Print and Politics

Michael McElroy

The second wave of worshipers pushes through the heavy doors of Mount Hermon Church. The echo of an organ's final note follows them out into the muggy sun and onto NW Seventh Terrace this morning before Martin Luther King Jr.'s holiday. Charles Wilkenson, standing next to his green truck across the street, runs the back of his hand across his forehead and reaches into the cab. He retrieves T-shirts that picture the civil rights leader flanked by an American flag, drapes the shirts across the door and hood, and hangs a sign from his rearview mirror: $10. He frees a gold cross tangled in the buttons of his cotton dashiki, then offers a newspaper that is neatly folded in half. It's a copy of the Broward Times. "I always get both," the 48-year-old says of the Times and its competitor, the Westside Gazette. "You got to read 'em both and then try to figure out fact from fiction."

Wilkenson waves at a police car as it cruises down the block. An active member of his neighborhood's crime-watch group, Wilkenson stops to chat with the officer. He taps the cruiser's hood, and the cop rolls on. "I could tell some stories about Fort Lauderdale," Wilkenson says. He has lived here his whole life. Been to a lot of city meetings to keep up with what's going on. He joined a low-income housing association, Dorsey-Riverbend, years ago. He used to own his own clothing shop, he says, before heart bypass surgery slowed him down last year. This Sunday, he just wants to sell some shirts and read the paper. Gesturing toward the Times and the Gazette, he chuckles, "Nothing a working man can trust in the news today."

Front-page news January 20, according to Broward County's top black weeklies:

Westside Gazette: U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings speaks at a national town meeting about voter reform; a Hallandale teacher is nominated as Florida's Teacher of the Year; a replica of the Amistad slave ship visits Miami.

Broward Times: A story exploring segregation between white-owned and black-owned funeral homes; and a column by owner and publisher Keith Clayborne titled "Wimps and Pimps..." devoted to criticizing Gazette publisher Bobby Henry for his comments in the Sun-Sentinel about Times columnist Elgin Jones. Henry had questioned whether Jones's dual role as a Fort Lauderdale city engineer and journalist affects his ability to report government news objectively.

"Some of our Negro critics who are totally ineffective like to cast us off as self-serving -- people like Bobby Henry, who embarrass the tradition of the Black Press -- having failed to lead or support any issues to better the lot of black folks in this community but yet will come out talking doo-doo to white folks about people who are making a real difference.... How in the hell would he know what ethical journalism is? He can't write."

Clayborne accuses Henry of printing press releases rather than reporting news and of showing favor to the City of Fort Lauderdale because the Gazette's offices are city-owned. Closing with a mano a mano challenge to Henry, the Times publisher writes, "If you can't help the cause -- stick to playing golf or whatever it is that you do, but making things happen ain't one of them."

Wilkenson eyes the column. "Now that's the Broward Times," he laughs. "I don't know if you'd call that journalism, but it sure is entertaining."

The 12-year-old publication, which is distributed Fridays and Saturdays to churches, shops, restaurants, and beauty parlors, is a proudly brash mouthpiece. Typically ten pages, it criticizes public officials -- usually black politicians -- with the zeal of a playground bully. Its editorial voice, amplified by Clayborne's front-page column, "Off the Vine," is rife with the kind of name-calling one might hear in a World Wrestling promo. This morning, copies are flying from a Mount Hermon Sunday-school table. As one elderly parishioner testifies, the paper indeed seems to "have a fire."

Clayborne estimates that about 60,000 people read the Times. That's 21,000 copies printed and dropped at 3000 places around Broward, then passed among an average of three people each. The paper's circulation isn't audited, though, so his claims are unverifiable.

The most convenient way to find old issues of the Times is to visit the Broward County Public Library, which keeps three months' worth of issues and then discards them. Unlike most papers, the Times has no archiving system. A review of past issues by New Times reveals a provocative, journalistic Frankenstein. Start with a dash of reactionary language, add a few attempts at investigative reporting, sew together with sensationalism, and electrify with a heavy dollop of social-niche coverage that caters to the county's largest minority group.

"If you look at the black press, most of them don't stand out or have the notoriety," Clayborne crows. "I talk to my colleagues at the Sentinel and the Herald, and they will do stories that piggyback on what we do."  

Thirteen years ago, Keith Clayborne stood next to the construction site of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts and got angry. "I couldn't find a black guy anywhere working on that building," he recalls. "And this wasn't very far from the 'hood."

In the early 1980s, Clayborne spent five years as a New York Times Company executive, overseeing the television stations and papers the conglomerate owned. But Clayborne quit at 31, convinced that he'd hit the glass ceiling. "I always wanted to run my own show," he says. "I told the right people at the New York Times, "Let me have one of those bad boys.' I was willing to take a pay cut. "Just let me try,' I said. But I don't think they was ready to let a brother run a division." Clayborne lived briefly in the Caribbean islands and moved to South Florida in 1986.

Staring up at the scaffolding that day, Clayborne had an idea. "Black people need to get angry, to want more of the economic pie," he says. "I went home and wrote a little essay about that." He made a couple of hundred copies and took them to black churches the following Sunday. "I figured I had nothing to lose," he says. "I started doing it every week, and then a whole year passed and I didn't miss one issue."

From its inception in 1989, the Broward Times advocated for blacks, particularly their financial advancement. In several "Off the Vine" columns, Clayborne urges blacks to support black-owned businesses, sometimes using what could be deemed racist language. For example, in a November 16 column called "We're Our Own Worst Enemy," he launches into a tirade about what he calls "White Banks" that "refuse to do business with black businesses like this one and others." He writes, "Why these White Banks take black dollars and invest them in white businesses and white communities while leaving the government program dollars (the nigger money -- that's what they call it) for the Black community." Lamenting that blacks are apathetic to this injustice, he continues, "But we hate ourselves so much that we can't even conceive of Black communities being filled up with thriving small black-owned businesses (we'd rather spend our money in a store opened by a guy just off the boat from Pakistan).... We'd rather go to a neighborhood food store that literally stinks than spend money with another black."

"Being politically correct has never been my thing," he says, crediting the fiery language with helping him bring attention to what he views as a Fort Lauderdale that has historically oppressed blacks. "I would go to a Fort Lauderdale city meeting and there would be a white board talking and blacks'd be looking down at the floor. I was coming from the North and couldn't believe this was happening at this date. There was definitely a white and a black side of town."

Clayborne sees the Times as a hand rocking politicians' comfortable public pedestals. He cites the controversial Wingate Landfill, which Clayborne and his reporters have often written about, mostly in the context of blaming city officials for dragging their feet in cleaning it up. The landfill is near a lower-income, black neighborhood.

When politicians, black or white, discuss the city's business in settings less formal than commission meetings, Clayborne says it's likely he helped arrange it. "When you see things going on in the community, I'm behind it. I might not have gone to the meeting, but I'm there. My presence is there," he asserts. "We [at the Times] created that meeting, made it happen. Out of advocacy and my personal involvement, we drive people to act. That's our job."

A November "Off the Vine" column about Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion Jr. almost duplicates Clayborne's message to the Gazette's Bobby Henry, as the Times publisher vows to "kick to the curb" any politician he thinks isn't working hard enough for minorities.

Eggelletion, a Democrat who served four terms in the Florida House of Representatives before winning election to the County Commission in October 2000, has long been a Broward Times punching bag; his name appeared in more than a dozen "Off the Vine" columns last year.

In an August 31 "Off the Vine," Clayborne tells his readers that he's contemplating writing a "Joe Column." The declaration precedes a complaint that Eggelletion is more concerned with pleasing lobbyists than his constituents -- though no lobbyists or deals are referenced.  

Three months later, Clayborne quotes unnamed "pundits" and calls Eggelletion a "one-timer" who is "too busy smoking cigars" with lobbyists. An unattributed quote reads, "Joe ran on a platform of "People First' but some are saying it's now "Joe First.'" In a December 7 column entitled "Say It Ain't So Joe!" Clayborne writes that the politician "will never win elective office again" but provides no evidence supporting his prediction.

In the midst of the voting-machine debate this past winter, Clayborne wrote that Eggelletion wanted Broward's $17.2 million voting-equipment contract to go to Election Systems and Software, based in Nebraska. Although the contract eventually went to ES&S, Eggelletion ranked another bidder, Global Election Systems of California, number one. The paper's mistake made it appear that Eggelletion did not question ES&S's failure to meet a county requirement to give 10 percent of the contract to minority and disadvantaged small business.

"It seems like I'm not for helping blacks and minorities," Eggelletion complains, adding that he frequently scans the crowds at public meetings for Clayborne. "I've been at more than one meeting that he's not been at, and then the next week I'll see that he's written about the meeting as if he were there. Keith just tells out-and-out lies in his newspaper. He hardly ever attributes quotes. I've not once been interviewed by Keith or any of his reporters."

Eggelletion says he's contemplated suing the Broward Times for libel. But as a public figure, the commissioner knows that to prove libel, one must show that an article is not merely offensive or insulting but also harms a person's reputation; false information must also have been deliberately published.

According to county records, the Times has never been sued for libel.

Feeling powerless, the commissioner has simply stopped reading the Times. But he still fumes about names Clayborne has called him in print. "He's called me a "spook that sits by the door,'" Eggelletion says. "A spook is a derogatory term in the old South to describe blacks. He's called blacks "niggers' in his paper; he's called [blacks] "handkerchief heads.' If the Sentinel or the Miami Herald were to use those same terms, the black community would ask for a boycott and apologies."

Clayborne responds by asserting that his columns aren't personal but focus on the issues. Regarding the accusation that he doesn't attend meetings he reports about, Clayborne says, "I may not be at all the meetings, but I am there. You see, I have ears there. I have people who tell me what goes on."

He says that the men were friends when Eggelletion ran for the commission. Eggelletion even visited the publisher's home to brainstorm campaign strategy, says Clayborne. But some time after the commissioner was elected, they had a falling-out. "I realized that Joe wasn't all about what he said he was about. He said he would do something to help blacks, and I can't tell you one thing he has done. You know, [Joe] will shake your hand and tell you how great you are and then tell people across the street how bad you are," Clayborne claims. "I had a campaign party for Joe, and someone came up to me and said Joe was talking about me. He said he didn't want people to think we were on the same side. I said, "Fine, I know you be talking out two sides of your mouth.'"

With a monologue that builds to Muhammad Ali-like bravado, he continues, "Joe hasn't done anything for blacks. I force him to, to come out when I write about him. That's my job, to force Joe out of the pocket. Black politicians don't want to be put on the line, and I tell 'em that they can put the people out but they can't count me out. I can create the synergy to put Joe out of office."

Eggelletion and other black politicians believe that Clayborne does not criticize white politicians. "He (Clayborne) knows that the white community won't allow that. Whites will lash out at his paper with a vengeance," charges state Rep. Chris Smith.

Smith consulted an attorney about suing the Broward Times when Clayborne reported in early 2001 that the Fort Lauderdale Democrat was running Walter "Mickey" Hinton's race against Carlton Moore for Fort Lauderdale City Commission. Hinton is Smith's uncle; Moore is Smith's longtime political mentor. "I met with both of them before the election and said that I was staying out of the race," says Smith. "So when the Times came out with that, I got a call from one of Carlton's supporters accusing me of lying."

Smith says he sent a letter to Clayborne demanding a correction. "I didn't hear back, so I called him. You know what he said to me? "So now you're saying you're not running Mickey's campaign?' He told me that he read it in the Sentinel," Smith says.  

A December 2000 story in the Sun-Sentinel reported that Smith's mother, Helen, managed Hinton's campaign. The Times did not run a correction. "It did such damage to me," says Smith. "But people I consulted about legal action determined that it wasn't egregious enough."

Clayborne dismisses Smith's allegation and says Hinton told him Smith was working on the campaign. The publisher is confident that threats of lawsuits are typically political grandstanding. "If you look at the potential lawsuits in nine out of ten cases, ten out of ten cases, we didn't do whatever they said we did. We play it safe when we play with public figures. If you're the city manager, the city attorney, whatever, you're game to me. Look, this isn't really rocket science. I mean... if you're looking for money, you're not going to get much here. We're a small operation."

But Smith says he doesn't want money; he wants to make a statement. "You try to take some comfort in thinking that the Times has a limited audience, but I know a lot of people who read it as their primary news source," he says. "So it can't be brushed off. There has to be some responsibility for what's printed."

Like Eggelletion and Smith, County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman says she's not been interviewed by the Times yet has been subjected to Clayborne's criticisms. In a November 23 column, "Does County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman Think Black People Are Stupid?" Clayborne writes that she is a "snake who along with some of her cronies is two steps up or three steps down... from being a "political' street hooker." He also calls her one of many "Democratic Klan-clowns perpetrating the fraud of being elected officials."

What stoked Clayborne's ire? Lieberman had challenged black elections supervisor Miriam Oliphant's hiring of consultant Chris Hood, a black man, to evaluate companies vying for Broward's voting-machine contract.

Using a quote from a November 22, 2001, Miami Herald article in which Lieberman says of Hood, "I was kind of surprised that he'd been hired," Clayborne writes, "That's interesting Ilene. There must be hundreds of good old white boys who know next to nothing... except they're white."

Lieberman says race had nothing to do with her comment. "I said that because we had someone already working, doing the same job [as Hood]," she says. "A responsible journalist doesn't just take a quote out of context to stir the community up."

The commissioner didn't catch Clayborne's follow-up column in which he writes that he had "a lot of calls" about Lieberman: "They ranged from a group in Lauderhill who would like to hang her by her fingernails on the tallest tree in Inverrary to some White folks (yes, they even call)."

Lieberman's colleague, Commissioner Diana Wasserman-Rubin, elected in 2000, began reading the Times frequently after Clayborne wrote November 30 that she "has as much empathy for minority issues as Joe Lunchbucket. She's a White-Cuban."

"It's an incredible personal attack on my integrity, personality, my whole being," says the commissioner. "I thought about hiring a lawyer, but I talked with my friends, many of them prominent black leaders, and they told me not to waste my time, that no one reads the Broward Times. But I know that some people are reading it, and I have to admit that knowing that hurts me."

As the first Hispanic elected to the Broward County Commission, Wasserman-Rubin continues, "It hurts me that another minority would say those things, and it damages my career if people take that man's word as bible."

Bill McCormick, president of the NAACP's Fort Lauderdale branch, may be more vulnerable than many others to the Times' claims. He and Clayborne have been feuding in the newspaper's pages since McCormick took the post in January 2001. Unattributed quotes and unsubstantiated claims of corruption fill most Times articles about McCormick, the NAACP leader says. Phrases such as "word is" are often used. And many articles lack specific examples of mistakes that could warrant such criticism.

Clayborne writes in the November 9, 2001, "Off the Vine" column, "Pundits say [McCormick] failed miserably in working on behalf of the black community while using the post to enhance himself and a few close cronies. He has even sabotaged business dealings that were none of his business, says one local black business owner. He's the wrong guy to lead the NAACP -- period!... Maybe he knows the jig is up.... McCormick's on his way out...."

A month later, Clayborne writes that McCormick has "all but lost support in and outside [the NAACP]." But the publisher offers no quotes or examples of McCormick's waning authority. The week following, Clayborne leads his column by commenting, "Bill McCormick is an example of what I called our "flawed black leadership'" but doesn't mention the leader again. In a January 4, 2002 column, the publisher pens, "Word is -- other members are considering leaving the [NAACP] and a great many have just decided to sit on the sidelines until the McCormick regime is gone. Look for more weak knee responses by McCormick in the Gazette on why everybody who once supported him is now out to get him."  

It took almost a year for mainstream media to clue into the ink war. This past December, the Sentinel reported that McCormick was fed up with the treatment he's received in the Times. McCormick was particularly ticked off over a December 7 Times story by Elgin Jones that called for the NAACP president to "Get Out of Dodge by Sundown." The reporter alleged that McCormick was not working with the city to hurry clean-up of cancer-causing dioxins at the Wingate Landfill. Jones stated that "several" NAACP members wanted McCormick ousted. The story also says that McCormick used his position to "sabotage" a deal involving an unnamed "Broward business owner." McCormick isn't quoted throughout the story because, Jones reports, the leader could not be reached.

"It was a personal attack, and I'm very mindful of that," McCormick says. "It's very irresponsible, completely untrue. But I'm going to keep leading the NAACP and not let this poison that."

But Jerry Carter, president of the Fort Lauderdale Midtown Business Association and developer of affordable housing, believes that the bad press has had a "disastrous effect" on McCormick's ability to head the civil rights group. "I'm very surprised he's not taken legal action, because a lot of what's written is blatantly incorrect," he says. "You can say that one article doesn't make a lot of difference, but when you keep reading week after week about him doing something wrong, people start believing it."

Former Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Andrew DeGraffenreidt, who is black, suspects that McCormick won't loudly condemn the Times for other reasons. "He's in a bad position, because he should do something, but as a black leader, it's tough. No one wants to be singled out as creating a problem with the Broward Times. I mean, you have to wonder what else they'll print if you do. And some people might holler racism."

McCormick can't count on the Westside Gazette to come to his defense. Members of the black press have historically shied away from appraising one another. Despite Clayborne's evisceration of him, Gazette publisher Bobby Henry refuses to criticize the Times. "I just want to stay focused on what I'm doing. I want to stay positive," he says. "I can keep a disagreement between two men between two men. I don't need to air my dirty laundry in a newspaper. The Times can continue to do their thing. I'm going to let it stand at that."

Even a top editor at the 79-year-old Miami Times, one of South Florida's oldest black papers, declined to be quoted by name when asked about the Broward Times. "You won't find too many black newspapers talking about what's wrong with the others," he says. "It's just bad for business. It cuts into what we're all trying to do, on a very basic level, and that's to advocate."

Mike McQueen, chairman of Florida International University's journalism department, grew up reading paragons of the black press such as New York City's Amsterdam News and the Chicago Defender. He has reported for the Florida Times-Union, the Associated Press, and USA Today and spent eight years with the Miami Herald as a reporter and editor. He founded the South Florida Association of Black Journalists and has written media criticism for the American Journalism Review and Quill. New Times recently gave McQueen four months of the Broward Times to evaluate.

"The Broward Times doesn't practice journalism. In journalism, you have a verification process," he says. "The Times is trafficking information. They are saying, "Here, dear readers, this is what I hear, and it may be relevant to you.' My experience is that readers know the rules of the road when it comes to the ethnic press. That is, you add a little gossip, turns of phrase that aren't fair journalistically, and that is how you signal to your audience that you're an advocate for them."

The mainstream press made it clear years ago that it is not interested in thoroughly covering news important to minorities, says McQueen. "You'll find that many people, blacks especially, think that the bigger media outlets are only interested in reporting crime because that's the most obvious, in-your-face thing that's going on in cultures that people with gate-keeping positions recognize as news."  

According to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the industry's standard resource, minority recruitment at mainstream papers across the country is abysmal. Since Clayborne quit the New York Times Company, numbers haven't improved much. From 1989 to the present, minority hiring for reporting or editing positions is around 11 percent. Minorities made up only about 12 percent of newspaper staffs at the 1446 mainstream newspapers interviewed by ASNE in 2000.

Perhaps acknowledging its shortcomings on this front, the Sun-Sentinel entered into a one-year contract with the Broward Times in August 2000 to share ads and stories. But the union was doomed from the start, like a marriage between Al Sharpton and Martha Stewart. The Sentinel decided last August to end it. Asked about the arrangement, Sentinel spokesperson Kevin Courtney responds, "We had an experimental one-year business relationship with the Broward Times and decided not to continue it. To comment beyond that would be inappropriate."

Clayborne blames its demise on the Sentinel's unwillingness to understand the black press: "It's one thing if you do a Jewish paper, but they always see blacks differently."

The Sentinel has nevertheless recently hired former Orlando Sentinel reporter Gregory Lewis, a noted reporter who's written extensively about minority issues.

According to McQueen, black papers must differentiate themselves from the daily mainstream press -- including the Sun-Sentinel and the Herald -- to have business value to advertisers. Black publishers are in a precarious position because historically the black press has drawn fewer advertising dollars than daily newspapers. So buzz must be created -- often by ratcheting up editorial voice.

"Keith's a former executive," says McQueen. "He knows that he has to remain politically relevant and make money at the same time. He could put some real pressure on the county and city elected officials with hard, in-depth investigative stories. But that takes money that the Times probably isn't willing to invest. And it's a mistake to think that successful, talented black reporters are so uppity that they don't want to write for small papers. It's that a lot of credible journalists of color don't want their byline next to a lot of junk. I would guess that Mr. Jones isn't a classically trained journalist."

Elgin Jones is the Broward Times' primary reporter. He writes a weekly collection of short items called "Around Broward." Before joining the paper as a freelancer two years ago, the city employee wrote a weekly newsletter about Fort Lauderdale's union. "I got tired of what I like to call the city's misinformation office," he says. "Keith was prodding me to write for him, but I wouldn't." Jones says he finally joined the Times in early 2000 and works on the weekends and at night so that his journalistic work doesn't interfere with his day job. He sometimes e-mails Clayborne at 5 a.m. and meets with the publisher weekly to discuss possible stories.

Clayborne is intensely defensive of Jones and gets angry when anyone suggests Jones's city job and reporting job create a conflict of interest. "He's more reliable than anyone I've ever met. He's a very honest young man, and he always meets a deadline. You want to talk about integrity? C'mon, give me a break. Every newspaper has an agenda. You think you can question him? Nobody else knows better than Elgin Jones what's going on in the city."

Jones feels that he can objectively report about his employer. His response to the criticism is simply, "Freedom of speech. It's my right to report what I think is going on."

After dropping out of high school and later getting his GED, Jones worked odd jobs until he joined the city of Fort Lauderdale as a landscaper in 1989. Jones, now age 39, worked his way up to his $38,000-a-year engineering inspector post. He's also a chief steward in the city's union -- a group about which he frequently reports. His personnel file shows that the beginning of his tenure was mostly smooth. He was promoted within a year of hire and praised by supervisors for his spotless attendance. Jones was again promoted in 1994 but declined the advancement because it would mean taking a job that required only manual labor. He wanted a post that would allow him to think and advance through taking tests.

In 1997, Jones performed poorly on an oral exam for the engineering position. He later scored well on a written test, but by that time, the job had been filled. Feeling cheated, Jones filed a complaint alleging he was refused the job because of his race. He was promoted seven months later. Years of harassment and discrimination followed, he says. He has described much of it in the pages of the Times.  

Over the past few years, many accusations of racial discrimination have been leveled against the city. In late January, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced that it had recommended that the Justice Department review hundreds of Fort Lauderdale employee discrimination complaints. Jones, who was the first to bring public attention to the issue in both his reporting in the Times and through the several complaints he's filed, has emerged as a kind of Braveheart among city employees.

Broward County Human Rights Board member Jeff Gorley investigates employees' complaints and reports to the County Commission. "When Elgin first contacted me, I thought this guy has to be crazy, but that's because he so passionately wants to clean up the city. I couldn't believe what he was showing me -- examples of discrimination. But it all was factual." Yet, Jones's reporting about the board hasn't always been so solid. For example, in a November 15 "Around Broward" column, Jones reported that Gorley is "finalizing a resolution to ask for the dismissal of city attorney Dennis Lyles." Gorley says that's not accurate. "I'm considering the request and haven't begun to finalize anything," he clarifies.

Yet Gorley believes Jones is not only an asset to the paper but one of its main selling points. "He's the ultimate insider. The people I talk to who are concerned with what's going on with the city, I don't think want to squabble about what's right journalistically," he says. "People always say to me, "Did you read the Times this week?' Maybe they aren't always accurate, maybe they don't even come close sometimes, but it's getting people to talk. It's generating a buzz."

And that, at least for Broward Times readers, has so far proven itself good enough.

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