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Noting anniversaries of events society would rather not remember

By Ben L. Kaufman · April 25th, 2008 · On Second Thought

Where does one start with a 40th anniversary? Not our marriage. That was two years ago.

How about: Paris student demonstrations. Tet offensive. LBJ refuses to run for reelection. Chicago police riot at Democratic national convention. Black Power salute at Olympic games. Congress passes anti-discrimination fair housing law. Sirhan Sirhan kills Bobby Kennedy. James Earl Ray kills Martin Luther King Jr. Cincinnati faces second race riot in two years.

It's that last anniversary that local news media are overlooking -- not PC in this era of utopian racial amity.

Ashes from the 1967 riot still smoldered in popular imagination when we arrived in Cincinnati. Harriet found work at the nascent Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) in the Avondale office it shared with the NAACP. I was a weekend reporter for The Enquirer.

The night King was killed, I was at a McCarthy for President rally at Quebec Gardens on the West Side when Judy Shapiro came in and told everyone about King's assassination.

Cincinnati didn't erupt. Rather, it simmered with unresolved antipathies and there were violent incidents in some black neighborhoods.

Four days after King was shot, James Smith was protecting his apartment next to the HOME/NAACP office from looters. His 20-gauge shotgun accidentally discharged when someone grabbed it. The blast killed his wife, Hattie Mae Johnson Smith.

Someone said a white cop killed a black woman. That was the spark. Rioting broke out and spread into nearby African-American communities. That evening, young black men dragged Noel Wright, a white graduate student, from his car and stabbed him fatally in Mount Auburn. Teenage girls in their mob assaulted Wright's wife, Lois, who survived.

Harriet was at our edge-of-Avondale apartment that night. She took a call from a young man she knew from the HOME/NAACP office. There was trouble, he said. Don't come to work tomorrow. She didn't.

National Guardsmen returned to Cincinnati, and the mayor declared a curfew. Buses were rerouted from Avondale, and educators declared a school holiday. Opening Day was postponed.

Not all black communities were hit by riot and arson. In the West End's historic African-American community, young men calling themselves Black Turks turned away marauding rioters.

Before long, the riot if not the resentments burned out. The most obvious casualty was middle class confidence in the city.

Curmudgeon Notes

� Friend and colleague Lew Moores reminds me of another anniversary: the murderous prisoner uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville this month in 1993. I guess 15 isn't a magical number like 5, 10 or 20 for anniversary news stories.

Enquirer efforts to localize

� A sign of a terminal loss of confidence among working journalists is the acceptance of the oxymoron "citizen journalist." Journalism is a trade with journeymen, apprentices and aspirants. We can be salaried, freelance or volunteer. Clueless wannabes with camera phones can be useful, but that doesn't make them journalists.

The recent flap over an Obama comment provides a perfect example of why "citizen journalist" is lunacy. Correspondent Ed Pilkington tells the story in London's Guardian on April 14:

"Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: 'They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.'

"The comments came to light as a result of the Huffington Post's groundbreaking experiment in citizen journalism, Off The Bus. The website runs a network of about 1,800 unpaid researchers, interviewers and writers. One of those writers, Mayhill Fowler, broke the story, despite being a paid-up supporter of Obama.

"She attended a fundraising event in San Francisco on April 6 and recorded Obama's speech. Fowler sat on the material for days, conflicted about what to do with it. (emphasis added) She only published the comments last Friday (April 11).

"She had some real reservations about the story as an Obama supporter,' Amanda Michel, the director of Off The Bus, told the Guardian. 'But she thought as a citizen journalist she had a duty to report the event, despite her support for Barack Obama."

� Judicious skepticism, not cynicism, is a virtue among reporters and editors. However, when the entire pack buys into one unsubstantiated and self-serving version of a national story, the cynic in me cries out.

I'm talking about local, national and international coverage of the raid on the Texas compound of the polygamist Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Texas authorities justify the raid by citing a cell phone call to an unnamed domestic abuse hotline for help by an unidentified 16-year-old girl who claimed she was being physically/sexually abused by her "husband" at the compound.

Everyone is reporting that call as a fact, often without attribution. None of the reporters with whom I have exchanged emails knows of any journalist who has heard a recording or read a transcript of the call. Authorities say they do not know her identity.

Gregory Cunningham, a spokesman for the Department of Family and Protective Services, says, "The call originally came in to a local domestic violence shelter. We're not providing the name of that shelter to maintain confidentiality. The shelter then reported the call to our (Texas Department of Family and Protective Services) statewide abuse hotline. We are not aware of any recordings or transcripts of the original call.�"

There may be none. Domestic abuse hotlines might not record calls as part of their confidentiality efforts.

A participant on Thursday's NPR Diane Rehm show says the reported caller identified herself as "Sarah" and said she claimed to have been beaten so badly that her ribs were broken. Another participant asked why, if that is the case, were Texas authorities unable to identify a teenager with such severe injuries or, if they had, why did they continue to say they had not identified her. Further, one of Rehm's participants said two persons took notes on the call.

More than one person familiar with the case or hotline calls told me that the reported call from "Sarah" doesn't pass the sniff test from what we know now.

� If you missed it, go back and read Polly Campbell's April 9 Enquirer story on Northside eating spots. Fun.

� Similarly, look at Michael Keating's p. 1 Enquirer photo of the two firefighters being carried from their April 10 funeral mass at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral. It was classic Keating. Smart. Vivid storytelling. I knew before I read the credit line.

� Pulitzer-winning Washington Post reporters on NPR pooh-pooh Pentagon claims to be treating emotionally troubled combat veterans. As the reporters noted, if President Bush wants to hire enough civilian psychiatrists and psychologists to cope with admitted shortcomings in care, he need only pay enough to attract them. They don't have to enlist. This war has gone on long enough for the Pentagon to appreciate the emotional as well as physical injuries. As the Unlamented Sage of Defense put it, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

� The Associated Press says New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak and British freelancer Stephen Bevan were freed after a magistrate said the government presented no information that a crime had been committed. That cleared them of the non-crime reporting Zimbabwe's election without proper accreditation. The Times said Bearak left Zimbabwe for home in South Africa.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFAMN: letters@citybeat.com



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