When Johnson got the chance to enter the prison yard, some of the inmates recognized him from the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where he had grown up. “‘Hey John,’ ‘Hey J.J.,’” says Johnson. “They were saying, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’”
One of the few Black journalists on the scene, Johnson was bearing witness to one of the most racist assertions of state power in recent American history — and, not coincidentally, one of the most appalling examples of journalistic malpractice.
On Sept. 9, inmates broke through a gate, assaulted guards, secured access to the main cellblocks and took more than 40 hostages. Four days later, a burst of gunfire ended the uprising, as New York state troopers and other authorities at Attica launched 2,200 “lethal missiles” — in the wording of an official report — from their perches into the prison yard.
On that night’s ABC News broadcast, Johnson captured the mood outside the facility and provided a rundown of the casualties: “State police reported that nine hostages had been slain and 28 prisoners lay dead,” said Johnson.
What Johnson didn’t report was as important as what he did.
Other news organizations — virtually all of Johnson’s peers in national and local media on that day, Sept. 13, 1971 — accepted official accounts of the hostilities, and in many cases reported them straight-up as fact, with no attribution. Big newspapers such as the New York Times and The Washington Post, wire services and television news outfits all found themselves caught up in a frenzy to report jailhouse rumors — a prisoner ready to torch the whole joint, a castration that never happened, the slashed throats of slain guards that turned out not to have been slashed after all. They made enormous mistakes — mistakes that served the interests of New York officials, including Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, and disserved their readers and viewers.
Looking back at the Attica coverage from the vantage point of a half-century offers relevant lessons for journalism today. One is that disinformation doesn’t need Facebook to thrive. It needs only face-saving officials and journalists on deadline.
Another is that official disinformation has a tendency to throttle people of color. According to one observer, the rebelling inmates were 85 percent Black and Puerto Rican. Meanwhile, the guards were White, the state troopers dispatched to gun down the inmates were White — and the media covering the uprising was mostly White.
"The consequences of the lies told at Attica and the consequences of this story being reported as it was are ... catastrophic,” says Heather Ann Thompson, author of the landmark Attica book “Blood in the Water.” “It soured a generation on the idea that people serving time are human beings.”
Nearly three years after the Attica assault, Detroit journalist Jim Ingram wrote in Ebony, “Now, more than ever, Attica merits media attention.” It still does.
Bogus rumors about the fate of hostages
“Bomb-Carrying Convict Killed by Sharpshooter,” read a New York Times headline on Sept. 14, 1971. Sam Melville, nicknamed “Mad Bomber" for his radical actions in the 1960s, was gunned down “as he was running with four home-made bombs ready to blow up a 500-gallon fuel tank on the grounds,” the Times reported. That account was attributed to deputy corrections commissioner Walter Dunbar, who’d taken the media on a post-assault tour of the prison. Two other state officials — including one based 260 miles away in Albany — fed rumors to eager journalists.
A comprehensive report on Attica determined that the Times story was “untrue in almost every detail” — a characterization that applied to many other stories from that bloody day.
Hours after state forces reclaimed control of Attica, “NBC Evening News” ran video of state corrections aide Gerald Houlihan declaring of the hostages, “Several had their throats slashed.”
The United Press International (UPI) wire service ran a first-person account from a hostage who’d emerged alive. Inmates, said the corrections officer, “took eight hostages into a cellblock … They slit their throats.” The Times, the Associated Press and the New York Daily News carried similar claims. The Post reported that nine hostages were “slain by inmates”; and “ABC Evening News” anchor Harry Reasoner said, “In the final hours of the revolt, led primarily by Blacks, the inmates murdered nine of their white hostages.”
Some outlets — including The Post and Gannett’s Democrat & Chronicle of Rochester — reported another heinous claim from Dunbar — namely, that an inmate had castrated a hostage and stuffed “his organs” into his mouth.
In his post-assault tour, Dunbar also claimed that two hostages had been killed before the retaking, and one of them had been “emasculated,” as the New York Times termed it. Yet another well-trafficked tidbit held that a guard who’d sustained serious injuries in the initial disturbance had been tossed through a second-story window.
Wrong, all of it. Just one day after the official assault on the prison, Monroe County medical examiner John Edland announced autopsy findings. “There was no evidence of slashed throats,” said Edland. All of those killed on the day of the retaking had succumbed to gunshots. Since the inmates had no firearms, that meant the authorities were responsible for each one. “Nothing in any of the media reports can dissuade me from what I heard and saw and remembered,” Clarence Jones, a newspaper publisher who served as a negotiator at the request of the inmates, told the Erik Wemple Blog. “These guards were just waiting for the authorization to go in and kill as many inmates as possible.”
As for the alleged castration: “In reality, the hostage had suffered a serious gunshot wound in the groin,” said the Attica special commission chaired by legal scholar Robert McKay. And the claim that hostages had been killed prior to the retaking was bunk, too. All the hostages died of gunshot wounds sustained during the police assault, according to Edland’s findings. As for the defenestration of the injured guard: “impossible, since all windows at Attica are barred,” according to the McKay report.
Months later, Dunbar was pressed on the false representations. "I honestly said this because I believed it,” he said. “If I erred, I erred as a human being.”
Disinformation boosted official position
The people supplying the disinformation had a PR problem on their hands.
The failure of New York state authorities to maintain control of a maximum-security prison was attracting more media attention by the day. Responsibility for resolving the situation fell to Russell Oswald, the state penal chief who’d been in his position for less than a year. Oswald had won praise for “humanitarianism and expertise in criminal rehabilitation,” according to the New York Times, and now he found himself shuttling in and out of Attica’s D yard to negotiate with the inmates. Those efforts failed.
On the day before the assault, negotiators pleaded with Rockefeller to visit the facility to demonstrate his personal interest in the matter. From his family estate in scenic Pocantico Hills, N.Y., the governor declined, prompting criticism of his stay-at-home leadership.
The governor’s executive style, however, wouldn’t look so bad if the newspapers would buy the line that “sharpshooters” saved lives instead of ending them, or that inmates were slitting throats with abandon.
Or, in the words of the McKay report: “Officials’ public statements that the hostages had been maimed and murdered, which were issued before the results of the autopsies were known, reflected their apparent eagerness to provide the media with ‘facts’ which would justify an armed assault in which 39 men were killed and 80 more wounded.” (A breakdown of the Attica death toll, which reached 43 over the five days of the uprising: Thirty-nine were killed on the day of the retaking; four other men — a prison guard, William Quinn, who died of head injuries suffered in the initial melee on Sept. 9, and three inmates — were killed by other inmates over the course of the uprising.)
The McKay report identified several factors that account for the credibility accorded to the initial, faulty reports: The inmates arrayed several hostages on catwalks and held knives to their captives’ throats; state troopers and corrections officers gave “exaggerated” accounts of the assault; authorities also discovered inmates who’d been slain during the uprising (those three victims had their throats slashed). And, also, “the predisposition of the officials to believe inmates would murder the hostages.”
In a 2017 interview with the Erik Wemple Blog, former state senator John Dunne described seeing guards being carried out of the facility on stretchers. He’d concluded that their throats had been slashed. “What led me to that ill-informed conclusion was that first, there was talk that those corrections officers would be slain by cutting their throats. And their blindfolds were taken down and were around their necks. And I mistook blindfolds being down as a cover for a wound,” said Dunne, who died in 2020.
As for why so many outlets printed the falsehoods, “it speaks to the racial imagination of White reporters and White viewers of media,” Thompson says. The castration myth, for example, "fits their racial image of what a Black prisoner would do to a White guard.”
A media-heavy cataclysm
In one of the negotiating sessions, Oswald issued an “impassioned” appeal for the release of the hostages. There was a logistical problem, however: The TV crew filming the session didn’t properly capture it. “We had a bad angle. Could you repeat that?” asked a TV news staffer.
The commissioner’s second take was a fitting moment for a cataclysm steeped in media angles. When it came time to negotiate, the inmates requested, among others, Tom Wicker, a New York Times columnist who’d just recently written a powerful column on racism and prisons. Another invitee was Clarence Jones, editor and publisher of New York Amsterdam News, which published letters from New York state inmates in a feature titled “From Behind Prison Walls.”
Attica inmates also welcomed TV cameras into the prison yard where they’d set up an encampment. One of their goals was to inform the public about the conditions that had stirred the uprising in the first place.
And that topic was vast. Designed to hold 1,600 inmates, Attica housed more than 2,200 at the time of the uprising. It spent 63 cents per day per inmate on food ($4.22 adjusted for inflation) and gave inmates dirty mess hall trays and just one roll of toilet paper per month. Racism was a prison condition, too. One corrections officer — who denied that there was racism at Attica — gave this response when asked about segregation in the mess hall: “How would you like to sit between two coloreds while you were eating?”
Many critics interpreted coverage of the squalid conditions as bias toward those who suffered under them.
Wicker, for example, wrote in his book “A Time to Die” that while in his hotel room, he received a call from a “gruff voice” scolding him about alleged favoritism toward the inmates. “You guys in the press, you ain’t gonna do nothing but make heroes out of the bastards every chance you get,” said the caller.
When another reporter was dictating one of his stories over a phone line, a “telephone operator” barged in to ask why wasn’t he giving the guards’ “side of the story.” The McKay report found that some corrections officers and state troopers believed that the “news media were championing the inmates’ cause.”
All that criticism tees up the irony of Attica coverage: How could the media publish sympathetic coverage of the inmates, only to turn around and repeat official stories slandering them? John Linstead, then with the Chicago Daily News, explained that dynamic in a November 1971 article in the Chicago Journalism Review: “[W]hen the attack finally took place, we all reverted to our ingrown prejudices; we were ready to believe again that inmates were animals.”
Many reporters covering the Attica uprising used the phone of a nearby elderly couple to call in their breaking-news stories. ABC News’s Johnson recalls no such courtesies for him. “Of course none of the townspeople would let me access their homes because I was just like those people on the inside of the institution,” says the 83-year-old Johnson.
News accounts from the time confirm the racial hostility ringing Attica. The n-word was “interchangeable” with “inmate” among many townspeople, according to one report. “Kill the black bastards and be done with it,” said one of the hostages’ family members.
That’s an end that Johnson feared for himself. “As far as I was concerned, everybody who went into Attica was there to kill Black men.”
Thanks to Johnson, viewers of ABC News caught a glimpse of Attica’s on-the-ground hatred. "Shouts of 'White power!’ were screamed by the guards and hostage relatives” after the retaking, reported Johnson.
Asked why he didn’t pass along all the chatter about throat-slitting, Johnson replies: “I didn’t see that. All I saw were troopers, police and [National] Guardsmen going in with guns and firing in a cloud of smoke.” Journalists didn’t witness the police offensive, though Johnson felt pressure to match the competition. “I asked the people at ABC News, ‘How the f[---] do you know the inmates killed any of the hostages if no one saw it and you’re taking the reports from the attacking police?’” recalls Johnson, who says he was removed from the story shortly thereafter. He later moved on to a long career in local news.
Av Westin, who was then executive producer of the “ABC Evening News,” says, “There’s no doubt about the fact that we relied on the sheriff or the New York state police as a primary, trustworthy source.” Now 92 years old, Westin doesn’t remember any disagreements with Johnson over coverage. But there’s evidence of journalistic tension in the transcript: Johnson’s carefully phrased package came just after anchor Harry Reasoner delivered his line about how "the inmates murdered nine of their White hostages.”
The Attica reportorial implosion left a great opening for accountability stories, though the industry was still decades away from its boom in media reporting. The AP reported that the first rumors of throat slashings came out of the prison in “fragments of conversations” from members of the assault team as they stumbled out of the fortress. The wire service said that it had refrained from repeating this falsity in its initial story but did so in its day-two coverage, after the “slashings were widely accepted as fact.”
Newsday reporter Brian Donovan collected comments from editors at prominent publications, revealing a general sentiment that all the allegations should have been attributed to their sources — at the very least. Richard Harwood, an assistant managing editor at The Post, presented a more fatalistic take: “I think newspapers are very fallible in this regard.”
In his remarks to Donovan, the New York Post’s Leonard Katz invoked some terminology familiar to Americans 50 years later: “You get used to people lying to you, but not on such a grand scale. And the big lie, of course, is always the most effective.”
Stephen Isaacs, who covered Attica for The Post, wrote a year later that the press can go “too far in self-flagellation,” considering that one source of disinformation was Oswald himself.
With 50 years of hindsight, the following outlets reflected on the misdeeds: Since the riot, writes New York Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha, “we have implemented new processes and guidelines for vetting statements from law enforcement.” The Post acknowledged that the media’s coverage “had not met the journalistic standards of the time,” noted Krissah Thompson, managing editor of diversity and inclusion. “I think if Attica happened today, the news media would have insisted on interviewing the prisoners and talked to criminal justice advocates alongside the accounts of state and federal officials.” The AP said that it strove to correct the record “when the facts began to emerge,” notes spokeswoman Lauren Easton. “Unfortunately public officials can intentionally or unintentionally mislead the news media.” And Maribel Perez Wadsworth, publisher of USA Today at Gannett, says, “We can’t allow ourselves to get caught up in the initial moment without stepping back and asking the next round of questions.”
The Erik Wemple Blog’s interest in Attica is more than professional. It begins with our father, former New York state assemblyman Clark Wemple. He traveled to Attica to witness the events and is listed as an observer in the McKay report. As Thompson reports in “Blood in the Water,” Wemple, who died in 1993, was among several legislators who witnessed inmates being abused and even tortured after the retaking. Neither he nor any of his colleagues intervened to stop the mistreatment, a decision they would come to regret. Each one of them, Thompson writes, had believed the account that these inmates had killed and mutilated hostages.
The rumors of inmate savagery, like all rumors, had a knack for sticking around. In a story about Attica written in 1989, the Times published the following correction: “Because of an editing error in some copies, an article yesterday about a lawsuit arising from the Attica prison uprising of 1971 gave an incorrect account of how guards and inmates died when the prison was stormed by the police. Investigations showed that police gunfire killed all 10 hostages and 29 inmates who died when the prison was retaken. None had their throats slit.” But while those errors — whether made in 1989 or 1971 — can be corrected, the fallout from the misinformation is still with us, 50 years later.