Oral Histories

Gene Foreman

Interview Segments on Topic: Deception in Reporting

Gene Foreman Biography

Gene Foreman joined the Penn State faculty in 1998 after  retiring from The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he managed newsroom  operations for more than 25 years under various titles—managing  editor, executive editor and deputy editor. He also was a vice  president of the company.At Penn State, he was the Larry and Ellen Foster Professor from 1999  until his retirement from full-time teaching in December 2006. He  taught courses in news editing, news media ethics and newspaper  management. In 2003, Foreman received two awards for excellence in  teaching in the College of Communications—the Deans' Award and the  Alumni Society Award.
His textbook, "The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in  the Pursuit of News," was published in fall 2009 by Wiley-Blackwell.

Foreman spent 41 years in newspaper journalism—not counting eight  summer jobs in high school and college, or his carrier route before  that. He was the managing editor of three different newspapers: the  Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, the Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock and  The Inquirer. Also during his career he worked as a reporter and  assigning editor at the Arkansas Gazette in Little Rock, as a copy  editor at The New York Times, and as the senior editor in charge of  news and copy desks at Newsday on Long Island.

He was president of the Associated Press Managing Editors in 1990 and  was a board member of the American Society of Newspaper Editors from  1995 to 1998. He has been a presenter at the American Press Institute  and the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and was a Pulitzer Prize  juror three times. In 1998 he received a career achievement award from  the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Transcript

Interviewer: Can you think of specific instances from the 1950’s in Arkansas where ethics, dilemma problems and issues came up and had to be dealt with? I’m thinking specifically of the coverage of the centerpiece story of the time period of desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, but whether it’s that story or others around civil rights issues at that time?

Foreman: Right. Six months after I got out of the Army and officially began my newspaper career, the Central High School crisis in September 1957 erupted. I had a cameo role in covering that, and I got to see a lot of the things that were going on. [I could] certainly talk to reporters who were encountering problems. A lot of us were young reporters and talked to each other; we probably had the best story of our lives right there at the beginning [of our careers]. As far as reporting, that certainly was the case of mine, because I [soon] became an editor and didn’t cover a lot of stories first hand after that. But there are two things that happened at Central High School … when the National Guard was there ostensibly to protect and preserve the peace. In reality, to carry out those [missions] they were going to continue segregation to keep the African American children out of the school. The National Guard allowed a mob to form each day, and there was always danger that they were going to get out of control.

Elizabeth Eckford, the first of the nine black students, came – and she came by herself off the bus, she had not got the word that “we’re all going to go together” because her family did not have a telephone. She just didn’t get the word. So she was confronted there with the mob and with the Guard with their rifles raised against her. When it was obvious that she was not going to get into the school, she had to walk past the front of the high school, which was about two blocks wide, to a bus stop and wait there at the bus stop to be taken away. The crowd was taunting her and was in danger of getting out of control. Two things happened. One is that the CBS cameraman wanted to film white students yelling at her, but he missed it. So he asked them to yell at her again, which obviously was an ethical problem. The second thing was that Bennie [Benjamin] Fine, a reporter for The New York Times, saw what was happening to Elizabeth. He had a daughter that was fifteen years old, as Elizabeth was, and he just felt overcome. And he had to sit down beside her, put his arm around her, and tell her, “Don’t let them see you cry.” He tried to comfort her. Other reporters, without the guideline we have now – the one that I mentioned a minute ago – certainly didn’t need that guideline. They kind of moved so they formed a protective semi-circle around her. They at least positioned themselves in between her and the mob, in case something did happen. But they did not feel that they could become a part of the story themselves. In fact, when Fine wrote his story, he did not mention his part in it. So those are two issues, and with the guidelines we have today in … our ethics course, I think our students would know not to do what those two journalists did.