Correcting Our Mutual Story: An Interview with Ethan Michaeli

by    /  March 20, 2017  / No comments

Photo courtesy of Kevin Nance/Chicago Tribune

Former Chicago Defender editor and reporter Ethan Michaeli started working at the historically black newspaper by chance, without an understanding of the cultural and political significance of an alternative black press. His time at the paper reshaped his classroom understanding of American history and led him to establish and manage Residents’ Journal, a publication written by public housing residents in Chicago.

In this conversation with Sampsonia Way, Ethan Michaeli discusses the important role The Chicago Defender has played in countering white propaganda, our changing media landscape, and the role of the journalist today. Michaeli also touches on the newspaper’s involvement in correcting the narrative of the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, drawing parallels to the harmful propaganda about blackness that have shaped our past and continue to circulate in our present moment.

Can you talk about how you first ended up at The Defender in 1991?

After college I took some of the few jobs that were available for aspiring novelists. And then I ran into a friend of mine—who was also a white, Jewish University of Chicago grad—and he said that he was working at a newspaper called The Chicago Defender, and was leaving to come back to Pennsylvania where he was from and asked if I wanted him to recommend me for the job. I said, “sure.”

At the time, I didn’t know anything about The Chicago Defender: I even asked him if it was a communist newspaper. If he had said yes, I probably would have been excited. But then he said it was an African American owned newspaper, which frankly didn’t register with me as something significant. Back then, I thought that we lived in a post-racial era: Some newspapers were going to be owned by white people and some were going to be owned by black people. I thought simply thought that this paper just happened to be owned by an African American

But when I first arrived at the newspaper, I saw all these historical artifacts displayed behind glass in the lobby. A portrait of Robert Abbott— the founder of the newspaper—dressed in his 1920s garb, looked down on me. I looked down and saw his words inscribed on the floor— I knew then that I was somewhere special.

I initially went to The Defender thinking, I’ll do this for a little while and it will help me build up some stories that I can use for fiction, but I really just kept discovering things—particularly around issues of race—that shocked, surprised, and intrigued me. I came to understand that we were not where I thought we were as a country. Race was at play in everything from environmental issues to political issues to criminal justice, which I think is probably well understood as a race issue today. My discoveries shocked and transformed me; they made me a very different person in terms of my orientation to the world, of what I thought of American history, and how I understood my own place in the country.

During the five and a half years I was at The Defender, I covered everything from crime to politics to environment. And by the time I left, I felt the responsibility to do something about what I’d learned. I spent the next nineteen years establishing and running a magazine called Residents’ Journal— a publication written for and by public housing tenants in Chicago. As many people know, many of those big, high-rise buildings have now been demolished.

The residents were amazing. They were almost all women who were doing an amazing job of raising their young children on very limited incomes. They lacked a lot of support from the rest of society: There was a lot of opposition and villainizing from the media and even from the people that were responsible for working with and helping them. I felt that Residents’ Journal was one way to live out the sense of responsibility I had gained from working at The Defender.

Yet I still dreamed of bringing people into the experience that I had at The Defender. I played with that dream for many years: I submitted a number of different proposals, looking for an agent that might understand what I was trying to do. The resulting idea was a to write a full history of The Chicago Defender. The newspaper is relatively old— it was founded in 1905. I knew that the project would be a very serious work of history, and that it was going to take a long time. But I knew that this was the best way to transmit my experience at The Defender.

Did the book change at all from your initial idea to tell the story of The Defender to the finished project on the shelf? 

I initially thought that it might be interesting if I described my own time at The Defender. Not because I thought my experiences were so remarkable. I wasn’t the first, or even the one hundred and first white person to work at The Defender; there’s a long history of white people working at The Defender that goes back the 1910s and ‘20s when they worked in the print shop. The first white person to work in the editorial department may have been in the 1940s or it may have been earlier given the way race was operating in our country at the time.

I thought it would be kind of novel to tell the story through my perspective, but I quickly realized that approach wasn’t going to be enough. I didn’t experience enough of the history and I didn’t know enough about the amazing things The Defender had done. I knew that the The Defender had started The Great Migration. I knew that Robert Abbott and the staff had helped guide African Americans from the Republican to the Democratic Party. I knew that The Defender was a hugely important institution for focusing the electoral power of African Americans to help elect mayors and congressmen and presidents—I’d seen all that myself working at the newspaper.

So I could use my own experience help the reader smell that smoke in the newsroom, see the way the room looked, and experience what it was like to be in the room with these legendary journalists. But beyond that, I needed to explain the history of the newspaper to everyone else because everything that I could write down about my own experience still wasn’t enough to give the reader the sense of what it felt to really be there. To do that I realized I had to start at the beginning and tell the whole story. And in order to do that, I had to understand the whole story myself. Doing the actual research myself was necessary. Researching The Defender took six years of very intense work. But I’m happy with the result. And while the book’s writing is good, I’m especially happy with the footnotes. I’ve talked to other authors who understand this feeling: the pride in the time spent researching and working that I did to gather those stories together.

You write in the conclusion of your book that you feel compelled to “correct our mutual story.” Can you talk more about what you understand this “mutual story” to be, and how you view your role as a storyteller within it? 

I’m really glad you’re focused on that line because it is a mutual story. The story of America, the narrative of American history, is something that all Americans participate in whether their families have been here for many generations—as is the case for most African Americans—or just for a couple of generations, or even if their parents are immigrants like mine. But American history is a narrative that we learn in school. We operate off of that narrative on a daily basis, we use it to understand where we are as a country. It’s deep within us—almost on a molecular level—it’s something that important to us.

But that story is incomplete. If you understand how humans really are, then the conventional narrative isn’t satisfactory. Its explanations are incomplete.

It’s deep within us—almost on a molecular level—it’s something that important to us.

My experience at The Defender was often a process of Oh, that’s how it really happened. Working there filled in the gaps of my understanding, and helped me get beyond the propaganda to the truth of history. Once I had The Defender’s point of view I understood so many historical events differed from that conventional narrative. For example, when we talk about the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North, we talk about it as an organic, economic process: People just kind of felt like coming, and they sort of came, and they did it mainly because there were jobs here.

The truth is much more complicated. There were jobs in the South, where the overwhelming majority of African Americans lived. African Americans came from the South to the North because it was a political process as a way of fighting back against Jim Crow segregation in the South. The migration was a way to deny the South the fruits of their labor. At the time, African Americans were the best and the least paid workers in the South. So this was an effective strategy to fight back against Jim Crow. The Great Migration was just as much a move for political freedom as it was for economic opportunity. It was an organized effort on the part of The Defender and other newspapers to encourage African Americans to come precisely for that purpose. The process was also contested. Southern authorities tried everything they could think of to keep African Americans from coming, and African Americans devised strategies to go around those efforts. In other words, what we thought of as this organic phenomenon that completely changed the demographics of the United States of America was actually a political maneuver.

And that’s just one small example. Many moments like that helped me understand that the African American’s role in our history has been downplayed. The sense that African Americans have agency over their own history and are active participants in politics and the economy has been left out. It’s a tragedy precisely because we don’t know our own story, and our lack of understanding has ramifications in how we do everything today. Race is woven into American society in a fundamental way and we have not dealt with that. 

It’s a tragedy precisely because we don’t know our own story, and our lack of understanding has ramifications in how we do everything today.

At its beginning, The Defender was an important tool for free speech and then helped move along the Great Migration. In recent years, the paper was a major vehicle for politicians like Barack Obama to communicate with the public. How do you trace the evolution of the role of The Defender through these different eras?

At first, the newspaper was really a counter-propaganda newspaper focused on the South. Eighty to ninety percent of African Americans lived in the South at the beginning of the twentieth century. Southern white newspapers had a very distinct and deliberate program when it came to segregation in the South. The papers supported Segregation when it came to reaching a Southern audience. They would participate in the worst atrocities of the Jim Crow South. Take lynching, for example. Southern newspapers would often print directions to a lynching. And because a lynching would be planned and organized in advance, weekly newspapers could inform the people about a location and time for a lynching.

When it came to the Northern papers, newspapers tried to craft a narrative that lynching and other forms of oppression against African Americans were legitimate and spontaneous responses of the white majority towards the shameful behavior of African Americans in the South. If a lynching took place, it was because an African American had committed a crime—often a sexual crime against a white woman. That story was calculated to incite white people in the South and in the North, and to justify whatever actions the local community took. 

The Defender was there to counteract those stories with truth: to say a rape never took place, the white woman that people said was involved was not involved or was not telling the truth. You can look for example at the Emmett Till case in 1955. At the time, a woman that said Emmett Till whistled at her. This caused her husband and another man to kidnap this fourteen-year-old boy from Chicago and murder him in the most brutal way. It was an issue of national outrage and caused all sorts of turmoil. In the South, it galvanized white people to support the two men, so that when there were state trials about this kidnapping and murder, they were found not-guilty. 

The Defender was there to print the picture of Emmett Till’s body, and disprove the claims that white propaganda and the white newspapers were putting out. The Defender was there to say that there’s a different story and you need to focus on the body of this young man and try to understand why anyone would do anything like this to a fourteen-year-old boy.

When the majority of African Americans lived in the South, the newspaper remained focused on it. As African Americans began to move to the North, the paper expanded its orientation to include not just the atrocities but also the opportunities for African Americans to get involved in projects of political empowerment. The Defender became very focused on Northern African Americans’ organization and political gains—getting folks from their community elected to local office at first, and then to state and national offices.

The newspaper was also printing the economic opportunities available for African Americans. They were printing stories of accomplishment in order to encourage other African Americans. For instance, The Defender published a stories about Madam C.J. Walker, who was one of the first African American millionaires. She made a lot of money from selling haircare products and other cosmetics. Today, this seems like a normal story to run, but back then it was very exciting on every level. Here was an African American woman creating products for African American women. These were specialized beauty products that hadn’t been available to African American women who really only had items that were available to white folks. For all those reasons, a story about an African American woman becoming rich was also part of that counter-propaganda effort. 

Given our current political climate, it seems as if there’s this tension between what has changed and what hasn’t. In many ways the world has changed radically since Robert Abbott’s time, but there’s also this persistent problem of racial injustice and prejudice. Given that tension, how do you imagine the role of The Defender today? 

Well I’ll just differ with your question slightly and say that I think Robert Abbott would have recognized a lot of what’s going on today. I think that he would have been thrilled that there was an African American president because he was part of this nascent effort, which began all the way at the 1893 World’s Fair. It was there that the great Frederick Douglass gathered together a new generation of African American intellectuals; they had a political project in mind. And you could say that the end result of that project was getting Barack Obama elected president more than 100 years later. So I think he would have been thrilled with that.

Above all else, I think he would have been disappointed in other ways with the level of progress that we’ve made. But more than all that, I think that he would have understood our transitioning media climate because he was around at a time in which newspapers were transitioning from being a boutique enterprise—we would call it artisanal today. Technology dictated that each newspaper essentially had to be “handcrafted.” In most cases, the printing process required you to handcraft the type: You could sometimes use old blocks, but most of the time you had to make them fresh for each newspaper. That meant was that newspapers were expensive to produce, and you couldn’t produce large numbers.

By the turn of the twentieth century, they had these new devices called linotype machines, which were basically early typewriters that made printing faster and more readily available to the average person. And suddenly you could show up with a few handwritten pages at your local print shop, and you could produce papers for a just a few dollars. That technological shift suddenly made newspapers available to the broader public. That’s the Hearst and Pulitzer era, where newspapers are starting to use big-typeface headlines, which was considered a very gauche invention at the time. For the first time, they’re arranging their newspapers into sections— before that newspapers had just been long columns of articles, mixed together on the same page, without a consistent method of differentiating news from commentary or editorial opinion.

Robert Abbott understood that media was in this transformational moment, and I think we’re in the exact same situation today. Modern media is and is becoming very different. Those who are quick to master the new forms of media have a lot of power.

We saw that exertion of power in this election with Donald Trump using Twitter to essentially outmaneuver traditional media and political operations in both parties. A Twitterfeed defeated seventeen other Republicans and the Democratic party. That’s something that Robert Abbott would have understood: the power of media and the way in which media works. He would have understood the changes that come when information is suddenly available to everybody in a totally different way. He would have been both determined and very excited to make use of the new technology for African Americans and for the struggle of African Americans for equality.

A Twitterfeed defeated seventeen other Republicans and the Democratic party. That’s something that Robert Abbott would have understood.  

Given this transformation of media, what do you think about the specific institution of the newspaper—do you think there’s something unique and important about the newspaper that warrants its preservation? 

You know I love the feel of the newspaper— the paper, the smell of the ink, the whole presentation—I find it very rich and powerful. But it’s not fast enough. I can’t wait 45 minutes to get the news from television or radio, let alone four or five hours until the newspaper comes out. We’re in a different moment where information is available almost instantaneously, and people have come to expect that now. How does the newspaper adapt to that? I’m not sure. Perhaps the newspaper will remain as a format for more contemplative, commentary-oriented, analytical, content that requires time.

But I don’t really think that we should romanticize what was essentially a utilitarian art form. And the newspaper is certainly art— arranging things on the page can be beautiful as well as useful. But newspapers had a purpose, and the purpose was to get the news out to people. And if the news can be delivered to people in a better way—in a way they like better and is faster and gets more words out there— I can’t say: No, we should hang onto our newspapers because it’s made of paper. I don’t want to predict that they’ll disappear because I think that there could be a role still, but it’s a different role than they had in the past. 

In your recent interview with The Chicago Tribune, you described The Defender as not so much an actor in history, but as a “counter-propaganda vehicle” or “antidote to misinformation” when free speech was limited below the Mason-Dixon Line. Do you see a similar need for counter-propaganda today?

Yes, but it’s not really changed. We’ve always had a media universe saturated by propaganda. There’s almost like a filter that goes over most of the media when it comes to race. And if you read The Defender in the 1920s, it feels very modern. The language is mostly respectful towards women, African Americans, and other minority groups. It reads in a way that we could kind of understand. If you read The Chicago Tribune in the 1920s, you cringe because of the racist, sexist language, its general bias against minorities, minority religions, and even towards Catholics. The newspaper wasn’t particularly respectful. I don’t think that people understand how much our media already has these baked-in biases.

For example, when it comes to public housing in Chicago, there was a real effort to say that, “These buildings are terrible places, all the residents that live there are part of a toxic community, and we must destroy the building for the good of the residents.” The newspapers had half the population thinking that the residents were there as “Welfare Queens” living in welfare palaces. Meanwhile they had convinced the other half of the population that these buildings were prisons for low-income African Americans. Neither was the truth, and neither really took into account the perspective of the residents themselves, who looked at it as not very good housing, but housing that they could afford. And given the options of housing that they had out there, it was better than the other options that they had, so it was a very pragmatic decision.

Except for the work that we did with Residents’ Journal, none of that was reported. Many progressive types didn’t give the demolition of public housing in Chicago a second thought. Now, ten to fifteen years, after we demolished the buildings in Chicago, there’s suddenly a housing crisis for low-income people; suddenly there’s all of these problems for folks that can’t be properly housed, let alone some not housed at all.

The propaganda had a purpose. The purpose was achieved, and people stopped paying attention. You need to have news organizations that are telling the whole story, the full story, and looking at every aspect of what’s happening. Otherwise you’re just going to keep getting in these situations where you think you’re making a change for the good, but it’s really just making things more complicated, if not worse. So that’s where propaganda is bad—it serves the interest of a certain group and not the general society. That’s why we desperately need counter-propaganda to get ourselves on the right track. 

Do you see social media as a useful tool in counter-propaganda? 

It can be. Media in general is mediating information, right? It’s definitely something that can be used to very quickly distribute the correct story to a large population. But it also can very quickly distribute the wrong story. There was a horrible shooting in Quebec a couple of days ago. Fox News—a legitimate news source, or self-proclaimed legitimate news source—reported that the shooter was of Moroccan descent and a lot of people took that as the truth. The government of Canada had to ask Fox News to take that post down because the shooter was not of Moroccan descent, he was French-Canadian. Fox News perpetuated that idea that the shooter was someone of Moroccan descent despite the facts. Once people have decided they understand what’s going on, it is very difficult to counteract the falsehood because people stop paying attention to the story. Changing an established understanding is twice as difficult as getting it right the first time.

I think social media is very important–and there’s something very electric about it. Social media is so powerful and I don’t think we’ve even begun to tap its potential for human connectivity. But that connectivity needs to be about truth and not about falsehood. 

Changing an established understanding is twice as difficult as getting it right the first time.

After working at The Defender, you said that the paper “filled in the blanks left by the textbooks of my youth.” In many ways, your book serves as a tool to fill in some of those historical gaps by providing the history of The Defender. As we move farther into the digital age, how might we do journalism in a way that prevents these gaps from persisting? 

I think now is a very interesting moment for journalism. For a long time, I have thought that most journalists are not really fulfilling their responsibilities. They will get a press release from a public official, and they’ll put it out there without checking anything.

Furthermore, they don’t follow the money, which is a rule that I learned very early on which has proven to be essential in figuring out what people’s motives are. A lot of times it’s very difficult to understand why a certain political leader is making a certain set of decisions until you trace those back. Sometimes the motives are not corrupt financial motives, and sometimes they are. Unless you understand them financially, legislation don’t really make sense: You don’t really know why this legislation is being proposed, or why it’s being proposed in this way, or why somebody’s opposing something in a certain way.

I think that if journalists stop believing powerful people just because they have power, we’ll be in a good place. I think that the media universe is broad, but has definite trends and definite connections. And the people who populate that media universe definitely have connections with one another and those connections shape their careers and the way they look at things.

If we’re at a moment now where journalism has a feeling of stepped-up, heightened responsibility, then good. Journalists need to feel responsible. Media has been lazy, weak, unquestioning, and uncritical for too long. To put it bluntly, it’s good that Donald Trump and his administration makes journalists question things more thoroughly. They should have been doing that already.

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