Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

From Reporter to Columnist

BOND: What kind of adjustment do you make from being a daily journalist -- and I understand that the formats are very, very different from writing a column -- but what kind of intellectual adjustments do you have to make from reporting what's happened? You get kudos for your work on the Watts riot. You made a beat of civil rights in D.C. and you go from that to writing essentially opinion and even though there may be opinion in the other stories, it's subtle and hidden and not intentional, I'd guess, so what kind of mental jumps do you make to go from the one to the other?


RASPBERRY: That's a really fascinating question. If you're a human being, you have opinions, but you learn as a reporter to put the opinions on the lips of other people. You go and find somebody who will say what you need saying. And --


BOND: I used to do a man in the street interview for a local black paper in Atlanta and we'd have a question of the week and I'd find people and ask them a question, but if I didn't have enough people I'd find somebody and say wouldn't you say that, that answer.


RASPBERRY: You're not supposed to admit stuff like that.


BOND: It's beyond -- past me now.


RASPBERRY: But I even recall instances where not only would people -- I'd ask people, "Would you say that the following thing is true?" "Yeah, yeah, I'd say that." I remember one person in particular I'd call for opinions about stuff and he was a constituted leader -- "Yeah, you know what I think about that, go on and say something, I'll stand behind it." That's not good journalism and I'll deny that later on, I guess.


But I've personally found it freeing to be able to say, "This is what I believe but also here's why I believe it." I mean, it was never much fun saying, "This is what I believe, take it or leave it." The fun for me was in taking people where I imagined them to be and walking them inch by inch to where I thought they ought to be or to where I was and, again, with the same technique I learned back at the Indianapolis Recorder, seeing if I could write an opening sentence that they would not take issue with and then seeing where I could take that thought and how long before they would jump off the train and I was trying quite consciously to deny them a place to disembark. Sometimes you can take them quite a long way. Sometimes they'd jump as soon as they figured out where you were going. But all that helps technique.


I have had a number of colleagues in the journalism business who are very good at what they do, excellent reporters, who would not dream of writing an opinion column. I mean, they tell me, you know, it takes a certain arrogance to imagine that people care what you think about stuff. They're confident in their judgment that says, "This is an important story and this is an important piece of information, an important fact. Here it is and here's the context for it." But what I think -- they said, "No, I don't want to -- "


BOND: Don't you think there's a difference between arrogance and confidence? If you think that X is so and you think other people think X is not so, but you want them to become convinced about it, you don't have to be arrogant, just confident that you can persuade them. You can put the facts out and persuade them to your point of view.


RASPBERRY: Well, this is the thing that makes it so hard for me to understand what's happening in our politics a lot these days. If you really believe that you're right and that you've considered the important factors in a thing, why wouldn't you want to talk about it in a way that makes your truth accessible to those who haven't seen it yet and yet in our politics, we tend to shout at other people, not to show them the error of their ways but to paint scary faces on them.


If I have reached a conclusion somehow that is not the orthodox one, it's fun to see if we can find a premise that we can both agree on and try to track when we part -- where it is that we part company. I don't know why everybody doesn't enjoy that. It just seems almost recreational.


BOND: I would think so. Oh, let me move on.