The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My bad news judgment hurt Buffalo’s black community. Ten years later, the lessons linger.

The Rev. Darius Pridgen, center, speaks at the funeral for two victims of the City Grill shooting in Buffalo in August 2010. (Don Heupel/AP)

I think it was around the time that a community activist started burning copies of the Buffalo News in a trash can in front of the newspaper building that I called the Rev. Darius Pridgen.

I was the top editor of the paper and we — well, let’s be clear, I— had messed up. Badly.

There had been a terrible mass shooting a few days before, in the early-morning hours of August 14, 2010 — the worst in the city’s modern history. Eight people had been shot, four of them killed, outside a downtown restaurant where a wedding anniversary was being celebrated. (A fifth man would die years later after being paralyzed as a result of his injuries.) All the victims were black.

But for many days, no one knew who had pulled the trigger or why. And as a frightened city tried to piece together what had happened, we published and prominently displayed a story delving into the criminal backgrounds of some of the victims, on the grounds that this information could be a part of the puzzle.

The black community was furious, accusing the paper of deepening the pain of family and friends who were mourning and burying their loved ones. They were right: The story unintentionally put the blame in precisely the wrong place.

I knew I needed to address this anger, so I suggested to Pridgen — a prominent pastor on Buffalo’s largely black East Side who had officiated at some of the victims’ funerals — that I come out to True Bethel Baptist Church and sit down with some community members to talk it out. I pictured sitting around a table with perhaps a dozen people.

He agreed — though, as he recalled this week when we spoke again by phone, he wasn’t sure what I was up to. We didn’t know each other well.

“What was the story with this woman — white, accomplished — were you sincere or just looking for a headline, or something else?” said Pridgen, a former Buffalo School Board member, now the president of the Buffalo Common Council.

Still, he put the word out, expecting about 100 people to show up.

When I arrived at True Bethel that evening, just four miles from the newspaper office, the parking lot was filling up. About 700 people turned out for an emotionally charged meeting that lasted for hours. For much of it, I stood at a lectern, kept my mouth shut, and listened to people like Cheryl Stevens, whose son-in-law was among the dead.

“I feel that we were victimized twice,” she told me. “What you did to us was you poured salt on the wounds that had not even healed.” Others brought up discriminatory coverage going back decades, long before I was in charge.

Ignited by public protests, American newsrooms are having their own racial reckoning

Pridgen told me this week that he was relieved, when I walked in, to see that a number of Buffalo News staffers had decided to accompany me, and that quite a few were black.

“I quickly scanned the staff, and when I saw diversity, it started to change the narrative in my mind,” he said.

Since I had become editor, we had more than doubled the number of black and other non-white people on the newsroom staff, and promoted some of them to management positions. But on this story, I had failed to consult with those editors adequately. That would, I’m sure, have made a big difference.

As tough as that evening was, I was touched by their supportive presence, which I hadn’t asked for.

“Somewhat surprisingly, it turned into a healing moment,” Pridgen said. It wasn’t because of anything I’d said that evening, but because of what happened afterward: a significant years-long effort to deepen and improve the paper’s connection to the black community.

We formed a community advisory board, put key reporters and editors — including me, of course — through outside training on keeping an open mind, checking impulses for bias and making more sensitive decisions; and we started to cover the East Side in more thorough and considerate ways.

These days, newsrooms all over the United States are in turmoil over racial issues, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Top editors have resigned or been fired, and journalists of color — including at The Washington Post — are pushing hard for pay equity, more representation in top management, and greater newsroom diversity.

Saturday’s protests were big news. Why did these Gannett newspapers push them off the front page?

“It’s our moonshot,” journalist Farai Chideya told CNN’s Brian Stelter on Sunday — a rare chance to seize the historic moment and make long-overdue change happen in newsrooms where true diversity has never been achieved.

Crisis does create change, or at least provides the opportunity for it.

Pridgen told me he recalled a column I wrote after the True Bethel meeting, in which I promised the paper would do better. “I remember you said that what happened left you ‘shaken and disturbed,’ or something like that,” he said.

His recollection was remarkably close, given how long it’s been. I had written, in something of an understatement, that I was “shaken and changed.” What I didn’t realize fully then, but do more now, is how lucky I was to have the opportunity to change.

I got the chance to make amends, to be more empathetic, and to see a little more clearly. I don’t pretend to be particularly enlightened, and certainly we all have plenty more to learn, and a lot of work to do.

But I would express the effect that painful but valuable episode had on me a little differently now. It left me shaken, changed — and grateful.

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