By: Richard Prince--"Journal-isms"

A white copy editor at the Patriot Ledger in Quincy, Mass., owned by what is soon to be the nation’s largest newspaper company, quit on the spot last week when his objections to printing the “N-word” on the front page were overruled.

The story in question was relatively small potatoes. “A Braintree man was held without bail Tuesday after police say he drunkenly brandished a gun and repeatedly yelled a racial slur at neighbors in a car he thought was speeding down a residential street,” began the Sept. 3 story by Joe DiFazio.

It continued: “Michael S. Kerns, 41, was arraigned in Quincy District Court on two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon, two counts of civil-rights violations, improper firearm storage and drunkenly carrying a gun as a licensed gun owner. He is due back in court Thursday for a hearing to determine if he poses a danger to the public. . . .” ” ‘You niggas think you can flip me off!’ Kerns allegedly yelled. . . .”

Jeffrey Dale (pictured), the copy editor who objected, recalled in an email, “On Sept. 3, after designing/editing two completely different sports sections for The Patriot Ledger and Brockton Enterprise, basically doing the job of two people, I did what I always do, which was walk over to the copy desk and ask if they needed any help proofing or finishing pages. The front-page editor gave me pages to proof.

“A story titled ‘Braintree man accused of brandishing gun, yelling racial slur’ was published on the front page.
“As I started to proof the story, (the second reported hate crime in our coverage area in two weeks, but the first we reported).

I noticed a couple small correx (e.g. civil rights being hyphenated), but then I got to the 5th graph, in which we published a quote that spelled out the N-word in full.

“I went to the copy desk where I was told that the decision to publish that word was already made and our hands were tied. No one on the copy desk wanted to publish it in full, yet for some reason we did. By the time I read the graph and tried to make my case, no one was left in the newsroom who could be a decision maker.

All the senior editors had left for the evening, including the copy chief Jen Wagner.[One editor said in a text message, “I have a black kid and I agreed with this printing.”]
“After giving the front-page editor my proofed pages, I went back to the sports department [where] I began to stew.

“I have worked for six papers directly and 100s of papers indirectly in my short 10-year career in the newspaper industry and I’ve NEVER EVER seen that word published in full.
“When the president called certain countries in Africa ‘shithole countries’ we used asterisks to censor his epithets. Yet we publish the N-word in full?

“I could not stand behind this work, packed my desk, and quit on the spot. I texted the copy chief, Jen Wagner, who informed me that ‘the decision wasn’t taken lightly.’ This was also the same explanation I got from managing editor Greg Mathis. . . .”

Within 24 hours, the paper reversed itself. Online, the offending sentence was changed to ‘You n***** think you can flip me off!’ Kerns allegedly yelled.”

Regardless, Dale contacted the National Association of Black Journalists and its new president, Dorothy Tucker.

Lisa Strattan, vice president of news for GateHouse New England, told Journal-isms by email, “After a deliberative process, Patriot Ledger editors arrived at the decision to spell out the racial epithet. Upon further review among a larger group the following day, we determined use of the word in full was unnecessary and offensive and we modified it online. Simply put, we were misguided and we corrected the mistake where we could.”

Last month, GateHouse and Gannett announced their intent to merge and form the largest newspaper chain in the country. GateHouse already owns 156 daily publications, operating in 612 markets across 39 states.

It is rare for mainstream newspapers to spell out the well-known racial slur. The Associated Press stylebook says of the term “N-word,” “Do not use this term or the racial slur it refers to, except in extremely rare circumstances — when it is crucial to the story or the understanding of a news event. Flag the contents in an editor’s note. See obscenities, profanities, vulgarities and race-related coverage.”

Dale says he is not assuaged by the paper’s reversal. “I don’t want my job back because the people who made that incredibly stupid decision remain in power.

“I lost all the respect for them the second they thought publishing that word would be OK,” he told Journal-isms by email.

“Maybe I’m being too hard on them. But the newsroom remains 100 percent white. Until they make changes to address their extreme lack of diversity I can’t work [for] them.”

Strattan did not respond to a question about the newsroom’s diversity. The Patriot Ledger did not participate in last year’s annual diversity survey from the American Society of News Editors.

Asked what he’ll do next, Dale replied, “I’ve started applying to jobs. One of my old colleagues from my days at The Norwalk Hour is in law school and is encouraging me to take the LSAT. I’m still pretty young, 32, so that is an option.

“But honestly, after all of this, and the conversation that I had with Dorothy Tucker who told me I can’t give up, I want to stay in the business.

“Dorothy told me ‘we need people like’ myself, which just warms my heart so much.
“It feels so good not to be alone on this. . . .”

EDITOR'S NOTE: Washington Post journalist Richard Prince occasionally submits his column "Journal-isms" to "Media Matters." Prince's "Journal-isms" originates from Washington, D.C. To check out Prince's complete "Journal-ism's" columns log on to: Photo Credit: Yanina Martinez.