By Charlie Mitchell
I wish it were true that William Raspberry, who died last week, was a journalist ahead of his time.
Wishful thinking doesn’t change reality, though. Few have followed his example. In today’s media marketplace of ideas, the emphasis is on marketplace. Rants draw big audiences, which translate to big money. Ideas play second fiddle, if they’re in the band at all.
Raspberry, Pulitzer-winning opinion columnist for The Washington Post from 1966 until 2005, was 76.
He had one, consistent admonition to readers: Think.
The newspaper where I worked for more than 30 years printed Raspberry’s syndicated column. I was paid to read his work three days a week (many “modern” columnists write once per week and take many vacations) and write appropriate headlines. It was always a treat when his work bubbled to the top of the stack.
It’s speculation on my part, but I expect that early in his career, Raspberry suffered what some have called the “benign bigotry of low expectations.”
He was a black man from Mississippi, one of five children of a couple of school teachers from Okolona. (His mother survives him; she’s 106.) While earning a degree in history from the University of Indianapolis, he worked at a local paper, the Recorder. He was in the Army for two years following graduation, where he was assigned to the public information office.
The Washington Post hired him in 1962 as a teletypist. Clerical work. It was implausible in that year that a person of his race and resume would ever join the elite reporting and writing staff. Insufficient pedigree.
But in four years, Raspberry was producing a column – usually from the local beat. His topics were local – D.C. politics and fracases.
Not much time passed before editors at the Post decided Raspberry deserved more exposure. His method of framing issues was compelling. Before long, Raspberry was writing for more than 200 newspapers.
Raspberry invitations to think about something were hard to refuse.
Race, quite naturally, was a frequent topic. At times he validated America’s civil rights establishment. At other times, he gave its leaders fits.
That’s because Raspberry didn’t see integration as an end unto itself. He saw it as a means to an end. The purpose of getting black children and white children into the same classrooms was so everyone would have the same opportunity – as individuals – to capitalize, to learn, to build better lives for themselves. Without that result, integration had no value.
Raspberry was exasperated by civil rights leaders whose attention seemed fixated on race-mixing for the sake of race-mixing, of slaying the dragon of racism. He would invite them to pretend, if just for a moment, that the dragon had been slain and said, in as many words, “What are you going to do now?”
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., attorney and civil rights leader, noted that Raspberry was always gentle-spoken. “I am sure that I disagreed with him on a number of things,” The Washington Post quoted Jordan as saying. “He had a way of telling you to go to hell and making you look forward to the trip.”
Raspberry was readable. He started many columns telling readers he’d gotten into a cab and made a pronouncement of “fact” to the driver. Then, he’d relate the cabbie’s probing questions and, by the end of the ride, the cabbie had helped him discover the flaws in his logic. Of course, all of us were in the cab along for the same ride, being invited to examine our viewpoints.
Raspberry was honored in his home state. He has the Silver Em, the highest award for journalism presented by the University of Mississippi. He’s also been inducted into the Mississippi Press Association Hall of Fame. After retiring, he taught at Duke, received many honors. A program to remember him is in the works at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at Ole Miss.
Too few journalists, however, have emulated Raspberry’s style. Never shrill. Always provocative. The media and politics today are all about winners and losers. Partakers of media offerings are invited to take sides, keep score, to be superficial.
Indeed, as soon as Raspberry’s death was announced, the Internet was abuzz with whether Raspberry was or wasn’t buddies with radio provocateur Rush Limbaugh.
Why would that matter?
Raspberry, perhaps naively, thought good journalism should guide decision-makers toward solutions. Very simple, but a duty he took very seriously. And performed well.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.