This Brave Congressman Taught Me How to Break News

(Major R. Owens | Source: Getty via BET)

I first learned how to break news from Major R. Owens, a canny yet noble fighter for economic and social justice who served 12 terms in Congress and died last week.

My lesson came one Saturday morning in 1982, when Owens had won the Democratic primary election in his bid to succeed the retiring Rep. Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn’s historic Bedford-Stuyvesant district.

No discouragement could make a man like this relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim and, through his example, a teacher, not only for blacks but for people like me.

Walking into the Brooklyn Board of Elections as a Village Voice writer, I found supporters of Owens’ primary opponent, the equally canny but deeply corrupt Vander Beatty, “checking” voter registration cards in that election, which Owens had just won by 2,000 votes.

A Tennessee native and graduate of the famed black Morehouse College who’d come North to be a librarian, Owens was drawn to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and to Great Society politics in the late 1960s, serving New York Mayor John Lindsay as an administrator of Community Action Programs, before founding and leading the Central Brooklyn Mobilization and winning a state senate seat.

His opponent, Beatty, also a state senator in the same congressional district, was a classic “povertician” whose anti-racist rhetoric disguised his subservience to the corrupt, mostly white Democratic Party machine. Beatty had beguiled New York’s white elite, including New York Times editorial board member Roger Starr, to give him that paper’s misguided endorsement.

Under the circumstances, Owens’ primary victory had been a true “mobilization,” but Beatty didn’t intend to accept it. His assistants at the Board of Elections that Saturday morning weren’t just “checking” the voter-registration cards looking for fraud: They were creating fraud by forging signatures on cards they were supposedly checking. Beatty’s lawyers would then submit these forgeries to a judge as evidence that Owens had rigged the votes on Election Day, suing to invalidate Owens’ victory in state courts run by Beatty’s patrons in the Brooklyn Democratic machine.

I hadn’t just stumbled upon these shenanigans. A political operative who knew people on both sides called to tip me off. A Voice cover story of mine on Beatty’s long record of corruption, published before the primary, had played a role in Owens’ victory. All that my contact had to say on the phone was, “Get your ass down to the Board of Elections and see what the Beatty people are doing.”

I’d already had to defend my expose of Beatty on the local NPR station, WNYC, just before the election. One vehement Beatty supporter who called in to argue that my story was an example of white manipulation of the election was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who I’d later get to know very well.

If I hadn’t rushed down to the Board that Saturday knowing what to expect when I arrived, Beatty would have won his suit in Brooklyn’s compliant (indeed, complicit), machine-dominated judiciary. And black politics in Shirley Chisholm’s district would have taken an emblematically disastrous turn.

So a lot was at stake in my new Voice story about what I found. “Look at it this way,” said my tipster, whom I quoted anonymously: “Beatty is either going to jail or he’s going to Congress.”

The party machine’s judges did rule for Beatty in the local and appellate courts. But then the TimesSydney Schanberg read my stories and alerted the rest of the world in his op-ed page column. The Democratic Party and the courts began to bend toward doing what they’d supposedly been established to do in the first place. New York’s highest court overturned the rulings against Owens, who said that until that moment, throughout his months-long post-election ordeal, he’d felt as if he’d been living in Mississippi.

Owens served honorably in Congress and retired in 2006. Beatty was convicted in federal court a few years later on corruption unrelated to his election scheme. In 1990, he was assassinated by a non-political rival. It’s all in the stories linked here, including a memorable flyer that helped Owens win the primary.

The experience of trying for months to alert others to Beatty’s malfeasance taught me something important about journalistic storytelling: Even bona-fide scoops may not interest most news media if a story comes from the wrong side of the tracks and its larger implications aren’t made bluntly clear.

Every real truth-teller, including Owens, has to persist doggedly against seemingly impregnable conventional wisdom and indifference. Sometimes only a true fighter or advocacy journalist will keep at it, determined to get the truth out against others’ selfishness, prejudice, or apathy.

Even a highly professional journalist may not have the motivation or adequate resources; too often those with the most resources are also the most comfortable with the powerful, preferring “access” journalism to “accountability” journalism, as the veteran business reporter Dean Starkman explains unforgettably in his forthcoming The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, about how the business press missed the meltdown of 2008.

I learned, too, that even persistence can fail if an activist or writer hasn’t enough historical memory and good judgment to find the “story” in a deluge of impressions. People will resist facing even incontrovertible evidence if its implications run against their immediate interests and therefore seem to them to “make no sense.”

That’s when readers most need an interpretive and compelling story line to explain why the facts matter. They have to trust the journalist to “break” not only news but interpretations of it that are strong enough to break through all the noise and propaganda.

In the Beatty case, selling the story meant shattering elite whites’ acceptance of black corruption—whether out of guilt or their own corruption—by persuading readers of the desperate need for reformers like Owens. If Sydney Schanberg hadn’t done that at the Times, the Voice stories that prompted him might have been ineffectual.

Were this story unfolding today, would a Twitter strategy by the Owens camp about the scam underway at the Brooklyn Board of Elections have accomplished what only an investigative reporter like me could in 1982? Maybe, but only if Owens volunteers were trained and organized to do more than just swoop down on the Board where they’d probably have gotten into fights with the Beatty operatives who were forging signatures.

Even then, there’d have been a need for well-informed, credible reporting to sort out the mess for the larger society that, wittingly or not, had a stake in the outcome.

At bottom, it took Owens himself, to brave the years of marginalization and discouragement he faced, with a love and vision of justice woven so deeply into his character that he stayed valiant against all disaster.

It always comes down to that: No discouragement could make a man like this relent his first avowed intent to be a pilgrim and, through his example, a teacher, not only for blacks but for people like me.

Jim Sleeper lectures in political science at Yale. He has been a New York newspaper columnist and is the author of The Closest of Strangers and Liberal Racism.

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