Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Journalism Trailblazers: Mike Hodge/"The Metro 7"

"The Metro 7" pictured from the left: Michael B. Hodge, Ivan C. Brandon, LaBarbara Bowman, Leon Dash, Penny Mickelbury, Ronald A. Taylor; Richard Prince and attorney Clifford Alexander at March 23, 1972, news conference. Credit: Ellsworth Davis/Washington Post (Click photos to increase size.) 

Member of Legendary Group 
Discusses Landmark Washington Post Case, Its Impact, and the “Abysmal” State of Journalism


The following is an excerpt from a 2002 article written by Steven Gray, a reporter and member of the National Association of Black Journalists, in recognition of the 30th anniversary of the landmark 1972 discrimination suit filed by seven reporters against the Washington Post. The group became known as the "Metro 7".  

"In August, six former Washington Post reporters met at a colleague's home for a commemoration. Not to mark the 30th anniversary of the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, but of a landmark Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint charging the newspaper with discrimination against its black employees.

"The case, believed to be the first of its kind against a major American newspaper, unarguably accelerated the hiring and promotion of scores of journalists of color. More important, it helped solidify the role of black journalists in the interpretation of contemporary American history. Yet, it seems the complaint and its significance has been largely ignored. There was no formal recognition of it scheduled at this year's NABJ convention in Milwaukee, where we relished in the ascension of more blacks to top newspaper posts." 

Gray's article can be read in its entirety here.

On September 10, From The G-Man contacted "Metro 7" member Mike B. Hodge to discuss his career, the editorial policies and racial atmosphere at the Washington Post, then and now, and the current state of journalism in America.  

G-Man: Who or what inspired you to become a journalist? 

Hodge: I was always a writer. The first toy I remember ever having was a typewriter. 

G-Man: With regard to journalism, what type of training did you receive?

Hodge: I went to the West Virginia University School of Journalism. I was in the  integrated class. In the four years I was there, I was the only Black-American male in the editorial department. There was another guy, Chris Nowoboda, who was from Nigeria. He was the best writer in the class. I thought I was good, but he was great. I loved that.  

G-Man: Do you recall the very first news story you worked on? 

 The first story I covered as a professional was on policing in the District of Columbia. It used to be that when the DC Police Department did recruiting, they would go all over the country, including the South, and the only requirement was that you had to have an 11th grade education, as I recall. It may have been a high school diploma, but I am almost certain completing the 11th grade was all they required. They would get a lot of guys from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, places like that. And they would come up, get the job and live in Prince Georges County, which, in those days, was very much poor and largely white. The department struggled with a lot of charges of abuse, police overreach and out and out racism. The story that I was asked to cover was a few years after the department changed its policies to require that applicants have at least two years of college and they must live in the district. Those two changes made a tremendous difference in the relationship the police had with the residents of the city. Everything got better.

G-Man: Did you ever have any reason to believe that race would play a factor when you decided to become a journalist?

Hodge: I knew, but I had no idea what it really meant. My world view was totally segregated, Black and White. So there was no choice but for it to be a factor. But I was hopeful, given the fact I was a reporter at a liberal newspaper, that it would be okay. What I failed to realize was even though the organization was liberal, the individuals who put it together, weren't necessarily. 

G-Man: As history clearly shows, race did become a factor in your career. However, you and six other reporters did something extraordinary to change that and the state of journalism in America. For those who may not be aware, especially young people, describe what the "Metro 7" did that completely transformed the Washington Post and the news industry. 

Hodge: Well, initially, there were nine of us. Ultimately, the group was reduced to seven.  While the Washington Post probably had the largest number of Black employees than any other mainstream news organization in the country, they were a little disconcerted when we threatened to file an EEOC complaint against them. Our lawyer was Clifford Alexander, who was the first chair of the federal EEOC. We wanted to file a lawsuit, but he felt an EEO complaint would be just as significant for a newspaper with the reputation of the Washington Post. Initially, they were quite defensive and not happy. The executive editor, Ben Bradlee, gave us an opportunity to air our grievances. We laid out our issues, and he heard and understood them. I think there was a list of maybe nine or ten complaints.

There were two specific complaints that I felt were very important. The first involved the absence of Black assignment editors. Because there was no editor of color on the assignment desk, all the Black reporters were only assigned Black stories. Now, I don't think any of us had a problem with that, but when you went out and did the story, often the White editor would nitpicked over it because it didn't fit his perception of what the Black community was supposed to be. It was no fun having someone who lived in the suburbs telling me how I got the story about the Black mother in the hood wrong.

The other issue, which I clearly remember, was raised in effort to help all of the Washington Post reporters. The system that was originally in place would have you do a story and drop it in the editor's in-box when it was finished. If it was a piece for the following day, for the most part, no problem. But if it was a feature, which I did a fair amount of, I would still dropped it in the box. An editor would read it, at some point, and give it back to me with his notes. Incidentally, besides being White, all the editors of that period were men. I would rewrite the story, make the requested changes, hand it back in, and then another editor would read it. 

There was one story that I did where the editor asked me to make three specific changes. I rewrote it exactly as suggested and handed it in. Another editor got hold of it and, lo and behold, the only notes I got were about the changes that I made to my initial story. Basically, I was told to go back to my original version. It was extremely frustrating!

G-Man: Can you cite one example of "in-your-face" racism that you or a member of the Metro 7 experienced at the paper? 

Hodge: Racism in those days wasn't quite that blatant. You have to remember this was a collection of sophisticated and educated people. And as I said earlier, the only stories I was assigned -- until my last year or so -- were in the Black community. So the blatant racism wasn't at work. However, it did exist in the city. I happened to live downtown in a fairly large building, and I was one of two Black people in it. The other person was a guy who was living there with his White girlfriend. I was often mistaken for the delivery boy. Whenever I got on the elevator, whoever was on it would get off. I just got used to it. They were mostly old people who moved from further out in the city when the neighborhoods had become too dark for them.
G-Man: Did the Metro 7 receive a great deal of support from white colleagues at the Washington Post?

Hodge: I think they were concerned for our well-being, initially, but they did support us. In fact, our success ushered in an opportunity for women working at the Washington Post to file a similar EEO complaint.

G-Man: Was the late Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist Carl T. Rowan working at the publication? If so, what was his reaction to what you and the other six reporters were doing?  

Hodge: Carl was actually syndicated, at that point, and worked out of his own offices. I never met him. The columnist who was most impactful for us was William Raspberry, who was just a few years older. Initially, Bill was a little leery of what we were doing. But by the time we actually did it, he stood with us and supported us. Bill recently died. He was a trailblazer in many amazing ways. I would like to state something for the record. Black reporters were working at the publication before we got there, but they were very specific. For example, Robert Maynard, a Neiman Fellow, worked on the National Desk. When I got there, Dorothy Gilliam was on leave of absence. 

G-Man: As far as you know, 40 years later, has the atmosphere or situation improved at the Washington Post?

Hodge: Actually, it has. There have been numerous urban columnists - that's the euphemism for Black. Currently, Milton Coleman is the Deputy Managing Editor, having worked his way up after joining the staff in 1976.

Bill McCreary, Les Payne and the late Gil Noble are legendary journalists that earned numerous awards throughout their career, but, with all due respect, they never obtained the same level of visibility as their white colleagues Tom Brokaw, Mike Wallace and the late Peter Jennings. McCreary, Payne and Noble are household names, but the majority of those households are Black. 

To date, aside from Max Robinson, no Black has hosted a nightly news program on a major network. Moreover, the Connie Chung, Katie Couric -- and most recently Christiane Amanpour -- "experiments" appeared to be an exercise in futility. Do you have a theory as to why high-profile Black reporters and women continue to have problems obtaining or maintaining coveted time-slots at major networks?

Hodge: I think, in general, we are still very much a nation cauterized on race and ethnicity. As much as we celebrate the inclusiveness of different cultures, there are still many who believe that a true American is a White Anglo-Saxon. Hence, all of the noise about President Obama's "otherness" and claims about not being born here and being a Muslim, even though both of those things have proved to be untrue. 

G-Man: Overall, how would you describe the current state of journalism in America?

Hodge: Abysmal. There has been a downward spiral over the last 30 years. The airwaves were always viewed as belonging to the people and the networks and radio station owners would have to apply for a license every so many years. In exchange for a fee and the promise to do a certain amount of public service programming, they could keep their licenses. Also, news divisions were never viewed as money-makers. They were image makers. CBS was known as the Tiffany network because they had a stellar news division. It spared no expense to get the story. It was the home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Others strived to emulate them. Now, however, news organizations are either mandated to be profit-making, constrained by economics or both. For instance, all the major news organizations used to have bureaus around the world in major countries and hotspots. And now, they mostly conglomerate. Not good. 

The Metro 7 recently celebrated their 40th anniversary. They’re picture with others that worked with them at the Washington Post. Top row, from left: Ivan C. Brandon, Sandy Davis, Craig Herndon, Mike Hodge, Richard Prince, Leon Dash, Ronald A. Taylor. Bottom row: Hollie I. West, Angela Terrell, Alice C. Bonner, Bobbi Bowman, Courtland Milloy Jr. The seven were Brandon, Hodge, Prince, Dash, Taylor, Bowman and Penny Mickelbury, who was recovering from an injury and was unable to attend. Milloy, longtime columnist, joined the Post in 1975. (Courtesy of Craig Herndon).

G-Man: A few months ago, Roger Ailes, Chairman and CEO of Fox News, addressed 350 students, which included journalism students, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ailes basically told the journalism students to consider changing their major if they were "going into journalism because they cared". What do you think of his statement?
Hodge: Roger Ailes is one of the reasons the state of journalism is so bad and the country is in the state it is in. The Fourth Estate is supposed to be the independent observer of events and the check on the condition of state. Ailes has created a machine that is partisan and profit centered. They are decidedly Republican centric, which is the antithesis of what good journalism is.

G-Man: How did you become affiliated with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG)?

Hodge: I had been a working member of the Guild for 20 years. We had what I consider an ill-advised strike. I discovered that much of our leadership had no real idea how unions worked, what their value was, or how a negotiation worked. I grew up in a union household, so I had some ideas about governing on all those levels. I didn't have the answers necessarily, but I knew that if I got involved I would at least be a good place holder and possibly a problem solver, rather than a bomb-thrower or someone who would create problems. 

G-Man: You have the floor. Is there anything you would like to say to fellow journalists, news directors, producers, and editors, or the public-at-large?   

Hodge: Journalism is something that is near and dear to my heart. It has an extreme importance in the fabric of our country. The reason I went into it was to cast an honest eye on those who are deemed to do the public good. It's really hard to be totally neutral and non-judgmental. I know that. But what passes for journalism nowadays, within many news organizations, is not neutral or non-judgmental at all.

One member of the Metro Seven just left her job as the editor of one of the Patch neighborhood newspapers. The clarifying moment for her came when she edited and published an article that made some major person in the community upset and her boss slammed her for it.

Back in the day, Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, gave her newsroom absolute freedom in covering the news. It didn't matter if it was a negative story about an advertiser or even herself. And she refused to have herself in the society pages unless there was a larger issue at hand. That kind of ethical journalism is hard to come by these days. 

From The G-Man proudly salutes Mike Hodge and the Metro 7 as American heroes.... and journalism trailblazers. 

1 comment:

Jeannette Smyth said...

thanks for this, as one of the women who filed that long-ago EEOC complaint against the post.
i am sorry that digitization seems to have eviscerated the place. have you seen judy bachrach's critique of bradlee in the weekly standard? here is an account of that piece, which is behind a paywall.