Les Payne last emailed a few weeks ago. The former Newsday assistant managing editor and columnist was noting the 50th anniversary of the Kerner Commission report on the devastating race riots of the 1960s.
It faulted newspapers and TV news for failing to report clearly on African American life and for employing so few blacks to better shape and inform the reporting, what it called “white men’s eyes and white perspective.” It was the impetus for Newsday’s hiring of the Army Ranger captain just returning from Vietnam who interviewed in his Army uniform. On Monday, the loss of his gentle wisdom and boisterous laugh deeply saddened the journalism community.
The turbulent ’60s shaped Payne’s world view, and for four decades he shaped legions of journalists at Newsday, encouraging them to be unyielding in finding the truth whether on assignment in Baghdad or Riverhead. And that Payne did. As a reporter, he chronicled the plight of migrant workers toiling in East End farms, and later in his career gained entry into South Africa to report on the uprising against apartheid. As an editor, the reporters he dispatched around the globe won five Pulitzer Prizes.
As a columnist on these pages, however, is how most readers might remember Payne, who fiercely challenged assumptions of his suburban audience and the racial discrimination that still cripples this nation. Here you can read a 1980 Payne column about housing segregation that still rings true today. Five years later, he told of how friend and fellow columnist Ed Lowe got nothing but pleasant letters while his were often anonymous and bigoted. Worse, they were threatening. But Payne laughed it off. Tell the truth and duck, he would say.
In November, at his induction into the Hall of Fame for the New York Society of Professional Journalists, Payne spoke of the duty of journalism to speak truth to power. He recalled a call from President Lyndon Johnson to Gen. William Westmoreland, to whom he was a press aide, about a Washington Post story about a division of soldiers fighting under a Confederate flag. Johnson wanted the story stopped. “That Post story convinced me of the power of the revealed facts reported by a free press, protected by the Constitution, which is determined to inform the public about what is going on.” Payne believed society would be better if journalists helped it know better. It’s a lesson to remember.