It was around noon on Tuesday, Feb. 10, that I checked my cell phone messages after participating in an intense executive seminar all morning. One of the messages was from Corey Ealons, director of African American media during President Obama's transition, who still works in a similar role at the White House.
Corey was asking me to call him immediately. The urgency in his voice befuddled me. After all, this was the White House calling.
When I reached him, I immediately knew the conversation would be intense. He was asking why I had said the Black Press was treated as "window dressing" at President Obama's first press conference the night before. I knew I had made the remark in a private conversation with three of my Black Press colleagues, but I couldn't figure out how Corey knew it.
Finally, he said, "Hazel, you don't know?"
"Know what, Corey?!" I paced the sidewalk outside the Marvin Center at George Washington University where my seminar had taken place.
He continued, "You don't know about this article in the Washington Times this morning quoting you as saying the Black Press was treated as 'nothing more than window dressing' at last night's press conference?"
Then, I remembered, a Washington Times reporter had approached me and asked me my name as I sat down on the front row in front of the podium where President Obama was about to speak. Thinking little of it, I gave him my name; then waited for the President's first press conference to begin.
The East Room of the White House was a familiar setting to me. I'd been there many times over the past eight years, covering events of the Bush Administration. Unfortunately, by the end of the press conference, still sitting on the front row with my unasked and unanswered question on my reporter's pad, there was something else that was all too familiar. Not one member of the Black Press was called upon for a question.
I had stood to leave when I suddenly found myself in the company of three other Black Press reporters -- NNPA columnist George Curry, Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes and American Urban Radio White House Correspondent April Ryan. The frank and honest private conversation that ensued led me to speak truth as I saw it.
"We were window dressing," I said. "We were nothing more than window dressing."
Unbeknownst to me, the same Washington Times reporter – who I now know as Joe Curl - who had asked my name before the press conference, was listening to our conversation. And there I was the next morning quoted in an article headlined "Obama Snubs Black Press."
Isn't that a twist? The press is caught off the record!
Notwithstanding the rogue article that intentionally or unintentionally gave the false appearance that I had been interviewed by the paper, I quickly made it clear to Corey Ealons that I had in fact made the "window dressing" comment. And this is the reason why:
Since 1827, the Black Press of America – now more than 200 Black-owned newspapers, 15 million readers across the nation – has fought with the pen for this moment in history. From the anti-slavery editorials of the North Star's Frederick Douglass to the anti-lynching campaigns of the Memphis Free Speech's Ida B. Wells to legendary Chicago Defender White House Correspondent Ethyl Payne to those modern day Black Press journalists who toil daily, we have long been the conscience of America.
Currently demanding answers on such issues as the survival of historically Black colleges, the racially disparate disease and homicide death rates, the skyrocketing Black unemployment rate and the disparate rate of police killings and profiling in Black communities, Black Press reporters have pursued journalistic excellence by raising questions from the heart of America, questions that illuminate America's creed that "all men are created equal."
We have sacrificed the salaries of The New York Times and The Washington Posts in order to serve a loyal and specific audience that have long depended on us for the truth and to hold America accountable. We have delivered -- even demanding the fair election of America's first Black president and then celebrating it in an inaugural gala.
I worked for newspapers of the Black Press of America for 11 years before being awarded graduate school entry to Harvard University - the President's Alma Mater - because of my impactful reporting for the Black Press. That fete alone leads me to think in the words of heroic suffragist Sojourner Truth, "Ain't I" a reporter? Must we in the Black Press sit forever silent on the back rows - or the front rows - of the White House as if we are waiters at the head of our own table? The answer is no, we will not be treated as three-fifths of a journalist by any White House.
On Oct. 15, 2001, the NNPA News Service published an article headlined, "White House Holds Whites-Only Press Conference." It described the scene in which reporters of color from various cultures were relegated to the left side of the East Room and were not allowed to ask questions while Bush called on 10 White reporters sitting before us.
To the contrary, President Obama and his White House press staff have shown themselves to have quite the opposite mindset. Thanks to the ingenuity and integrity of Corey Ealons and then President-elect Obama, I conducted an exclusive interview with the President-elect during his historic Whistle Stop train tour.
Since that candid conversation, America has observed its first Black president as laborious and strong as he shoulders the weight of the crisis that was left behind by the Bush Administration. Editorial pages of our papers are supporting him and rooting him on as Black people approach unemployment rates in the teens.
Although we anticipate reporting – step by step – how he maneuvers the political mine fields ahead, we refuse to let him shoulder this crisis alone. In fact, if the voices of Black newspapers – which were founded amidst crisis - are not now shouting louder than ever, then we will leave him as the first Black president to single-handedly carry the burden of repairing unequal justice.
In this regard, we are sure that President Obama recognizes the importance of our questions, the integrity of our journalistic pens and that his heart is to deal with us with fairness…We are sure.
As for that rogue article in the conservative Washington Times, well it's like "water under the bridge" as they say, although the paper's editors Chris Dolan and John Solomon failed to exercise the common decency or professional courtesy of returning my phone calls.
I had to know how this happened. Therefore, I called the reporter himself, Joe Curl, a seasoned White House correspondent, who I quite frankly enjoyed talking with.
He explained to me that he had been assigned to what he described as "political theatre - what happens in that room and try to capture all the things that went on there."
I explained to him that this so-called ''political theatre,'' for me, is a new kind of reporting in which anything is fair game for a good quote – even the private conversation of his unsuspecting colleagues.
"We were all kind of mashed together in a group of people moving out," he recalled. "So, it may not have seemed like we were talking directly to each other but I was talking with April and I don't know if I said anything directly to you or not."
Well, let the record show that he didn't say anything directly to me after the press conference. He simply blended in with the crowd.
But, the Black Press will never blend in with the crowd. We didn't when we for decades raised our voices for the election of Black politicians across this country. And in the recent words of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, we will continue to "speak truth to power no matter what color power is."
From city halls to state houses to the White House, we will do so with unbridled vigor and honesty without exception. But, we will also do so - through our questions - with fairness and equity. We insist on nothing less than the same.
Hazel Trice Edney is editor-in-chief of the NNPA News Service and Blackpressusa.com.