Wesley Lowery sounds a little cynical when he talks about the vaunted history of The Philadelphia Inquirer, with its dozens of Pulitzer Prizes and its reputation as a crusading newspaper.
“There’s been no lack of self-mythologizing by the great white men of The Philadelphia Inquirer,” the former Washington Post reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner told me Saturday.
Lowery has spent the past several months digging out a very different story. A story of how the paper has failed its city in many ways.
“Rather than being an ‘inquirer for all,’ as its motto proudly claims, the paper has for the whole of its history been written largely for and by white Philadelphians, and largely at the expense of the Black residents who currently constitute a plurality of the city,” the story states.
Under the headline “Black City, White Paper,” Lowery’s 6,400-word exploration of this history was published online Tuesday and will be in print on Sunday. It is the first installment in a larger project at the Inquirer, “A More Perfect Union,” that will roll out over the remainder of this year.
“We’re also considering what it means that Philadelphia is the birthplace of institutions like the first hospital, penitentiary, university and library system — all of which have a huge and lasting legacy on our country today and where inequality persists,” said Errin Haines, the project’s leader and founding editor at large for the 19th, a nonprofit newsroom focused on gender and politics. Like Lowery, Haines is not an Inquirer staffer. She lives in Philadelphia and serves on the board of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, the nonprofit organization that owns the Inquirer and gave significant funding to this project.
It’s notable — and brave — that the paper’s publisher and top editors were entirely hands-off with this investigation. They believed that their noninvolvement was a necessity, for credibility’s sake. Haines told me they kept their promise and left the project in her hands.
“If we’re going to be holding institutions accountable, it seems right to look at ourselves first,” Gabriel Escobar, the paper’s editor, told me last week — though he acknowledged “it is very scary” to be publishing a major project that he hadn’t reviewed in advance.
Escobar, who joined the Inquirer a decade ago, was appointed editor in late 2020. His predecessor, Stan Wischnowski, resigned earlier that year, soon after a brutal staff meeting and a sickout in which many Inquirer staffers stayed home to protest racism inside the paper and in its coverage — a chain of events set off by a headline that, in the midst of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, seemed to equate the value of storefront windows with Black lives: “Buildings Matter, Too.”
Nearly two years later, the fallout from the summer of 2020 continues in newsrooms across the country. At The Washington Post, the Newspaper Guild labor union that year called on management to adopt 11 proposals to address disparities in hiring, promotion, pay, training and retention of minority employees; the paper has made progress, but it’s safe to say that there’s plenty of work left to be done.
A few large newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Kansas City Star, have published investigations of their own failures, both in coverage and in their internal practices; in some cases, they have apologized to their communities.
“We were inspired by the critical self-examinations done by other news organizations but also wanted to go a step further,” Inquirer Publisher Lisa Hughes told me. It’s a part of the paper’s pledge, as expressed in Lowery’s piece, “to be an anti-racist institution.”
Lowery sees “this so-called reckoning” as a way of “looking our failures squarely in the face,” he told me. His investigation details the paper’s on-again, off-again efforts to diversify its staff. In the decades after hiring its first full-time Black staff reporter in 1954, it made progress but not nearly enough.
The piece is full of appalling anecdotes. One early Black staffer, Acel Moore, “had to take an Inquirer editor outside and explain that he would not be responding to ‘boy.’ “
In 1978, Black reporter Maida Odom wrote a feature story that ended up with an editor’s byline on it instead of hers. “When she demanded to know how this happened, Odom was told the copy desk assumed her editor had written the piece,” Lowery reported. Years later, when she raised objections to another reporter laying claim to one of her scoops, an editor described her outrage as “Aunt Jemima goes to war.”
Lowery interviewed more than 75 people, including non-journalists in Philadelphia, such as the Rev. Mark Tyler, senior pastor at Mother Bethel AME Church, who was blunt in his criticism.
“When you talk to regular Black Philadelphians, if you ask them ‘Does the Inquirer speak for you? Does it speak for your community?’, most Black Philadelphians will say no,” Tyler said. “I don’t know if the Inquirer is capable of the change that is needed, just like I don’t know that America is capable of the change that is needed. But I desperately hope that it is.”
Lowery is not at all certain that even the most tough-minded internal investigations can heal the wounds.
“The Inquirer has been as aggressive as anybody in trying to do the work now,” he told me. But he has doubts about the relationship between community and newspaper, not only in Philadelphia but in cities and regions across the country. “Sometimes harm has happened, and it can be hard to grapple with the fact that we can’t fix this,” he said.
True enough. But it’s inspiring to see the Inquirer and others put so much muscle into trying.