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Les Payne, former Newsday editor who won Pulitzer Prize, dies

Distinguished journalist was a founder of the National Association of Black Journalists and a chronicler of memorable events in a Newsday career of nearly four decades.

Longtime Newsday journalist Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose nearly four-decade career took him from the poppy fields of Turkey to the Soweto uprising in South Africa to the streets of American cities, died Monday at his home in Harlem. He was 76. (Credit: Newsday)

Les Payne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and columnist for Newsday who fiercely championed racial equality and whose groundbreaking work took him from the poppy fields of Turkey to the Soweto uprising in South Africa to the streets of American cities, has died.

Payne, an African-American raised in Alabama whose often scorching columns on issues such as race relations provoked both deep admiration and intense hostility, died Monday about 7 p.m., apparently of a heart attack at a home office that he and his wife, Violet, owned in Harlem, said one of his sons, Jamal Payne. He was 76.

Les Payne, alone at the time, was working on a book he was writing about Malcolm X, said his son, of Harlem.

Payne was revered as a legendary journalist for decades in the Newsday newsroom and across the country in journalism circles. He played a key role in turning the Long Island daily into a major force as it dug into the Island and spread its reach around the globe with bureaus from Moscow to Mexico City.

As an investigative reporter, he went undercover as a migrant farmworker on eastern Long Island, and hunted down heroin kingpins in Europe as part of Newsday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 33-part “Heroin Trail” series in 1974, tracking heroin from where it was grown in Turkey to the American streets where it was peddled. He covered the Black Panther Party, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the guerrilla war in Zimbabwe.

“For decades, Les Payne, through his reporting and commentary, served as the conscience of Long Island, raising issues of racial and social justice that a portion of our audience living in a largely, white suburban community didn’t always want to confront,” said former Newsday editor Howard Schneider, dean of the Stony Brook University School of Journalism. “It made him controversial, sometimes unpopular, but always on the right side of history. He was a seminal figure in the evolution of Newsday as a newspaper for all of the residents of Long Island.”

Another former Newsday editor, Anthony Marro, recalled that Payne’s columns elicited such hostility that “we got to know the names of all the Suffolk police force bomb-sniffing dogs” who were called in after threats.

“I don’t think any other single person did more than Les did to move Newsday from being a very good suburban newspaper into a fully rounded paper that covered the state, the nation, the world,” Marro said. “He did excellent foreign reporting of his own, especially in South Africa.”

“I don’t think there was ever any other editor at the paper that reporters would rather have worked for,” Marro added.

Newsday’s current editor, Deborah Henley, said Payne “spent almost four decades at Newsday establishing a standard of journalistic excellence that has been a beacon for all who have come after him. His skill, his passion and his integrity were all elements in a distinguished career that, in his own words, led to ‘journalism that brought attention to problems, and sometimes helped solve those problems. ’”

Payne, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, came to Newsday in 1969, starting as a Babylon Town reporter. He worked his way up the ranks, eventually serving as an associate editor and supervising at various times the State, National, Foreign, Health and Science, and New York desks — “sometimes all at once,” Marro said.

Payne “launched and shaped projects that won Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of the death camps in Bosnia, so-called ‘friendly fire’ casualties in the Gulf War, and the Ebola plague in Africa,” Marro said.

In 1976, Payne traveled to South Africa and documented that the apartheid government had vastly underreported the number of black South Africans killed in the Soweto uprising — 250, as opposed to the 850 Payne determined. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting — Payne later contended he had the prize unfairly taken from him for political reasons — and earned himself the wrath of the South African government, which barred him from the country.

Despite that, he sneaked back into South Africa in 1985 to write about civil unrest as the nation grappled with apartheid.

He once played a key behind-the-scenes role in winning the release of two Newsday journalists, reporter Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman, taken prisoner by the regime of Saddam Hussein at the start of the 2003 Iraq War, said Dele Olojede, Newsday’s foreign editor at the time. Payne offered critical strategic advice on things such as whom to contact, at a time when the newspaper’s then-publisher, Raymond Jansen, “was prepared to go with me to Jordan with a suitcase full of cash, if that proved necessary,” Olojede said.

Over the years, Payne mentored scores of younger journalists, and was a founder and president of the National Association of Black Journalists. Payne “was a legendary journalist whose eloquent writing brought passion and truth-telling to an industry too often tone deaf to the issues impacting communities of color,” said the group’s president, Sarah Glover. “Payne fought to change that with NABJ’s other illustrious founders.”

But his reporting and commentary sometimes provoked anger within parts of the black community as well.

In 1987 he reported on the case of Tawana Brawley, a young black woman who said she had been kidnapped and sexually abused by a group of white men, including a county prosecutor, in upstate Wappingers Falls. She alleged that she was left lying in a garbage bag with racial insults written with feces on her body.

Payne reported, however, that she had confided to a friend that she had fabricated the widely publicized story.

Some of Brawley’s supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, were not pleased, Marro said.

Payne, who retired from Newsday in 2006, once recalled that his military training often helped him in some of the more dangerous situations he found himself in as a reporter. He was an Army Ranger and spent six years in the military, rising to the rank of captain. He commanded a Nike-Hercules anti-aircraft missile battery, wrote speeches for Gen. William Westmoreland and ran the command newspaper, Payne’s son said.

Les Payne was born July 12, 1941, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and moved with his family to Connecticut when he was 12, his son said. He graduated from high school at 16, two years early, and entered the University of Connecticut, where he received a bachelor’s in English in 1964.

After his service in Vietnam and acting on a tip from a military buddy who had gotten work at Newsday, Payne showed up in his officer’s uniform at the paper’s Ronkonkoma office to apply for a job, according to Henry Moritsugu, a longtime Newsday copy desk editor who worked with Payne.

Besides his passion for journalism, Payne was a deeply committed art collector. Pieces from his and his wife Violet’s collection of works by Soweto artists were shown at the art galleries at Hofstra University in 2011 and Queens College in 2015, said Elizabeth Bass, one of Payne’s longtime deputy editors at Newsday.

Payne is also survived by a daughter, Tamara Payne of Harlem, and another son, Haile Payne, of Orlando; three brothers, John Payne, of Tarrisville, Connecticut, Joseph Payne, of California, and Raymond Johnson, of the Bronx; and a sister, Mary Ann Glass, of Bloomfield, Connecticut.

Funeral arrangements are not final, but Jamal Payne said the service will take place at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Payne’s wife of 51 years said Tuesday that Payne “appreciated the people who appreciated him: the readers. They were the ones that he enjoyed writing for, and I appreciate them reading him.”

With William Murphy

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