Les Payne’s Too-Quiet Departure

Les Payne’s Too-Quiet Departure

A legendary African-American journalist is cast off by Newsday, and the profession is poorer for it.


With scant warning and no praise, the management of Newsday last week cast off the column by Les Payne from its opinion pages after a twenty-eight-year run. Undoubtedly, the column’s disappearance is mixed in with a collapse of the news business in general and the budget cuts faced by Newsday and most of its peers. Yet I am driven to provide some context in this special case about a man whose vision guided Newsday‘s journalistic and moral compass. Les Payne deserves a far better sendoff.

Payne stepped back from his day-to-day duties at Newsday in 2006 after more than three decades, having served as associate editor, local and national reporter and foreign correspondent. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for detailing the heroin trail from Turkey to the United States and had one snatched away after being chosen to win for his reporting from Soweto at the height of South African apartheid. He was national editor, assistant managing editor for foreign and national news, and, at various times on his watch, he was in charge–often concurrently–of health and science coverage, New York City, Washington, politics, foreign reporting and investigations at Newsday, when the newspaper–now eviscerated by rounds of cutbacks and mismanagement–was one of the great newspapers in the country. Reporters under his purview won six Pulitzers and all the other top awards in journalism.

He was the conscience and unacknowledged leader of the Newsday that was, and some of us protested loudly when a higher-up passed over Les and chose someone else as managing editor a number of years back; in terms of leadership, journalist skills, mentoring, excellence and savvy, he should have been the only choice.

A founder and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, Payne was once described as the best and most influential African-American editor and columnist in the United States. True enough, but the statement unduly confines the scope of his influence. He continues to set an example by speaking out against racism and injustice everywhere, and above all he stands for the highest goals, values and aspirations of American journalism.

Murray Kempton once described Payne to Jack Newfield, of the Village Voice, this way: “Les is a great editor because he is his own man. It never seems to enter his mind that there might be an institutional policy about something. Les refuses to worry about what anyone else might think about him. He acts like he is nobody’s subordinate. And he acts like he has no subordinates below him. He has a perfect sense of equality.”

Payne encouraged a generation of editors and reporters like me to dig deeper and never be satisfied with what they were hearing, or what others are reporting. Reporters are bad at math and worse at economics, he instructed, so always look for the profit stream and count the bodies.

By the time I was appointed foreign editor, I’d already taken good counsel. Payne emphasizes the basics–search out the telling details overlooked. Under his tutelage and persistence, I went down to cover the 1989 US invasion of Panama and started looking into the basis for US claims that about 300 Panamanians were killed. There was no basis–the head of the operation was a Panamanian forensics man fresh back from falsifying the number of deaths in Argentina’s dirty war. I saw evidence that hundreds more Panamanians might have been killed, the evidence buried.

Payne set an example by leaving the desk once in a while–echoing the words of H.L. Mencken that editors and editorial writers sit on their… laurels too often back in the office. He and I drove up to Dutchess County, New York, one weekend in 1987 to report out the story of Tawana Brawley, a young woman who said she had been kidnapped and sexually abused by a group of white men, including a county prosecutor, then left lying in a garbage bag. A group of black lawyers and activists, including Rev. Al Sharpton, had taken up her cause. In the end, Payne uncovered the smaller, real story of a frightened, confused teenager who had spun a web of lies and–under the glare of media and the law–got caught up in them. Initially, he received a storm of criticism, especially from folks that didn’t want the facts to be the way they were. His disclosures on the spectacular story–as in Soweto, the guerrilla war in Zimbabwe, the Patty Hearst saga and others–once again enlightened.

I applied the Payne theory when the first intifada began in the West Bank and our reporters were providing detailed, balanced and tough reporting about Israeli policy toward the Palestinians–never more tough, by the way, than what was appearing nightly in independent Israeli newspapers. Payne provided support, inspiration and strong shoulders to hold back the worst instincts at the newspaper that would have caved in and not let us report rigorously. With the largest Jewish readership outside Israel, we were taking lots of criticism, as if they expected us to abandon our craft and take sides in the conflict.

One day, an Israeli press spokesman found out somehow–likely from a source inside the newsroom–that I was editing a story that said Israeli soldiers used a backhoe to bury two Palestinian protesters alive. “The reporter saw it with her own eyes,” I told the spokesman. He replied: “As a fellow Jew, I have to ask you not to publish it–it’s not good for the Jews.” I hung up the phone and kept working, knowing that Payne would provide cover.

He taught all of us, and continues to teach in all venues he appears, that the truth is always the best of all possible worlds. I still operate under the simple mantra that was emblazoned prominently in his office–one that guided his approach to column-writing as well: “Don’t pull your punches, tell the truth and duck.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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