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Opinion | The Pulitzer Prize: The Good Journalism Seal of Approval

Joey Kennedy

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Alabama Media Group columnist John Archibald’s life has changed forever.

I know, because I’ve been there. Still am.

Archibald won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary this week, a much-deserved honor and one that underscores the journalism talent that existed at The Birmingham News for decades. Still exists on a few islands.

It says much about those who run the media company now that they have destroyed the best of journalism in Alabama over the past six years. It also says much about Archibald, who hung in there and did his thing – write superb columns – under no telling how much pressure.

When digital became the primary means for consumers to get their news, Advance Digital focused on trying to make profits instead of keeping the best journalists in the state. To do that, the company cut their most valuable resource.

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My wife, Veronica, was among the 60 or so journalists laid off during the first wave of decimation back in 2012. From there, year after year, some of the state’s best journalists were cut loose or fled before that happened.

Profit over journalism.

Newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post have continued doing the best journalism in America, despite cutbacks. But they had better plans for digital. They didn’t give away their product, which is NEWS, by the way, not newspapers.

Instead, Alabama Media Group cut a great newspaper to three days a week, turning its back on its most loyal subscribers.

That Archibald won the Pulitzer for Commentary – one of the most prestigious of the prizes – says everything about him and not the company.

Archibald is an outstanding writer, a veteran of more than 30 years at the newspaper. He’s a good person, sharp, and works tirelessly. He has compassion and cares. Archibald has built a huge audience. It’s not unusual to see him on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, and he has weekly segments on WBHM, Birmingham’s National Public Radio affiliate.

Now, his life has changed.

Archibald will forever be known as a Pulitzer Prize winner. That’s journalism’s top honor. That’ll likely be in the lead of his obituary.

Mine, too. I was one of three editorial writers who won the first Pulitzer Prize at The News and, indeed, at any newspaper owned by the Newhouse company at the time. The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson, and I won in 1991 for a series on tax reform in Alabama.

This week, as Alabama Media Group showered Archibald with praise, and deservedly so, it recapped the other two Pulitzer Prizes won by the “company.” In 2007, Brett Blackledge won for investigative journalism, and, of course, we won in 1991 for editorial writing.

You’ll see Blackledge’s award acknowledged, but the media group’s story just mentioned that The News also won for editorial writing in 1991. That’s misleading. Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to individuals, unless there is a team of four or more writers, and then it’s a staff award.

The late Ron Casey, Harold Jackson (now Philadelphia Enquirer Editorial Page Editor), and I were awarded Pulitzer Prizes, individually. Nowhere on our Pulitzer Prize awards is The Birmingham News mentioned. The News editorial board had a good team, too. We were cited as top-three finalists for Pulitzer Prizes in 1994 and 2006.

But, you see, I wasn’t “eased” out the door at Alabama Media Group, like so many were. I was fired outright, for “threatening” sources and for “being too personally involved with my stories.”

Any good journalist has threatened sources. Not with violence or something that stupid. But we “threaten” all the time if a source isn’t going to respond, or is going to respond with a known lie.

“If you don’t give your side of the story, I’m still writing that story.”

Or,

“If you are going to just tell that lie, I’m going to report the truth.”

“Threats.” Journalism, as Archibald and any good journalist will tell you, is a confrontational business.

And, yes, since I became an advocacy journalist in 1989, I’ve become personally involved in my topics. I write about subjects that I’m passionate about. Hard not to become personally involved when one actually cares, whether it be about undocumented immigrants, or abused children, or how badly this state treats its poor residents, or race, or equality, or education, or, yes, animals.

That’s the very characteristic that helps make us good advocacy journalists and keeps us human: We care, even if our bosses don’t.

Thank goodness I was fortunate enough to win a Pulitzer Prize. It did change my life, and it’ll change Archibald’s.

I found myself in an elite community. I began to really study writing. I wanted to deserve to be in the company of Ernest Hemingway, and Russell Baker, and Cynthia Tucker, and William Safire, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

So many great writers.

I returned to university for a master’s degree in English, with an emphasis in creative nonfiction. I have a rewarding second career, now in my 18th year, teaching English at UAB, my alma mater.

Archibald, too, will see new opportunities ahead of him. He has always been a star, for at least three decades, but now he’s got the official sanction of our profession, the ultimate seal of approval in journalism.

What opportunities will open before him: Who can say? But they’ll be there.

John Archibald knows a good column when he sees one. He’ll know the good opportunities, as well.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a column every week for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | Why do Alabama governors insist on taking the unpopular path?

Josh Moon

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We’re doing it again.

The same thing. We’re doing the same thing again, and hoping for a different outcome. Which I believe is the definition of insanity. And that might as well be our state motto at this point.

Alabama: The Insane State.

The state where the people continue to elect people who promise to do the same things as the last people who we hated, and who will eventually totally renege on those promises and try to do the opposite.

Case in point: Kay Ivey.

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At her inauguration on Monday, Ivey was all smiles and upbeat rhetoric. She talked of steadying the ship and putting Alabamians back to work. And she was governor while those things happened, so the rules say she gets credit, even if it’s mighty tough to pinpoint exactly what it is that she did to cause any of those good things.

But Ivey also dropped a few hints about the future.

To no one’s surprise, she discussed a gas tax without ever saying the word “tax,” and she talked about a new prison construction proposal.

Actually, neither of those ideas is “new,” and the proposals Ivey and the Legislature will put forth in the coming months won’t be new either. We’ve been talking about prisons for three years now, if not longer, and the gas tax was kicked around during the last legislative session.

And both will be met with roughly the same amount of disdain by voters this time around.

No matter how badly we might need to renovate our current prisons or build new ones, the average Alabama voter doesn’t want to do that. In fact, those voters have proven to be amazingly willing to let prisoners out of jail, if the alternative is a higher tax bill.

And on the gas tax front, yeah, that’s a big ol’ no.

I’m sorry, but you can’t set up a state income tax system that charges janitors more than CEOs, leaving the state with consistently no money to make necessary repairs to infrastructure, and then ask the working stiffs to pick up the bill for those repairs when things fall completely apart. And make them pay for it by charging them more to get to work every day.  

I don’t care that we just held elections and most lawmakers are safe for another four years. You vote for that sort of a tax on working people, and it’ll hang around your neck for the rest of your political career. What’s left of it.

If you doubt this, ask Robert Bentley.

He tried something similar. Actually, come to think of it, he was a lot like Ivey following his re-election in 2014. Very popular. Had pledged not to raise taxes. Was generally trusted by most people around the state.

And then he hit people with a proposal for a cigarette tax.

His whole world blew up from that point forward.

Because it’s not right. Taxing gas or taxing cigarettes is a coward’s tax.

It’s an admission that you know we don’t have enough revenue but you’re not brave enough to attack the real problem — to raise property taxes or restructure our state income tax.

Or to do what’s popular: Legalize gambling.

Why do Alabama Republicans continue to run from legalized gaming? It makes zero sense, considering the massive edge they hold in statewide voting and the unprecedented popularity of gambling among Republican voters.

Poll after poll shows that conservative voters in Alabama now massively favor legalizing gambling. In one of the more recent polls, more than 60 percent of likely Republican voters were in favor of a vote to legalize full-fledged casinos with sportsbooks.

And yet, Ivey, like the two governors who came before her, will stand on a stage at her inauguration and push for two completely unpopular ideas —— prisons and a gas tax — but never speak of the one subject that’s both popular and could raise enough money to pay for the infrastructure repairs. And the prisons.

So, here we are again. Another governor who thinks she can thumb her nose at the will of the people. Another governor who seems hellbent on ignoring a popular solution. Another fight that will lead to nowhere.

Insanity. That’s what it is.

 

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Crime

Opinion | Slain Birmingham officer needed our help

Josh Moon

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On Sunday, Birmingham Police Sergeant Wytasha Carter was shot and killed by some criminals who were apparently trying to break into cars.

Carter died at the scene. His partner was also shot, and remains in critical condition at UAB Hospital.

It was senseless. And stupid. And maddening.

And not at all unpredictable.

In fact, it’s astounding that it has taken this long for a cop in one of the most violent cities in America — one of the most violent industrialized nations on earth — to be killed. Carter was the first police officer murdered in the city in 14 years.

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In that same city, more than 200 people have been killed — most of them by gunfire — in just the past TWO YEARS.

And it will get worse.

It will get worse because we continue to turn a blind eye to the root causes of the violence that permeates our major cities: under-education, extreme poverty, drug use and a flood of easy-to-obtain firearms.

To put that another way: you have large groups of people who are hopeless, desperate and angry. They have been failed at every step of their lives — by their parents, their government, their schools and their justice system. They have been immersed in horrific violence since birth. They have no idea what acceptable conflict resolution even is, much less how to practice it. And they have been afforded ridiculously easy access to any firearm they would like.

A few years ago, as Montgomery suffered through one of the ugliest and deadliest years on record, I spent several days essentially hanging out in the highest crime neighborhoods — the projects, the abandoned apartment buildings, the neighborhoods you tell your kids to avoid when they start driving.

What I found was depressing.

Because these were not bad people, They were not lazy or unmotivated. They were not happy with their lives, nor were they particularly hostile.

They were hopeless.

Every single day mothers in those neighborhoods sent their kids off to schools that they knew were failing them. Every day, they prayed that their kids found some crack to slip through and into a better life — maybe they would be great at sports or a gifted student who landed in a magnet program or … hell, anything.

But deep down, they knew.

They knew that at some point reality would take hold. Their kids, lured by quick and easy money, would fall into the gangs. The violence and crime would take root and become common. Juvenile detention facilities would follow. And probably, if their kids survived, jail and prison.

The stories are more nuanced, and there are more twists and turns along the way, but this was life in a nutshell for a good chunk of Alabama’s capital city.

The people had no hope.

And when such a thing happens, when you remove hope from hurting people, you also remove a valuation of life. Their life seems to be so utterly unvalued by everyone, so why should they value yours?

Or a cop’s?

This is where we are. And it’s getting worse.

You can get angry and stomp your feet and pretend that sticking kids in electric chairs or locking ‘em all up is going to solve it, but it’s not. Deep down, after centuries of that nonsense, surely you all know that by now.

The only thing that will solve it is love.

Until we love the poor kids, the black kids, the brown kids and all of the other kids who are a little bit different, this will never get better. Until we are as invested in the kids who dress in ratty clothes and have bad attitudes, in the kids who don’t speak the language well and who fight first and ask questions later, we will continue to produce murderers and cop killers.

It seems that Sgt. Carter knew this.

In interviews with local media outlets, those who knew Carter best said he served Birmingham because he wanted to make a difference in his city. He wanted kids and the good people to feel some measure of safety. He wanted kids to know there were alternatives to the gangs..

But mostly, he wanted the people in the worst parts of his city to simply know that someone cared about them.

Sgt. Carter didn’t die because his efforts were naive or misguided, or because the people he tried to help are too hopeless.

He died because not enough us joined him.

 

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Opinion | There’s a reason the state legislature has no oversight of the AHSAA

Josh Moon

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Kyle South is the reason that the Alabama Legislature has no authority over the Alabama High School Athletic Association.

South, a Republican state representative from Fayette, announced on Wednesday that he would be filing legislation that, if passed, would give the state legislature and the Alabama Department of Education some oversight of AHSAA rulings and governance.

Except … they can’t.

The AHSAA, in its current form, was established by a federal court order in 1968. That order gives it unique standing and authority, specifically removing it from the reaches of misguided, misinformed, overzealous and downright ignorant politicians motivated by personal interests, personal gain and personal relationships.

In other words, it is protected from politicians like Kyle South and the 87 House members who have signed on as co-sponsors to an unwritten piece of legislation. (Which tells you a lot about Alabama. We have raw sewage causing 19th century parasites to return in Lowndes County, and not whimper, but someone not being able to play a game draws three-quarters of the House.)

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It’s not hard to understand why South and so many other politicians are up in arms about the Maori Davenport situation. When you’ve lived your life governed by the Alabama Ethics Commission and working in the most corrupt state house in America, it must be quite the shock to the system to see a governing body actually uphold rules and apply them properly.

That’s what happened in Davenport case.

In case you’re somehow unaware, Maori Davenport is the now-famous high school player from Troy’s Charles Henderson High who was ruled ineligible by the AHSAA for accepting and cashing an $857.20 check mistakenly sent to her by USA Basketball. The check was compensation for her time playing for the US U18 national team, which was supposed to only be sent to college players, but was inadvertently sent to the three high school players.

Everyone involved in this, including officials from the AHSAA who I’ve spoken with, believe Davenport to be an innocent victim of a series of poor choices and bad mistakes. But in the end, the AHSAA found that the actions of Davenport’s mother violated the state’s amateurism rule. It ruled Maori Davenport ineligible and that ruling was unanimously upheld by two different committees — following hours of hearings — made up of 19 principals, athletic directors and superintendents from districts all around Alabama.

You would think that such widespread agreement among lifelong educators — the overwhelming majority of whom wouldn’t know Maori Davenport if she was standing in the room next to them — would cause elected leaders to pause and wonder if maybe they don’t know the entire story before jumping on this bandwagon.

But then, why take that time when there’s so much free PR out there?

Had they bothered to take any time, or to, say, call any of the board members and ask questions, phone up the AHSAA and talk to executive director Steve Savarese, what they would have heard was a story much different than the one presented in most media stories, and particularly the one presented by ESPN’s Jay Bilas.

That’s not entirely the media’s fault. The AHSAA can’t officially discuss most of what led to its decision to suspend Davenport, which leaves media outlets with one side screaming about unfair treatment and the other side sitting behind bland, lawyered-up statements.

But on background, and under their breath, and in quiet voices, many of the people directly involved in this case are happy to talk — eager to talk. And what they’ll tell you, and show you, are facts that explain their unanimous votes.

These people who work for the AHSAA and serve on their boards didn’t ask for the unending downpour of stupidity that is falling on them. But they’re fairly used to it at this point. They get it constantly for doing a thankless job that often allows incompetent or corrupt coaches and parents to hide from the blame that come from situations like Davenport’s.

Situations in which parents and coaches and principals fail miserably and intentionally, and then blame the AHSAA for hurting the player.

And right on cue, here comes a pandering bunch of politicians, smelling easy votes like sharks smell blood, working on half information and full emotion.

Which is exactly why the AHSAA isn’t beholden to the state legislature. It’s one of the main reasons it still functions semi-effectively.

 

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Opinion | “Cussing” the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Joey Kennedy

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Leaders of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute ought to be ashamed. They have tarnished the institute’s standing in a way that may be hard to recover from.

Last fall, the board of the BCRI voted to honor author, activist, and scholar Dr. Angela Davis, a Birmingham native, with its Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Earlier this month, the board rescinded its offer of the award to Davis and canceled its annual Shuttlesworth Gala.

Reportedly, some Birmingham Jewish leaders complained about the BCRI honoring Davis – who has been honored at other events in Birmingham previously – because she criticizes Israel for its policies against Palestinians and for encouraging people to withdraw investments from Israel.

Few effective human rights activists, if any, do so without controversy or criticism. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” resulted directly from criticism from moderate Birmingham clergy of King’s nonviolent marches and protests. Davis, too, spent her life campaigning for human rights, and was a long-time Communist Party member. But it appears her criticism of Israel led to the BCRI withdrawing the Shuttlesworth Award.

Not only did the institute embarrass itself by withdrawing the award, it has handled the issue in a ham-handed, disastrous manner. Davis’ colorful and meaningful life is no mystery. The board clearly knew her history when it decided to present her with the award last year. To withdraw it because of some criticism from wealthy donors because they disagreed with her stand on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is clearly a mistake that will damage the institute’s reputation forever.

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Since withdrawing the award, BCRI has been a well-deserved target of protests and outrage.

The board, in withdrawing the award, said Davis no longer met the criteria for receiving it. However, it didn’t elaborate on what criteria Davis didn’t meet.

The institute’s supposed mission statement is simple: “To enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.”

After embarrassing itself and Davis over this mess, that mission statement sounds awfully hollow.

Davis, in a statement, said she was “stunned” when she learned the BCRI board had “reversed their previous decision to award me the Fred Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award. Although the BCRI refused my requests to reveal the substantive reasons for this action, I later learned that my long-term support of justice for Palestine was at issue.”

Davis’ statement continues: “The trip to Birmingham, where I was born and raised, to receive the Fred Shuttlesworth Award, was certain to be the highlight of my year.”

Instead, Davis will attend an alternative event in February sponsored by others rightly upset that the BCRI made such a horrible decision.

The BCRI board has been encouraged by other human rights groups to reverse its decision, but instead the board’s three top officers resigned Wednesday, stating they regretted the “circumstances surrounding the selection process … and the dissension this has caused.” But they provided no details about what criteria Davis failed to meet or other information about their resignations.

Usually, board members who make bad decisions want them to go away, but with Davis coming to Birmingham Feb. 16 for an alternative event, on the day the Shuttlesworth Gala was originally scheduled, this controversy is not likely to go away.

Indeed, the very nature of the BCRI’s existence is to educate the public about human rights activists like Davis. If it’s not going to do that and cave to interests who disagree with its decisions, what’s the point?

Former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, who pushed for the institute’s creation and construction against some of this same kind of criticism, disagrees with the decision to dishonor Davis. Mayor Randall Woodfin and the Birmingham City Council have let their dissatisfaction be known. Woodfin explained why he’s confounded:

“I am dismayed because this controversy might have been avoided entirely, had it been handled differently. I am dismayed because, as has been the case throughout Birmingham’s history, people of good will behaved reflexively, rather than engaging in meaningful discourse over their differences and seeking common ground.

“I am dismayed because the controversy is playing out in a way that harks backward, rather than forward – that portrays us as the same Birmingham we always have been, rather than the one we want to be. I am dismayed because I believe that we should be able to expect better, from ourselves and one another.”

Woodfin noted that while the city does provide funding to the BCRI, and it doesn’t involve itself in programming at the organizations it helps fund, it certainly has an interest in providing funding to organizations based upon their “legal and ethical pursuit” of their mission.

Whether the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is meeting that obligation is certainly a fair question in the wake of how awful BCRI has treated Davis.

Perhaps the most stinging rebuke came from the Alabama chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, which has a “long history with our sister, Angela Davis.”

The Guild noted that Davis at one time spoke at the 16th Street Baptist Church, the scene of a 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan that killed four young girls and injured many others.

“One can look across the street at the church from the large windows at the end of the tour of the BCRI,” the Guild statement reads. “It is bitterly ironic and shameful that the BCRI, nearly three months after it announced she would receive its Fred Shuttlesworth award, has chosen to retract the invitation and cancel the awards dinner. BCRI has been one of the most important legacies of Richard Arrington, Jr., Birmingham’s first black mayor and its decision irrevocably tarnishes that legacy.

The BCRI’s “caving to pressure from some funders is a disgrace,” the Guild statement reads. “Their decision to rescind the award reflects nothing so much as cowardice in place of principle, the diametric opposite of all that Fred Shuttlesworth stood for. We mourn the loss of the BCRI as a Birmingham institution conceived to insure (sic) we never forget that freedom is a constant struggle and that courage in the face of adversity drives history forward. It is now just another musty museum, and one that has abandoned what was a noble mission.”

Actions have consequences, and whatever path the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute takes after this fiasco, its history will always have this disgusting mark.

Shuttlesworth himself is likely turning in his grave. As civil rights activist’s official biographer, Andrew Manis, pointed out, Angela Davis is exactly the kind of person an award named after Shuttlesworth should go to.

“I think Fred would be cussing,” Manis told AL.com. “He often bragged about being a cussing preacher. I think he’d be cussing about this.”

I believe many of us are “cussing” about this today, and if we’re not, we should be.

Joey Kennedy, a Pulitzer Prize winner, writes a weekly column for Alabama Political Reporter. Email: [email protected]

 

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Opinion | The Pulitzer Prize: The Good Journalism Seal of Approval

by Joey Kennedy Read Time: 5 min
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