As Ofield Dukes holds Vol. 1, No. 1 of his new newspaper, the Washington North Star, he can look around his office in the National Press Building at pictures of himself with President Johnson, a print of the White House signed by Jimmy Carter, and more pictures with leaders from Hubert Humphrey to Mayor Marion Barry.
The pictures tell the story of what Dukes would like his new newspaper to be: a part of Washington's leadership. It would become part of the stories it prints by having an activist editor and publisher, Dukes, who would sponsor meetings between leaders, take part in the politics of the city, both national and local, and use his paper to advance what he thinks are the forces of good, the good candidates, the good causes.
"When I came here 17 years ago," says Dukes, "there was a legitimate white liberal press in the nation-- Harry Golden in North Carolina, Ralph McGill's column in the Atlanta Constitution, Hodding Carter Sr. and Jr. in Mississippi. That was true here too with The Washington Post under Phil Graham. The papers weren't reluctant to take up a cause, particularly the black cause and civil rights. . . .
"That's changed now and we're worse off for it," he says. "There are so many issues now--the environment and the rest--that the papers have trouble concentrating on one. You don't see a publisher raising one issue to the front. I want to get back to that tradition of community service, pushing the issues, being involved with people. That is the traditional role of the press, especially the black press."
But using the paper's news columns -- as distinct from editorials--to get candidates elected clearly goes beyond the bounds of good journalism as it is now understood. How far should an activist publisher and his newspaper go in involving themselves in the world as opposed to simply reporting on the world? Dukes is using as his model for the North Star two newspapers with clear political bents: the Village Voice, which is a youthful, white- liberal New York paper, and the Jewish Week, which approaches the news with a clear pro-Israeli slant.
Both papers are successful. But Dukes is taking a risk in making them his model. He is presuppposing among a huge prospective black readership a unity on issues that does not exist. Black candidates run against one another here. Conservative and liberal, rich and poor all come in black skin here.
The era of activist publishers that Dukes remembers so positively also had serious flaws. When Philip L. Graham was publisher of The Post, the paper was sometimes accused of toying with stories, for instance, purposely playing down racial incidents such as riots at a football game and at an integrated swimming pool because the publisher supported the idea of desegregation and wanted it to work. The publisher's friendship with President Kennedy also made for problems when reporters had stories the administration did not want published and Graham, according to a history of The Post written by Chalmers Roberts, asked that the stories be played down and key facts omitted.
"I don't want to give you the impression that Phil Graham was sitting on my lap and directing assignments," says Ben Gilbert, who was metropolitan editor under Graham, "but once a week he'd have all his principal editors to lunch and he'd ask questions that he wanted answered . . . and they would get answered in the paper. He was setting the tone for the kind of newspaper he wanted to have. . . . He was very interested in urban renewal, so we did story after story on it-- even a special section called 'Progress or Decay, Washington Must Choose.' He started the Federal City Council for the same reason. He had ideas, and he wanted to get things done."
The question that readers of The Post must have asked during that time and readers of the North Star under Dukes may ask is whether they can trust the paper. If a newspaper emphasizes certain stories because they are pet projects of the publisher or fit with the publisher's political beliefs, then for an unbiased look at the news, including what the publisher of that paper is up to and who he is having lunch with regularly, the reader has to go to another paper.
Calvin Rolark, publisher of the Washington Informer, has an open bias in his paper. He does not publish crime news. Rolark says he believes it has a bad effect on the black community and gives whites the impression that many blacks are criminals. Rolark also regularly publishes pictures of and stories concerning himself.
"I like seeing myself in the paper so I put myself in my paper," he says. "When I open it up and see myself there I say, 'Rolark, you're hell.'"
Donald Graham, the current publisher of The Post, is characterized by Dukes as part of the new school of publishers who are not active forces.
"I don't think a newspaper publisher's job is to be a political manipulator," says Graham. "There's some truth to what (Dukes) says, but the one and only job of a newspaper publisher now is to print the best newspaper possible and give its opinions where it's proper, on the editorial page. . . . Times have changed, after all. There are not nearly as many papers as there used to be. So the circumstances have changed since the time when you had publisher who could be so very outspoken."
In the contrary world of the activist publisher that Dukes prefers, what happens if a friend of the publisher is caught in a scandal? Will the story appear in the North Star?
"I've been around long enough for people to know I have honesty and integrity," Dukes says. "And the paper will have a platform. It will be for home rule, offer consumer information, help tell blacks how to survive and it will help to shape the next generation of black leadership."
But by whose standards will it do all of those things? It would be better for the North Star to report more news about black people than can now be found in print and report that news as it comes in, good and bad. There is a market for that because a big metropolitan paper like The Post can't cover every part of every ethnic and racial group. But the idea of the activist publisher is better left on the inactive list.