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Paper's Editorial Sparks Racial Uproar in Philadelphia : Media: The Inquirer advocated that poor black women be encouraged to use new long-term birth control implants.

December 20, 1990|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A furor has erupted in Philadelphia over an editorial by the city's respected morning newspaper advocating that poor black women be given "incentives" to use new long-term birth control implants.

The editorial, which ran last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer, has spawned days of talk radio programs, pickets at the newspaper, and a teary-eyed staff meeting Monday in which journalists who grew up in poverty argued that their newspaper had advocated that they never be born.

The uproar has also raised the issue of whether having ethnic diversity in newsrooms has any meaning if minority voices are ignored.

On Wednesday the Inquirer's editorial board agreed to publish a second editorial acknowledging, in the words of editorial board chairman David Boldt, "that we were insensitive and counterproductive . . ." In the second editorial, the board would be "setting out (again) what we were trying to say," he said.

The controversy began last Wednesday when the Inquirer published an editorial, "Poverty and Norplant--Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass."

It argued that "The main reason more black children are living in poverty is that the people having the most children are the ones least capable of supporting them. . . . There are many ways to fight back. . . . But it's very tough to undo the damage of being born into a dysfunctional family. So why not make a major effort to reduce the number of children, of any race, born into such circumstances."

Internal reaction soon broke into print. "Hitler could have written the same editorial without pausing to breathe between sentences," wrote columnist Chuck Stone in the afternoon Philadelphia Daily News on Tuesday. Both the Daily News and the Inquirer are owned by the Knight-Ridder publishing company.

The Inquirer's own metro page columnist Steve Lopez wrote on Sunday that the newsroom staff is "often embarrassed by what passes for this newspaper's voice," under the direction of Boldt and his deputy Donald Kimelman, the author of the editorial.

The controversy dominated the radio talk show of Mary Mason for three days "I have been in talk radio for 33 years," said Mason, who is black. "I haven't had this kind of thing happen in a very long time."

At the Inquirer, dozens of reporters and editors of all races who were upset over the editorial met twice with the paper's editor and the editorial board.

Perhaps the most powerful moment came when Garry Howard, the Inquirer's 31-year-old black assistant sports editor, spoke to Kimelman in Monday's session. Howard grew up in the Mitchell Projects of the south Bronx, one of six children in a broken home, raised by a welfare mother.

After grammar school, Howard said, he won an academic scholarship to the prestigious Lawrenceville prep school in New Jersey. It was the same school, it turned out, from which Kimelman, the son of a U.S. ambassador to Haiti, had graduated 11 years earlier.

"Here we are, we are colleagues, we work together, went to same prep school," Howard recalled saying. "And the summation of the editorial is that poor women on welfare shouldn't have been having so many babies, or that I shouldn't have been born."

"I know I am the exception," Howard said in an interview. "But without the exception there is no hope. And that is what everyone is entitled to, the chance to reach the highest height they can."

Several people cried during the course of the meeting. "I came out of it shellshocked," Boldt said.

Part of the depth of the uproar, staff members said, is that the editorial seemed to reflect the so-called "neo-liberal" ideology and the provocative style of the board under Boldt, who has run the paper's editorial pages for three years.

Kimelman and Boldt in fact had written a similar editorial about Norplant on Nov. 1, but did not refer to race.

When the second, more pointed editorial was written, at least one editorial writer, Rick Nichols, "argued vociferously" against running it. "I think you can discuss these kinds of questions," Nichols said, but he complained that the editorial made it sound as though high birth rates were the cause of the decline of the inner city, rather than a host of other complicated problems.

"By failing to at least allude to this host of problems," Nichols said, "we put the blame (on the victim) and that is precisly what David Duke does." Duke is the former Ku Klux Klansman and Senate candidate who is currently a member of the Louisiana Legislature.

The situation was made worse by an exchange of messages between critics and the editorial's sponsors, Kimelman and Boldt. Kimelman wrote to one colleague:

"I'm told David Duke has said similar things. . . . Does this make me ashamed. No. It helps explain to me why David Duke, in his post-klan incarnation, is getting so many votes. He talks publicly about stuff the rest of us only reserve for our private conversations."

Black members of the editorial board alleged that their views were being deliberately ignored, particularly on issues of poverty, race and urban decline, which Boldt and Kimelman said have become a specialty of the editorial page.

Claude Lewis, one of three black members of the editorial board, even stopped attending meetings "several months ago" in protest.

Lorraine Branham, another black editorial board member said in an interview that, "Whenever we raise (criticisms of their views on poverty and race) there is a feeling that 'you can't be objective about this because you are black.' We make this big argument at the Inquirer about ethnic diversity, but it does absolutely no good if no one listens to what you say."

Max King, the Inquirer editor since only last summer, now admits that running the editorial was a mistake.

But he said he has no plans to follow the recommendation of a minority group of staff to replace Boldt.

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