Sullivan Reckoning with racism must be focus for local media

Without local newspapers, the coverage of tragedies such as Buffalo, will be brief and fleeting.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

BUFFALO, N.Y. — When a gunman opened fire at a Buffalo supermarket May 14, I tried to help The Washington Post find a local freelance journalist to start covering the story while editors scrambled to get our own reporters to the terrible scene. As a Western New York native who worked at the Buffalo News for decades, I was pretty well positioned to be a scout.

I texted one former colleague who told me he would check to see if he could take an outside assignment. The response came back quickly:

“Denise said no.”

Buffalo News deputy managing editor Denise Jewell Gee made the right call, of course. This was an all-hands-on-deck moment for the paper, which has acquitted itself well. It has broken news about the massacre while providing a stream of vivid reporting and heartfelt commentary. The News even delivered thousands of free papers to the city’s East Side where 10 Black people were murdered and three other people were injured in what’s been aptly described as a racially motivated domestic terrorist attack.

Watching this astonishing coverage over the past week, I couldn’t help thinking how much the Buffalo area would lose if its daily newspaper were to fall into the hands of the rapacious hedge fund that wants to buy the company that owns it. The newsroom staff, already significantly smaller than it once was 15 years ago, would no doubt be cut to the bone, as has happened at virtually every paper across the country that this hedge fund has devoured.

That fate must be resisted, at all costs. But it’s not the only challenge that journalists in Buffalo — and everywhere else — must take on.

Local news needs to take a harder and more sustained look than ever before at the ugly inequality that the massacre exposed.

The suspect “did not pick a Tops in Amherst or Lancaster or Orchard Park,” wrote News columnist Rod Watson, ticking off the names of some of Buffalo’s whitest suburbs. No, the East Side supermarket was chosen, apparently, for one simple reason: “The ZIP code has the highest percentage of Blacks of any neighborhood within reasonable driving distance of his home.”

Why is Buffalo among the most segregated cities in the nation? In part it’s because in the 1950s and 1960s, the city fathers decided to build an expressway — a brutally efficient path from downtown offices to the growing suburbs — that effectively cut off the Black community from the rest of the community. It destroyed a beautiful parkway designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and broke the back of Buffalo’s then-growing Black middle class.

The effects of this and other decisions like it — where to build a new pro football stadium? where to develop a huge new campus for the University of Buffalo? — have been profound. Because every one of those decisions directed the flow of dollars to places far from the inner city, deep into the grassy, monochromatic suburbs.

Predominantly Black neighborhoods in Buffalo suffer not only from endemic poverty but from “under-investment and over-policing,” wrote Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post, a Buffalo-based nonprofit news site, this week. They also suffer from too little sustained attention from local media, which has covered these issues spottily at best.

It’s not that these topics and these neighborhoods get no coverage, or no support from commentators or editorial pages. But it hasn’t been nearly enough, and that goes back a long way. The Buffalo News — like the region’s civic leadership — didn’t seem to have the best interests of the Black community as a top priority as decisions were being made about the expressway, the football stadium and the university.

In more recent years, there has been strong investigative reporting about public-school inequity and about the high cost of being poor, but also episodes of neglect and bad judgment. Now, hamstrung by budget cuts and with fewer reporters to do the digging, local media simply doesn’t pay enough attention to following the money at City Hall or to the floundering city schools. There’s too little accountability. Not enough of the all-important watchdog role.

That should change. It’s hard to imagine what coverage areas could be more important.

Journalism, of course, is only one part of what needs to happen, as India Walton, the democratic socialist who made a surprisingly strong run for Buffalo mayor last year, pointed out last week.

“We live in communities that have been redlined, people who have been intentionally left out of our economic system, people who have been preyed on, extracted from,” she told Democracy Now, as she called for bold, reparative change across the country as well as in Buffalo.

Last week’s sickening tragedy — driven by racism and aided by the results of racism — should be a blaring wake-up call. It will come too late for those who died but perhaps in time to improve the lives that remain.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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