How The Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond Story Grew Legs and Crushed a Political Career

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A Lesson in New Web Journalism and Political Activism

Editor’s Note: In December, 2002, I was on the payroll of The New York Times National Desk operating from my duplex on Plum Street, two blocks from the Carrollton Avenue street car line in New Orleans, Uptown, when the Trent Lott story broke, bringing to an end to the rise in national politics of one of the South’s most prominent, conservative Republican Senators. Much has been made of this case study in the power of the new Web Press to influence both the traditional, national news media — and the direction of politics itself. This is my original contribution to this important story in the history of Web publishing, as well as the academic field of media influence on politics and public opinion. I publish it today because it is time.

“I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”
Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, Dec. 5, 2002

“On December 20, 2002, after significant controversy following comments regarding Strom Thurmond’s presidential candidacy, Lott resigned as Senate Minority Leader. In December 2007, he resigned from the Senate and became a Washington-based lobbyist.”
Wikipedia

by Glynn Wilson

On December 5, 2002, about the time Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was making the remarks that would bring him down at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party in Washington, D.C., I was in New Orleans sending an e-mail message to the brand new New York Times correspondent in Atlanta, David Halbfinger, pitching a story on the Alabama Ride to Freedom bus tour planned for January, according to my old Outlook Express e-mail archive. It goes back all the way to the 1990s, and is still on occasion a useful and reliable research tool.

Halbfinger and I never got to do that bus ride story together. But for the next few months, we would work on a number of stories. I also worked with the other more experienced Times correspondent in the South at the time, Jeffrey Gettleman, as well as Rick Bragg and a number of others. If either one of those guys had known what I knew about the history of Civil Rights struggles in the South, perhaps we could have done that bus ride story justice, especially since I was working a lot with photographer Spider Martin at the time. He was sitting on one of the most important collections of photographs from that era at his place atop the mountain in Blount County, Alabama, where I often stayed while working on stories in my home state for the Times and the Christian Science Monitor.

When the Lott story broke, it may not have caused a firestorm of publicity right away. But within only 15 days, Lott was gone and his rising political ambitions went stone cold dead.

Because of my academic research experience as well as the fact that I was one of the reporters who worked the story for the Times — in fact doing critical investigative work that was as important as anything done by the bloggers or television news in the battle — I have my own unique perspective on what went down and what it all means. But in part because I was a free-lance reporter for the Times and was never properly credited for my work on that story, along with many others, the academics in New York who used this story to make a name for themselves ignored my attempts to comment and provide some perspective for their research.

Due to events in my home state these days, with another conservative Republican politician under fire for racially charged remarks, I thought it would be a good time to put this story out there for Google and Facebook — so it does not get lost to history forever.

To me, it is an important lesson for bloggers trying to influence the mass media and public affairs — and for activists who are trying to change the country and the state for the better.

See the full story below…

Background

According to the official media and academic lore on the story, Lott’s initial remarks “caused a certain frisson among the party-goers, (but) they were not picked up in mainstream media reports of the occasion,” according to John Naughton of The (UK) Observer, who write a piece about it under the headline: Power to the bloggers? That’s only half the story.

“The one exception was ABC News, which happened to have an observant young news reporter named Ed O’Keefe at the party,” Naughton wrote. “His organisation ran a small piece about it, but got no reaction. The story effectively died. Life inside the Beltway went on as before, and in the normal course of events Senator Lott would have been re-elected Majority Leader.”

Jay Rosen echoed this theme two days later on an academic blog about the press at New York University. He wrote a post about it on March, 15, 2004, under the headline: The Legend of Trent Lott and the Weblogs.

There was even a Harvard study of this incident in 2005 by the Pew Research Center’s Project on Excellence in Journalism, although the link no longer works, and none of the researchers consulted me.

According to Rosen, “the report does not portray the blogs as lead actor, but as intelligent reactor to an event of neglect (similar to an act of omission) within professional newsrooms, where the story of Lott’s remarks languished and nearly died. The case study is largely about herd thinking in the press, and the illusion that ‘news’ jumps out at everyone simultaneously.”

So what happened between December 5 and December 20 that led to Lott’s resignation? How did this story “grow legs,” as we say in the news business, and lead to Lott stepping down as Majority Leader, and eventually not seeking re-election for another term?

“The answer seems to be that although the Lott story ‘died’ in the mainstream media, it was kept alive in the ‘blogosphere’ – the subculture of online diarists or bloggers which has become the net’s version of Speaker’s Corner,” according to Naughton. “The realisation of this led to a certain amount of smugness or even triumphalism in the blogging community — which includes this columnist.

“‘Look,’ we crowed, ‘this demonstrates the superiority of online discussion vis-à-vis the narrowed agendas of traditional media.’ Traditional media advocates responded by pointing out that it was not bloggers’ outrage but the crescendo of coverage in newspapers and broadcast media that motivated Bush to make his speech throwing Lott to the wolves.”

So who should get the credit for unhorsing Lott?

According to the Harvard study, which Naughton says provides “a realistic picture of how our media ecology is changing and of the emerging symbiotic relationship between mainstream journalism and blogging … the mainstream media did indeed fail to pick up on the Lott story. This was partly because most of the hacks at the party were ‘insiders’, long inured to the prejudices of politicians, but also because traditional media need some way of keeping that kind of story alive. If they can’t raise reactions from other public figures, then they have no justification (other than excessive editorial zeal) for keeping a story going.

“Bloggers, in contrast, labour under no such disadvantage,” Naughton wrote. “They can chew on a bone for as long as they like. The bone was thrown to them by a traditional reporter. But just as bloggers attend to traditional media, reporters read blogs, and it was the persistence of the story in the blogosphere that finally persuaded the big guns of US journalism to reopen it. After that, Lott was doomed.”

What’s the lesson of all this? he asks. “Bloggers and hacks need one another. Sad, but true.”

While all of this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the role of bloggers in the early days of the new technology, it totally ignores the role played at that time by the most important and powerful newspaper in American history. The blogging research is missing critical elements of the story, a story I know very well since my own academic experience involves a number of years researching media effects on politics and public opinion, not to mention three decades of experience as a reporter and writer.

What Mr. Rosen, a college professor with no real experience as a newspaper reporter, and Mr. Naughton, simply an opinion columnist and blogger, don’t seem to understand is how newspapers like the Times actually work. While there was not a massive amount of coverage of the initial remarks made by Lott, that does not mean editors and reporters weren’t looking at the story and preparing to write about it.

Because of the blogs, they just didn’t have time to get the exclusive scoop. But the Times did get the best scoop of all, the one that probably did Lott in. And they got it because of me.

What some bloggers, and some members of the public, don’t seem to understand is that investigative journalism takes a little time. You can’t unseat a corrupt or racist politician with a simple blog post calling for his resignation and a link shared with a few of your closest friends on Facebook. A real journalist has to be employed to dig.

The Role of the Times

My e-mail archives and Web research clearly indicates that the New York Times was already looking into Lott’s past. As events unfolded, Lott’s day-to-day remarks ended up putting the noose around his own head.

The bloggers may have hung the rope on the tree limb, but it was my research for the New York Times that tightened it around his neck.

Since Halbfinger was very new on the job, having been hired to head the Atlanta bureau from the New Jersey suburban desk, executive editor Howell Raines, an Alabama native, approved for national editor Nick Fox to consult with me on the story. Within a couple of days of the Lott comments, I got a tip from the new head of the journalism program at the University of Southern Mississippi, someone I had worked with while pursing a master’s degree and teaching at the University of Alabama.

A blogger didn’t get the tip. I did.

That’s one of the advantages the Times always has in these stories. They get the best tips. A lot of people knew I was free-lancing for the Times, and new I had the chops to nail it.

What my tipster told me was that the date had arrived when Mississippi Congressman William Colmer’s papers were to be opened for public viewing for the first time at the special collections library in Hattiesburg. Lott worked as Colmer’s administrative assistant in the late 1960s and became his heir apparent in Congress in the early 197Os.

When I learned about this, I figured there had to be damning information about Lott’s own racism in the documents, so I e-mailed this tidbit to the national desk. My phone rang within minutes.

“How fast can you get to Hattiesburg?” national editor Nick Fox asked.

“A couple of hours,” I said from New Orleans. “I’m on the way.”

Thinking about what I found in that library and looking back at the documents, since the original copies are still in my possession, sends chills up my spine even today. You don’t get this kind of an opportunity often in a career or a lifetime. (See document links below.)

I spent two days combing through Colmer’s papers, the first researcher to see them. No research librarian had even had a peek into the boxes at that time.

As I uncovered letter after letter from Mississippi constituents complaining about Civil Rights legislation, desegregation and busing — the big political controversies of the time — and the responses from the Congressman’s office, I knew Lott was hung. While he was saying on television that he had never been a racist in his life, he wrote letter after letter to folks in Mississippi agreeing with them on everything about the “Negro” race.

The kicker was, he initialed every letter, even the one’s written under Mr. Colmer’s name, with a big fancy “L” at the top of the page. There could be no mistake about where he stood. The documents proved it.

I knew once the Times got a story out about this on Sunday, Lott would probably have no choice but to step down.

While I was combing through Colmer’s papers in Hattiesburg, Halbfinger joined the protest and media circus in Trent Lott’s driveway on the Gulf Coast in Pascagoula (I spent quite a few days there myself). With my help, Halbfinger wrote a story from there about Lott’s attempt at an apology to keep his job.

Lott Apologizes but Won’t Yield Leadership Post

Asked on Dec. 13 in his home town of Pascagoula, Mississippi about the growing chorus of demands that he step down as Republican leader, Mr. Lott said that no senators had urged him to do so, and that some had called to say they were praying for him and to offer helpful suggestions.

“But, you know, I’m not about to resign for an accusation that I’m something I’m not,” he said.

The senator defended himself against charges of racism…

“Segregation is a stain on our nation’s soul,” Mr. Lott said, reading from a prepared text at an inn near his home here. “There’s no other way to describe it. It represents one of the lowest moments in our nation’s history, and we can never forget that.”

Although Mr. Lott’s remarks drew measured support from other Congressional Republicans, many Democrats called them unconvincing and said he should not become the next majority leader. Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus continued to call for his censure.

Mr. Lott’s lengthiest mea culpa to date came a day after President Bush rebuked him, saying, “Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong.”

The Sunday Story That Did Lott In

Even as that story was written and published, there was another story in the works for Sunday. I made copies of all the most important documents in Hattiesburg and circled and underlined all the most important passages — adding my own informative margin notes — and faxed them from my hotel in Hattiesburg to Halbfinger’s hotel in Pascagoula. I e-mailed him my “take” on the story with my analysis of the documents and how they played a role in the story and could and should be used in the paper.

When Halbfinger had time to go through what I sent him, he called me back on the cell phone.

“What do you think, David?” I asked. “Do you think we’ve got something there for a story?”

Halbfinger could hardly contain his laughter.

“Yeah, I think we’ve got something,” he said. “Head on down here to Pascagoula and we’ll get it out for Sunday.”

Below is the story that ran above the fold in the Sunday New York Times under the bylines of David Halbfinger and Jeffrey Gettleman. The decision was made between the correspondents and the editors to use the information from the letters down in the story, in part so Halbfinger and Gettleman would not have to share a byline with me, a free-lancer.

“We almost led with them,” Halbfinger told me on the phone later. The copy editor on the story told me what really happened. Prior to the Jayson Blair scandal, each department at the paper had its own policy on crediting free-lancers. The Science section never gave free-lancers bylines, unless they were a previous staff correspondent. The National Desk only gave credit, in their words to me, “When we could not have gotten the story any other way.”

In this case, I doubt the Times would have gotten that tip or had the personnel to understand library documents as fast as I did, but since they didn’t lead with the information, they conveniently omitted my name.

After checking my files while working on this version of the story, I discovered invoices for more than $1,000 for my work on the story, plus expenses. At the time, I was happy enough with the arrangement not to complain. In retrospect, perhaps I should have fought harder for credit.

While I’m sure Mr. Lott was getting tired of all the Web and TV coverage of this story, not to mention all the people and TV cameras in his driveway and encircling his house across the street from the beach, just imagine the look on his face and the feeling in his gut when the Sunday New York Times was delivered.

We could have made much more of this information if he had not stepped down five days later. There could have been another Sunday story the next week. But this pretty much ended the show for Mr. Lott.

In Lott’s Life, Long Shadows Of Segregation

For an interesting glimpse into Southern racist history, check out some of these documents.

Colmer Letters Responded to by Trent Lott

Readers are complaining about the “mixing” of races at colleges and demanding that protesters be arrested. Lott agrees with them.

Letter One

Letter One: Page Two

Letter Two

Letter Two: Page Two

Letter Three

Letter Three: Page Two

Letter Four

Letter Four: Page Two

Letter Five

Letter Five: Page Two

Letter Six: With Docs

Supporting Documents Showing Colmer’s and Lott’s Opposition to “Mixing” the Races

Document One

Document One: Page Two

More Letters

Letter Seven

Letter Seven: Page Two

Letter Eight

Letter Nine

Letter Nine: Page Two

Letter Ten

Letter Ten: Page Two

Letter Ten: Response

These are from someone calling herself “Justin Strange” of the “Patriotic American Ladies.” It’s an example of early right-wing propaganda, pressuring senators to protect the “gentile white race” from the “genocide” by the “gorilla race.”

Letter Eleven

Letter Eleven: Page Two

Letter Twelve

Lott Does Not Disagree

Letter Twelve: Response

This exchange concerns updates to the Voting Rights Act.

Letter Thirteen

Letter Thirteen: Page Two

Lott does not think African-Americans deserve consideration.

Letter Thirteen: Response

Colmer Press Releases Written by Trent Lott

These show Southern opposition to updates to the Civil Rights Act, and show anti-democratic opposition to political protests, including demands for police and military crack downs on protesters.

Press Release One

Press Release Two

Press Release Two: Page Two

Press Release Three

Press Release Three: Page Two

Read Some of the Articles from the Time for Context

Article One

Article Two

Article Two: Page Two

Article Three

Article Four

Article Four: Page Two

An Example of UPI Wire Story

In case anybody doubts the veracity of my role in this story, here are a couple of the fax notes from me to Halbfinger, followed by the e-mail exchange between me and Nick Fox.

Fax Note One

Fax Note Two

Fax Note Three

E-mail Messages

E-mail from Dec. 12, 2001

© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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