Seeds of Trouble, Part II

Chronicle management asked its staff to critique the paper for "diversity." It got a whole lot more than that.

When the New York-based Hearst Corp. mobilized its various newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle, to form "diversity committees" last spring and send representatives to a "Total Community Coverage" conference, little did it know that the most conspicuous result in Houston would be an embittered staff and the resignation of one of the paper's two black copy editors.

Diversity -- a corporate buzzword for several years now -- means retooling your work force and product to mirror the audience or community you serve. What started as a good-faith effort to address the Chronicle's historical lack of minority coverage and staff members has, at least in the short term, resulted in less employee diversity and plenty of bad vibes.

Seattle-based Barbara Deane, who publishes the Cultural Diversity at Work newsletter, says the Chronicle experience is typical of what she calls "opening the box." When management encourages staff to discuss explosive issues like racial representation, says Deane, "they have to know that by opening the box they are immediately raising expectations, and they need to know that from the get-go."

When the Chronicle opened its box, out popped 39-year-old copy editor Wayne Metz, a Jamaica-born, New York City-raised veteran of the late Dallas Times Herald, with a harsh criticism of the paper's recent special section on juvenile crime, "Seeds of Trouble." A slim, intense man who sports wire-rim glasses and an Afro, Metz worked under assistant managing editor Fernando Dovalina, the highest ranking minority in the Chronicle hierarchy. Metz was incensed by what he viewed as the section's shoddy journalism, racial insensitivity and stereotyping, particularly in the depiction of black family life.

"I don't think you can say black parents neglect their kids, even a certain segment of these poor black mothers, and then not talk to any of them to find out what is preventing them from caring for their children," says Metz, as he prepared to head back to New York after quitting the Chronicle. "Let's get some context and balance here." Metz also criticized the fact that black elected officials and local educators were not interviewed for the series.

One white staffer at the paper concurs in Metz's criticism. "All this does is wring our hands over how terrible the problem is but we don't come to any conclusions, try to approach any solutions, or anything. Metz was making that point, and I think he was right."

The lead writer on "Seeds of Trouble," Mike Tolson (from whom we'll hear more later), believes the section was both sensitive and fair and says Metz was pursuing a political agenda, not a journalistic one, in his attacks.

Chronicle editor Jack Loftis, in a written response to the Press, declined comment on Metz' resignation. He called "Seeds of Trouble" a "good piece of work" but conceded that some of the questions Metz and others raised about the section are "valid" and "are being addressed through discussions with staff."

Metz had been outspoken about the paper's coverage before, once protesting a story by reporter and columnist Lori Rodriguez that compared Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Rodriguez, a Hispanic who is designated as the paper's minority-affairs columnist, says the story was fair and balanced (although some staffers said Metz's eyeballing of her story kept a facile generalization about blacks from appearing in the paper). He and fellow black copy editor Weta Payne also criticized the paper's coverage of last spring's South African elections. Both found the repeated use of pictures of Africans wearing tribal clothing and carrying spears and the lack of photos of South African blacks in business suits objectionable and complained to management. Metz claims their complaints fell on deaf ears.

Payne declined to comment for this story, except to say Metz has support from both white and minority staffers. "This is not a white-black issue," she says. "Please don't make it that way."

The events that led to Metz's resignation began after he crafted a cover letter to a number of sociologists and journalists around the country asking them to analyze "Seeds of Trouble." The letter denigrated stories written or edited by some staff members and included the line, "This is an example of what happens when black copy editors don't work on this type of project." A newsroom snoop fished the cover letter out of a computer print file, publicly posted it on a bulletin board, and the diversity war was on. Metz says someone then went into his computer basket and killed the mailing list he had compiled of recipients for the letter and the special section. That provoked Metz to post a three-page letter aimed at the unknown computer invaders and laced with sarcasm and humor.

That, in turn, led to a meeting between black staffers and managing editor Tony Pederson, at which Metz was particularly vocal about "Seeds of Trouble."

"I said to Pederson, 'You had 14 pages and you had six months. Do you think it's good journalism to blame this crime on these two communities, Third Ward and Fifth Ward, and [say] its crime infested, hopeless and the people there neglect their kids? They didn't talk to elected officials or black mothers.' That's when I prepared the 15-pager, because I realized he didn't get what I was saying." Pederson and numerous other Chronicle and Hearst officials did not return phone calls for comment on Metz' resignation.

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