV One's schedule," Rodgers was quoted as saying. "I truly think it's an unfair question to minority-targeted networks that we have an obligation to do news when it's not a question for other people – and when there exists, on the cable dial, news that is for all people."
  • TV da Gente, or Our TV, Brazil's newest channel and the first to be owned and directed by blacks, launched in Sao Paulo three weeks ago, the brainchild of Jose de Paula Neto, an Afro-Brazilian pop singer and businessman, Stan Lehman reported Sunday for the Associated Press.
  • "What can we do now but wish that our plight might someday be seen as a genuine national emergency?" asked Lolis Eric Elie, columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, today as he contemplated such headlines as "Death of an American City" on a New York Times editorial Sunday. Elie's column was headlined, "That sinking feeling we're dying again."
  • "China, Cuba, Eritrea, and Ethiopia are the world's leading jailers of journalists in 2005, together accounting for two-thirds of the 125 editors, writers, and photojournalists imprisoned around the world, according to a new analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists," the committee reported Tuesday. A New York Times story on the report today by Katharine Q. Seelye noted that the United States ranked sixth.
  • "Zimbabwean authorities on Wednesday returned the passport of the country's only remaining independent publisher after seizing it last week," the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks said today. He is Trevor Ncube, the Zimbabwean owner and publisher of the Standard and the Independent newspapers in Zimbabwe, and of the weekly Mail & Guardian in South Africa.
  • Roland S. Martin, executive editor of the Chicago Defender, is one of four freelance personalities on WMAQ-TV newscasts dropped in a budget cut at the NBC-owned station, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Feder reported today. Meanwhile, the Defender reported today it is moving after 46 years at 2400 S. Michigan Ave. to 200 S. Michigan Ave., directly across from the Art Institute of Chicago Museum.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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