An uproar about an editorial that advocated birth control for poor black women and that has bitterly divided the staff of the Philadelphia Inquirer burst into public view over the weekend as the paper's top local columnist likened the editorial page editor to former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke.
Most black reporters and editors at the Inquirer strongly objected to an editorial last Wednesday titled "Poverty and Norplant -- Can Contraception Reduce the Underclass?" It lamented growing poverty among blacks and said welfare mothers should be given "incentives" to use Norplant, the new contraceptive in which tiny capsules that remain effective for years are implanted in a woman's arm.
This drew an impassioned rebuttal Sunday from Metro columnist Steve Lopez, who wrote that the newsroom staff is "often embarrassed by what passes for this newspaper's voice. ...
"What we have, basically, is the Inquirer brain trust looking down from its ivory tower and wondering if black people should be paid to stop having so many damn kids. ... By combining contraception and race, the voice of the Inquirer calls to mind another David. David Duke."
The reference to the first David was to Editorial Page Editor David Boldt, who said yesterday, "I checked myself for holes after the Lopez column ran. ... He didn't really engage the issue, but he attacked me personally, which is his prerogative and his specialty."
Boldt said he encourages editorials about sensitive subjects that are often considered "verboten," but that "it appears I miscalculated. ... Evidently there was something wrong with the editorial. I'm trying to figure out what it is."
Deputy Editorial Page Editor Donald Kimelman, who wrote the piece, accused Lopez of "substituting insult for argument." But he conceded the editorial had been "too divisive."
"I feel bad about it," Kimelman said. "Certain things as a white man you just don't see. I still believe what I wrote, but ... I felt very bad that every single black reporter and editor I know, from the most radical to the most reasonable, hated this editorial."
In a computer message to a newsroom critic, Kimelman wrote: "I'm told that David Duke has said similar things to what we suggested in the editorial. Does this make me ashamed? No. It helps explain to me why David Duke, in his post-Klan incarnation, is getting so many votes. He talks publicly about stuff that the rest of us only reserve for our private conversations."
Boldt and Kimelman tried to temper the anger during an emotional meeting with more than 50 staff members late yesterday. Inquirer Editor Maxwell King, who approved the Norplant editorial before it was published, told the gathering that he did not believe Boldt and Kimelman are racist and that both men would remain on the editorial board.
It may be a sign of glasnost that the paper's editors allowed the intra-Inquirer warfare to become public. While the editorial has been criticized on some black radio shows and sparked a demonstration by a group of political extremists, the controversy had largely been confined to the Inquirer building.
Most papers maintain a rigid division between the staff that sets editorial policy and the reporters and editors who cover the news, although at the Inquirer both staffs report to King. Lopez said King had supported his desire to write a response.
"He said I should write this just as I would write it if it involved City Council," Lopez said.
The columnist said many reporters have been troubled by the "elitist," "condescending" and "morally superior" tone of the editorial page since Boldt took it over in 1987. Lopez cited editorials on the homeless that urged people not to give money to panhandlers.
The message, said Lopez, was "My God, let's wash our hands of these people. We're tired of having to step over them while we're shopping."
Reporter Vanessa Williams, president of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, said: "The problem is that too often on social issues in which there is a potential to exploit racial fears or tensions or stereotypes, the editorial board seems to come out on the side of exploiting those fears," she said. "Whenever they talk about the urban poor or inner-city poor, it just gets painted all black."
Kimelman's editorial seemed to anticipate the controversy by noting the recent federal approval of Norplant and a report that nearly half the nation's black children are living in poverty: "Dare we mention them in the same breath? To do so might be considered deplorably insensitive, perhaps raising the specter of eugenics."
Acel Moore, one of three black members of the 13-person editorial staff, called the Norplant editorial "very snide." He said it had been "handled outside the process," since it was not debated at a regular staff meeting but circulated by computer late in the afternoon before it was published.
Moore said he told Kimelman, "Damn, you can't do that. You can't make this a race thing. Blacks are not the only poor people."
Boldt, who says he regularly checks out homeless shelters and public housing projects, agrees that his tenure has been provocative. "I think we ought to be able to talk about the fact that there is a racial component to poverty," he said.
"In a nutshell, we thought -- I thought -- we were saying that poor women, including black women, should have the opportunity, and perhaps even be encouraged, to use a relatively new form of birth control. Somehow this is taken by many well-meaning, well-intentioned people to sound like advocacy of black genocide."
Ironically, Kimelman wrestled in print with his own racial attitudes in a column Saturday. He wrote that he had called the police while on a neighborhood watch patrol after encountering "two athletic-looking, young black men" who were acting suspiciously. No arrests were made, and Kimelman later wondered if he had succumbed to racial stereotyping.
He called the episode "a slice of life in these edgy times, when one-time '60s liberals have been reduced to vigilantism to protect their neighborhood and when the targets of their activities are usually black or Puerto Rican."