Withering heights

Reliable surpriseinstitutional serendipity, our own in the foreign.

Journalists and media gatekeepers provide framework for surprises, insulating readers and viewers and keeping those incidents from becoming “completely accidental and chaotic,” Klaus Schoenbach says.  Schoenbach’s article planted the idea of reliable surprise in my mind.

Attempting to build structure around expansive events like the 9/11 attacks or the crumbling of Wall Street or the Gulf oil spill – something years in the making, and longer in the dissection – is remarkably difficult.

At times, though, a story sneaks up on journalists and the public. Its innocuous appearance lends itself to an easy report, lulling a journalist to sleep with its apparent simplicity.  These are the stories which must elicit the most care from journalists.

An account that broke a few days ago in Memphis holds this quality.

A renowned photographer had a pinch more access to his subjects than his contemporaries.  Being in the “right place at the right time” is now tainted by the hand of a powerful organization with less-than-manifest movements.

Ernest Withers captured iconic scenes of the Civil Rights movement, but the Memphis Commercial Appeal revealed that he was an informant for the FBI.

Withers, designated by the FBI as ME 338-R, died in 2007 at age 85.  He is not here to defend his actions or explain the shock that has rippled through journalism and history circles, but the FBI papers spell out his role in clear enough detail to raise numerous questions.

Why would Withers agree to this role?

Was he actually against the progress of black rights?  It seems unlikely.

Did he believe he could fill a void that would otherwise be occupied by someone with more sinister intentions?  Perhaps.

Does the fact that he was being paid by the government spoil the honesty and candor of his life’s work?

The New York Times is leaning toward an asterisk.  Athan Theoharis, a Marquette University historian, is quoted in the article as calling Withers’ actions an “amazing betrayal.”

The CA editorial swings to the other end of the spectrum.

“The access and trust he earned as a photographer led to the spying, not the other way around.”

Print, radio and television stories published this week are replete with interviews that cover the range between outrage and dismissal.

NPR conducted an interview with Earl Caldwell, a NYT correspondent who worked with Withers.  Caldwell said the work “speaks for itself,” but that the FBI papers seem to put a heavy mark on the trust between black journalists and their communities, he said.

“When they were saying white reporters out, the black reporter had total access and we tried to live up to that trust,” Caldwell said.

My gut reaction lies in the Memphis camp: his work resulted in the FBI viewing him as an apt informant, not the reverse.  Withers’ informing does not alter the physical legacy of the photographs America has today.  Those pictures will be relevant 100 years from now as an important step in tying an abstract movement to a human soul – many souls.

Yet the journalist in me cannot discount the fact that those pictures might be utterly captivating and wonderful due to the extraordinary access given to Withers.

Yes, he took his advantage and ran with it, producing exemplary images that document a tumultuous time in American history. That fact is apparent.

The question that cannot be presently answered is to what extent his advantage vaulted him into realms otherwise impassable to fellow photographers.

Withers’ informant file remains sealed, despite NYT and CA requests for FOIA access.

According to the CA exposé, the U.S. Justice Department won’t even acknowledge that such a file exists.

A legacy in historical photographs does exist; perhaps in the near future the truth will too.

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