It was a hot, balmy day in the Crescent City of New Orleans in June of 1970 when Warren Brown walked into the Times-Picayune building. The Howard Avenue building in mid-city also housed the city’s afternoon newspaper, the New Orleans States-Item. Brown, in his early twenties, had graduated a year earlier from the city’s Black catholic institution, Xavier University of Louisiana, after which he finished a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University. Brown entered the building in which Black people had only worked as unskilled laborers. His destination was the States-Item newsroom. Brown’s entry into the bastion of news gathering colorized the newsroom. He became the first African-American full-time journalist at a daily newspaper in New Orleans.
After high school at St. Augustine, one of the top schools in Louisiana, Brown enrolled at Xavier University, which was the only Black, Catholic higher education institution in the nation. He wrote a column and did not have to struggle to find topics. In the mid-1960s, there was the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, and other pressing events and issues. Uncharacteristic of a young Black man during the period, Brown’s views were conservative. He supported the United States involvement in the Vietnam, and he opposed tenants of the Black Power Movement. He interpreted the movement as advocating hatred and violence that were embedded in pronouncements such as “kill whitey.” Such extreme activism was anathema and in conflict with his values. He graduated in 1969.1
This essay tells a story about editorial sabotage of Brown’s articles during his first three months as a reporter at the States-Item. I read Brown’s twenty-three articles published from June 17 through September 22, 1970, and found an abnormal amount of misspelling and typographic errors. Ten articles or 43 percent contained such mistakes. Five of the articles concerned African Americans or Black-oriented activities or issues. The stories featuring African Americans were plagued with more errors than the stories concerning whites or non-racial issues. Newspapers produced a system to detect inaccuracies. It is highly unlikely that Brown was the source of the errors. He was an editor on the staff of Xavier’s student newspaper and also wrote an opinion column. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English and political science as well as a master’s degree from Columbia University, one of the most prestigious journalism programs in the country. Brown was not careless when he wrote. He had experience as a newspaper journalist and his academic training required meticulous attention to words, syntax, and typography. They hired copy editors to read stories before publication, find errors, and correct them. The author contends that a white copyeditor(s) inserted errors into Brown’s stories. The purpose of the insertions was to damage Brown’s reputation, credibility, and employment.
Of course, typographic errors find their way into newspapers, but the scholarly literature on journalists’ mistakes devoted less time of inaccuracies in spelling, typography, punctuation, and syntax, and more time to errors in facts. For example, William B. Blankenburg, in his 1970 study, “News Accuracy: Some Findings on the Meaning of Errors,” defined accuracy as truthful reproduction of information concerning an event or activity and inaccuracy as a flaw in the reproduction of facts. In “Accuracy Matters: A Cross-Market Assessment of Newspaper Error and Credibility,” Scott R. Maier proposed that Americans’ trust in the accuracy in US news media has declined from 80 percent in 1985 to 59 percent in 2003. Ron Snee discussed the importance of accuracy in “Increasing Newspaper Accuracy Using Six Sigma – A Case Study,” in which Snee contended that nothing was more important to a newspaper than accurately publishing names, facts, and other information. When a newspaper contained errors of any type, it loses readers’ trust, which dilutes the paper’s credibility as well as damages the journalist’s reputation.
Brown’s second article, “Black Poet Spurns ‘Patronizing Praise’,” on June 24, 1970, concerned a local Black insurance executive, Octave Lilly, Jr., who released his book of poetry, “Cathedral in the Ghetto.” Lilly said he despised whites who praised so-called “Negro” authors but considered their work as inferior compared to white writers. Brown’s story contained three errors such as the misspellings of the words dramatize that appeared as “dramtize,” experience as “expeience,” and the grammatical infraction: “an American citizens.” Multiple typographic mistakes in a single story in a major-metropolitan American newspaper is unusual. Editors excoriate journalists who submit stories with inaccuracy in facts, spellings, grammar, punctuation, typography, etc. Such errors typically appear in print when a copyeditor fails to discern and correct a mistake.
Errors continued to appear in Brown’s articles, particularly those that advocated for the rights of Black people. His July 1 article, “‘No Knock’ Bill Denounced by TCA Director,” quoted Dan Vincent, who harshly criticized the bill saying it would allow the police to increase harassment and violence against Black people. Vincent was executive director of Total Community Action and spoke on behalf of 12 community organizations. The article contained three misspellings: “opression” instead of oppression, “Ameriian” instead of American, and “tha” instead of that.
Two errors were found in the July 14 article, “Support of Busing Reaffirmed by Orleans NAACP Branch.” The story said the NAACP favored busing K-12 students to achieve school integration. The errors included the misspelling of the word their that was in print as “ther” and Cincinnati in print as “Cincinnatti.” In another of Brown’s Black-oriented stories, “Growing Militancy Seen Among Blacks,” two errors were in the second paragraph and a third appeared further down the story. Expressed was published as “expressed,” American as “Americane,” and that as “tht.”
On September 15, the local affiliate of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense engaged in a twelve-hour shootout with members of the New Orleans Police Department in the Desire public housing project. Brown was among a team of four States-Item journalists who reported details of the shootout and the paper published accounts of the shootout. On September 22, Brown’s story concerned a court appearance of thirteen of the Black Panthers. Brown’s article included interviews of Black sources and comments by African-American opinion leaders. They spoke in opposition to police actions associated with the shootout. Brown’s article was plagued with eight errors. It contained gibberish in bold text, “195 2-ADD SUB BLACDS P1 R.F. Ind. Gueho tele.” Typographic errors and misspellings included: “aid” instead of said, “ZBORDEN” instead of BORDEN, “doncitions” instead of conditions, “ff” instead of the word of, “converred” instead of conferred, “ceel” instead of cell, and “uninured” instead of uninjured.
Such mistakes on Brown’s part were highly unlikely. Besides Brown’s impeccable education and an editorial internship at Newsday in New York City, he had a fascination with words ever since he was a young boy growing up in New Orleans. In a 2007 interview, Brown talked about his deep respect for printed discourse. One of the first times he closely read an article in the principal white newspaper in the city, the morning Times-Picayune, was in 1961. He was in the eighth grade at Holy Redeemer. The article concerned a wife who killed her husband after discovering that he was married and intimately involved with a second wife. The paper referred to the man as a bigamist. The young Brown did not know the meaning of the word. He went to a dictionary and discovered that a bigamist was a person who was simultaneously married to more than one spouse. The word stuck with him. He hatched a scheme to test his newly found knowledge at the expense of a member of the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Ghost at Holy Redeemer. He asked one of the sister why she was not married. The sister said she was married to Jesus Christ and all of the sisters were as well. The young Brown ask whether Christ was a bigamist. The sister was shocked and slapped him. The scrawny, mischievous kid was chastised, but he continued to explore words, their meanings, and their usage.2
Ninety years earlier, Henry J. Hearsey founded the States-Item on January 3, 1880. During the period no Black person occupied a desk in the paper’s newsroom. Additionally, white supremacy was prevalent in New Orleans in 1970, exemplified by de facto segregation in housing and Mardi Gras Krewes. In that milieu, Brown joined the staff. This author contends that a white copy editor despised Black people and attempted to cause management to fire Brown. By inserting typographic and spelling errors into Brown’s articles, a copyeditor sought to undermine Black concerns and mock the Black journalist and his intelligence. The inserted errors, however, did not affect Brown’s employment. Brown reported at the States-Item for a year, then worked at Ebony and Jet magazines and other newspapers before settling at the Washington Post.