When the KKK comes calling

What’s the story?

Inch by pointed inch, hate groups are attempting to achieve respectability. Are spur-of-the-moment editorial decisions sufficient for drawing the line between propaganda and censorship?

By Dave Hurst

Dave Hurst is a reporter for the Johnstown (PA) Tribune-Democrat.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 9 (October 1991), p. 3.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

When hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan bring their road show to town, some news media yawn and give the “event” a superficial nod. But others, often unwittingly, roll out a journalistic red carpet by treating a very old story as fresh news.

My assignment arrived with all the casualness that’s attached to the annual meeting of the community arts center: A press packet clipped to the assignment note gave the KKK spokesmen’s phone numbers and details on an “education and recruitment” rally to be held in an isolated section of The Tribune-Democrat’s circulation area in the spring of 1989. It was clear that I was to do more than an obligatory graph or two.

I reached deep for impartiality, but grasped only revulsion. Protest, I felt, was useless. I was a general assignment reporter on a skeleton weekend crew and the story was needed to fill a sizable news hole. Nina Kalinyak, my regional editor, was at home and generally unreceptive to dropping assignments. Her superiors discouraged reporters from breaking the editorial chain of command. And, most importantly, the T-D had no policy governing its coverage of hate groups.

The paper had been covering the “news” of the anticipated rally for months, ever since the Klan had issued its first speculative press release. A 21-inch piece, based only on Klan sources, read: “Rallies of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, are planned for Somerset County this summer, but no one is saying where, when or how many.”

The article proceeded to publicize the KKK’s membership requirements (white, Christian, at least 18), its activities and goals. “Why the [KKK] keeps targeting this region for its activities is puzzling,” an accompanying T-D editorial queried. Why indeed?

When the Klan finally stated the time and place for its event, I received the assignment. My byline-less 16-inch story gave four graphs to the Klan’s rally information and then went beyond the scope of the assignment to quote reactions from local municipal officials and a representative of the NAACP. Copy editors decided to jazz it up by dropping in a KKK logo.

And our coverage didn’t stop there. Another piece was published two days later and a final advance story announced a prayer vigil in opposition to the rally. The T-D ended its KKK coverage with a pair of next-day stories on the two events (reporting that the prayer vigil had outdrawn the uneventful rally 100 to 60).

Were there Klan sympathizers among my superiors, conspiring to advance white supremacy with plenty of free publicity? No, just editors who believed a KKK publicity event was hot news.

Feeling that simply withholding my byline was not enough, I wrote a memo to Kalinyak on my concerns and asked that the editors reevaluate their approach on Klan coverage.

I recommended that we emulate the policy of a paper in Frederick, Md. which had extensively covered a legal battle preceding a march, but limited march-day coverage to a picture and cutline.

Good call. If an organization is spitting out the same venomous beliefs it has been expressing for decades, how can that be news? How can it be the media’s responsibility to aid racial supremacy groups’ search for fellow travelers?

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Kalinyak responded, “all good papers track hate groups and their activities — and report them — in large part because information of this kind is what makes the public sit up, take notice and really see what’s up. It is, quite simply, exposure in the most uncollaborative sense of the word.”

Additional rallies were held in our coverage area that summer and again in 1990. The new editor-in-chief imposed a policy that toned down the coverage. But a small klavern was organized in Johnstown’s west end and KKK graffiti started appearing.

Then this spring, under yet another new editorial team, local Klansmen were handed the legitimizing opportunity of appearing in our Sunday Perspective section, a question-and-answer interview focusing on timely topics and newsmakers.

There they were, the “Great Titan” and the “Kludd” of the local klavern, expounding for 75 inches on their “new” attitudes and image. The accompanying photo showed them robed and hooded — and anonymous.

Why? “We felt we should take a closer look at what the Klan was in the same way we’d look at any other organization,” said managing editor Larry Hudson, then acting editor. He explained that it was the publisher’s decision not to identify the Klansmen — something he said he personally disagreed with — but added, “We all knew who they were.”

Well, so did our colleagues at the neighboring Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But when the Klan held a rally there last month, they identified our nameless “Great Titan” — Barry Black, of Johnstown — and gave the event a mere nine inches.

Why the difference in approach? The Post-Gazette says it simply uses news judgment. But papers like the Tribune-Democrat obviously need an established policy that kicks in whenever the KKK comes calling. Coverage decisions aren’t haphazardly left to individual editors who may be more concerned with filling a hole or latching onto eye-catching headline fodder than in evaluating the fundamental merits of an event.