The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Reportedly first uttered by an Irish bartender named Mr. Dooley, I first heard the phrase as a middle school student while “interning” at The Atlanta Daily World, one of this country’s oldest black newspapers. At the time, it was told to me by the then-publisher Cornelius “C. A.” Scott. Mr. Scott gave me my first taste of journalism; it’s been in my blood ever since. I was too young to know what these words meant back then, but they’ve been echoing in my head continuously all morning.
What would C. A. Scott do?
The Atlanta Daily World, founded by Morehouse graduate, William Alexander “W. A.” Scott in 1928, ran photos of lynchings on its front page on an almost daily basis to bring attention to racial discrimination, white supremacy, and police brutality. It became one of the most influential, and successful, newspapers of its time. By the time I arrived in the 1980s, the Daily World, was a mere shell of itself having been disrupted by integration and mainstream media outlets with deeper pockets, but less commitment to covering black news as starkly and passionately as the Scotts did.
Many are angry over The New York Daily News‘ front cover. Editors at The New York Daily News warned potential readers by trumpeting on its Twitter time line that today’s edition would feature a full-display of a dying Alton Sterling, the black man killed by Baton Rouge police on Wednesday. Some are describing his murder as an execution.
I believe C. A. Scott and his contemporaries would approve.
Alton Sterling is a human being. Was a human being. He was a father. He had a voice. And like everybody, he had a past. Whatever his past was is irrelevant. Less than a day after police killed Sterling, Minnesota police killed another black man, Philando Castile, after stopping him for having a broken tail light. His girlfriend and four-year-old daughter were in the car with Castile.
The role of police officers is to serve and protect, not to judge.
All of this needs to be taken into account when considering The New York Daily News‘ front page.
I understand that tabloids often produce startling covers in order to sell newspapers. I understand that tabloids, by their very nature, are provocative. But I also know that pictures are worth more than 1,000 words. I know that sometimes you have to get into people’s faces in order to make them understand. I know how easy is to ignore a block of text, but much harder to tune out a picture. I know that sometimes you need visuals to make people pause and force them into a much needed conversation.
And I know that the role of journalists, our very mission, is to give voice to the voiceless, hold power to account, and to afflict the comfortable. A journalist’s job is to tell the truth.
Alton Sterling and Philando Castile no longer have their voices. The New York Daily News cover, as frighteningly disgusting as it is, needs to be seen. It’s Alton Sterling’s voice. It also needs to be a rallying cry to everyone from Hillary Rodham Clinton to police chiefs from Oakland to Chicago that enough is enough. It needs to be a tipping point for systemic change, from federal law to county courthouses across this country.
No more district attorneys urging grand juries to no bill cases where police kill black men and women with impunity. No more U.S. Justice Department investigating these cases without consequences. No more police taking black lives for granted. No more do nothing U.S. congress. No more hash-tag activism without real change. No more news media looking for reasons to excuse the inexcusable. No more people walking around like sheep, asleep to the perils faced by those people on a daily basis. No more all lives mattering without black lives mattering.
No more. Enough is enough.
This image is a tipping point. Or it should be.
Did The New York Daily News publish this cover to make money? I don’t know, but I don’t think so. Single copy sales are collapsing, dropping in double digits for the last three years. If the Daily News wanted to simply use the image to sell newspapers, they wouldn’t have posted the picture on Twitter last night; they wouldn’t have scooped themselves. I’ll call them later, but I bet editors at the Daily News argued for hours about whether to publish this image.
By publishing the image, The New York Daily News is fulfilling an obligation to be a truth teller.
Black newspaper trailblazers of the 1920s through the 1960s – those heroes who risked their reputations, heck their very lives, to raise awareness about public lynchings – helped bring an end to such widespread practices.
They had to.
A newspaper’s job is to afflict the comfortable. The New York Daily News, this time, is doing its job.