I have yet to see filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed, “When They See Us,” or Ken Burns and Sarah Burns’ 2012 documentary “Central Park Five”—both films based on the 1989 savage rape and near-death assault on a white jogger, Patricia Trisha Meili.
I have, however, read former New York Newsday reporter Jim Dyson’s account of the case in The New York Times (May 30, 2019) that recounted the sordid details of the 30-year-old incident, the “investigation,” media coverage, arrest and prosecution of five Black youths—Yusuf Salaam, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Anton McCray (who were aged between 14 and 16)—and how the system failed by allowing coerced false confessions, and how the prosecutor, Linda Fairstein, withheld critical details and fanned public sentiment that drove a wedge into an already divided city. As Dyson wrote of the case, “There was little interest in the weakness of the confessions.”
In the end, five young men were convicted and jailed up to 13 years for a crime they did not commit. The subsequent confession by a convicted serial rapist, corroborated by DNA evidence, helped to overturn their wrongful convictions and in 2002 the five were awarded a total of $40 million in one of the most blatant miscarriages of American justice in recent memory.
The case fanned an angry outcry for justice by a misinformed citizenry, led by developer Donald Trump, Fairstein, a complicit New York City Police Department and the contaminated ink of the city’s white media.
Against the fury of a rabid “wolf pack,” clamoring for bloody revenge, stood the city’s Black press.
If for no other reason than the presumption of innocence, Black media held the responsibility to give voice to activist attorneys, Alton Maddox, C. Vernon Mason, Michael Warren, Louis Clayton Jones, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and others, who at the onset raised flags to a rotten conspiracy in the making. For that act, alone, the city’s Black newspapers, The City Sun, Amsterdam News and chiefly, The Daily Challenge, the city’s only Black daily (where I had been editor), were profiled as rogues and ghetto rags protecting the rights of the five “savage” youths.
The Daily Challenge had led the attack by publishing the name of the victim, and the major media, which brought their formidable powers to bear, instantly vilified the paper. How dare we make Meili’s name public? An avalanche of calls to appear on daytime television news, talk radio stations, and a sudden interest in the Black media followed, and in every case we were called clearly to face the cauldron of white anger.
For me, however, as editor naming the woman was an easy call.
The white press had fired the first volley on victim disclosure two years earlier when 17-year-old Tawana Brawley, a Black teenager in Peekskill, New York, was found bound and gagged in a garbage bag on an isolated lot near her home in upstate New York. The teenager had been smeared with feces, and had racist graffiti scrawled over her body. Before any investigation had been properly put in place as to the facts of the case, the white media had placed young Tawana Brawley’s name and face into the public domain. No claims of inadvertent error or apologies were to come.
That the Brawley case was after a long investigation determined to be fabricated and that the teenager had staged her own abduction, was beside the point. Young Tawana Brawley had not been afforded the benefit of a sex crime victim and having her identity protected. White media felt no compunction to apply such standards to a young Black girl and she was treated as meat in the marketplace. Therefore, if white New York felt it had ownership and the prerogative to alter the rules when it came to people of color, then, conversely, so too did the Black press.
In the case of the “Central Park Five,” The New York Times, Daily News and other mainstream tabloids had no ethical problems in accepting full-page ads to fill their pages and coffers, paid for by real estate developer Donald Trump demanding the death penalty for the five teenagers. And although one of the suspects was 14 at the time, and supposedly protected by juvenile laws, his name was routinely published. And so the torches of hate, bias and confrontation by the white press set the stage for a public lynching; marching with the mob were the DA’s office and New York City Police Department.
A snap consequence for publishing the victim’s name in the Black press was that whatever token advertising crumbs swept off Madison Avenue tables to the city’s Black media began to be pulled back, state and city RFPs and legal advertisements were suddenly, and curiously, withdrawn. Death threats to myself and family were frequent: in one instance the caller was able to mention my wife by name; bomb threats at the paper’s Brooklyn offices became a daily occurrence.
The history of Black America is coded: WHITE WOMAN, THE VICTIM; BLACK MALE, PERPETRATOR has always been an historical and flammable red flag, from the deep south to New York City, from Emmett Till to the Scottsboro Boys, it is in the DNA of bloody American racism.
It’s easy for Jim Dwyer to say in retrospect that he could have been a little more upfront, perhaps raised his voice to his own doubts, be more diligent; and maybe the editorial board of The New York Times, Daily News and others could have put ethics before profit in publishing and said no to Donald Trump’s brazen call for a lynching; and maybe the editors at the city’s white newspapers, and producers of the TV talk shows, and news departments, and the radio talk show hosts could have tempered their quests for ratings.
But none of this happened.
I may not have seen the DuVernay film, nor the Burns’ documentary, nor will I see Oprah’s sit down with the five men. But I have had a front seat to this sordid chapter of New York City history, and I might add it was not the most comfortable seat in the house.
Dawad Wayne Philip is the former editor of The Daily Challenge.