Crashing the Gate
Crashing the gate When the story is us
I was going to write a column this week about concrete. Seriously.
But instead, events conspired to force me to address an issue between this newspaper, one of my reporters, Forsyth County District Attorney Tom Keith and a group of concerned citizens calling for his ouster.
The controversy didn’t begin with us — discontent and injustice have been long-running themes in Forsyth and the city of Winston-Salem, going back even before Darryl Hunt was wrongfully incarcerated for the murder of Deborah Sykes in 1984.
Hunt’s case has received all sorts of attention, including a documentary that won an award at the Sundance Film Festival, a book and an extensive series in the Winston-Salem Journal. Even I have interviewed Darryl Hunt, shortly after he received his settlement of close to $3 million.
But there exist other, less publicized but almost as prolonged cases of mistaken identity in the place known affectionately as the Cancer City. Two weeks ago, Joseph Abbitt was released from a Forsyth prison after DNA evidence cleared him of a 14-year-old rape conviction. And today Kalvin Michael Smith sits in Piedmont Correctional Facility after being convicted of the assault on Jill Marker at the Silk Plant Forest store in 1995, a crime which I believe he did not commit.
Keith is a common thread in these storylines and many others. Keith has been Forsyth DA for 20 years, long enough to have had a hand in all these cases whether through the convictions or appeals. And many feel dissatisfaction with his job performance. But it took a quote that ran in the Aug. 26 edition of YES! Weekly to incite various community groups to band together and ask for Keith’s resignation on the front steps of the Hall of Justice.
Which, by the way, is a different Hall of Justice than the ones where the Super Friends hang out.
The quote: “If you’re African American, you’re six, seven or eight times more likely to have a violent history. I didn’t go out there and put a gun in your hand and say, ‘You commit eight crimes and I’m a white man and I’ll commit one.’ That’s just instincts, that’s how it is.”
The word “instincts,” italicized by me, is troublesome; it implies that the top prosecutor on Forsyth County believes that African Americans are predisposed to violence and crime. It is, no doubt, a sentiment shared by many Americans, but certainly not one uttered to reporters by too many district attorneys outside of 1950s Mississippi.
Another problem: That’s not what he said. It’s almost what he said. But instead of the word “instincts,” Keith actually said “statistics.” We were off by a single word, but that one word made much difference, turning a statement of erroneous opinion into a statement of fact. According to statistics compiled by the FBI, African Americans are convicted seven to nine times more often of violent crime than white folks.
The misquote, which I believe was an honest mistake by reporter Keith T. Barber, gained traction while I was on vacation in Las Vegas and by the time I got back it had taken on a life of its own. And to my discredit, the first time I actually heard the interview recording was the day after the call for Keith’s resignation. And when I heard that word, “statistics,” I knew the shitstorm was about to rain down.
The first thing I did was dispatch a couple staffers to make audio files of the interview, and then I composed a blog post about the mistake while simultaneously trying to get Keith on the phone. I fired off the blog post and began calling every news outlet that had picked up the story, correcting our reporting. Then I tried to speak with some of the clergy members who had called for Keith’s resignation, explaining our error. I called a press conference, and after the TV vans had set up in our parking lot, I admitted our error — my error, really — in front of the rolling cameras. Tom Keith was there, graciously accepting our apology and even complimenting our reporter’s article on the Racial Justice Act.
He said he had been misquoted by the media so many times in the past that he didn’t understand what the “brouhaha” was all about.
Earlier that day he told me on the phone that other news outlet wouldn’t have gone to these lengths to correct the record “in a million years.”
I don’t know about that, and I find it hard to believe that the editor of any other publication wouldn’t have done the same thing. But I can only speak for myself and the paper for which I’ve worked these past five years. And I say that the spirit of our whole news enterprise is to print the truth — not the truth as we see it or want it to be, but as it is. In this instance we dropped the ball, and I tried to pick it up and advance it as expeditiously as I could.
Today, these same community groups still call for Keith’s resignation, and Keith still says he will not step down, though he did pass the Kalvin Michael Smith case off to the state Attorney General’s office. And this is fine by me. Though I always like to see justice served, I have no vested interest in the outcome of this conflict except as it pertains to the news and to this paper. And in the future I will take steps to ensure that the paper does not again become the news.
And for the life of me, I can’t remember what I wanted to say about concrete that was so compelling just a few days ago.