Academic journal article Journalism History

A Traitor to His Class

Academic journal article Journalism History

A Traitor to His Class

Article excerpt

W'.E. "Ned" Chilton III welcomed into his newsroom office at the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia's largest newspaper, the principal of Kanawha County's all-black high school.1 It was early in 1953 and Chilton had been freshly elected to the state's Legislature as a Democratic delegate. Though part owner, he still was learning the intricacies of the daily newspaper game as the Gazette's new promotions manager, and it was his job to be welcoming, a skill many would say had left him by the time he was named publisher a decade later. Principal Harry E. Dennis had a complaint. Why, he wanted to know, were his students barred from competing in the Gazette Relays, a major track meet held every spring sponsored by the newspaper, when athletes from some integrated high schools in neighboring Ohio were allowed to compete? The visit occurred before the historic 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that mandated public school integration.2

Chilton related the story of Dennis visiting him in his office to a crowd at West Virginia State College in 1984. The college had granted Chilton an honorary doctorate of humanities for his virulent stands in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and subsequent civil rights legislation. Chilton, occasionally attuned to charges of his own hypocrisy, acknowledged he should have responded more quickly to the principal's request:

I would like to be able to say this ridiculous inequity was corrected at once, but such wasn't the case. ... It was corrected the next year. As he was about to leave, I told him that I thought it was wonderful of him, a white man, to champion blacks. He looked at me with astonishment and said, "Mr. Chilton, I'm a Negro."3

In the years between 1953, when a young Chilton first began working full time at the newspaper owned by his family with roots that stretched to antebellum Virginia, and 1984, when he received an honorary doctorate from the state's oldest historically black college, the publisher had changed his views on race. A child of privilege and educated at Yale University, Chilton came into the press industry as a wealthy heir, distanced geographically, socially, and financially from the African American community in one of the nation's poorest states. Yet, in the intervening years he became not just acquiescent to change but a strident, though imperfect and fitful, advocate for racial equality. This case study, using textual analysis,4 in-depth interviews,5 Chilton's archives,6 and two hundred published reports7 of the time uses the theories of the public sphere and agenda setting as a prism to examine the publisher's evolution from an unquestioning representative of the white power structure to the state's loudest and arguably most effective voice for change. The purpose is to offer insight into the nature of the press's historical function as a force in determining what information reaches the public, what does not, and the role of press owners and publishers in this process. This case study argues Chilton and his evolution in how race should be covered as a topic of news and a subject for advocacy editorializing can help serve as a platform for exploring the dynamic processes at play in what reaches the public for debate and what does not.

Theories of the public sphere and journalism as a key structural element of an informed citizenry underpin this study. Jiirgen Habermas, in critiquing the political situation in post-World War II Germany, concluded that in order to exist, a true public sphere must have several elements present: a public space in which citizens may engage; topics of discussion that must be of general interest to all (or nearly all) citizens; an opportunity for feedback; and-above all, in Habermas's view- rational discourse that ultimately seeks consensus toward meaning.* He argued that the creation and energetic use of the public sphere are vital for any democracy.'1 The public sphere is the mechanism by which public opinion is formed and changed and by which the public influences the direction of policy through mediated agreement, or at least acknowledgement and eventual acquiescence, of definitions and outcomes, which are then carried out by political actors dependent on the public will. …

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