Zera Starchild would never have imagined that accepting a request from a local journalist, to write about her experiences as a Black woman living in Humboldt County, would lead to such controversy.
Starchild has lived in Humboldt County for almost 20 years and has raised two daughters of half German descent in the area.
She is not an activist, just a concerned community member and mother.
“I did not seek publicity, I would never have considered writing to the newspaper or anything like that. My intent, was to attend everything [David Josiah] Lawson related in the community,” Starchild expressed.
Lawson was a 19-year-old Humboldt State University student who was stabbed and killed at a house party in April 2017.
Since the release of the suspect due to insufficient evidence in May, the months have quickly flown by, leaving many to wonder if Lawson will ever receive the justice he deserves.
Single Source Article
Starchild began attending the sessions hosted by the City of Arcata the last Thursday of every month.
These meetings came at the request of Lawson’s mother–who wanted updates and transparency in her son’s murder investigation–and for the city to address concerns of student safety.
While attending the second session, Starchild wondered how well the meeting had been advertised because there were only a few students of color present. She felt these students should not bear the brunt of the conversation as the only people of color, so she offered insight.
Soon after her comments, she had to head to choir practice.
“This man followed me out and he introduced himself as Paul Mann. He said, ‘you said some interesting things in there and I would love if you would be willing to do an interview with me so I can write a piece from your perspective, on what it has been like for you to be Black in Humboldt County.’ So I agreed to that.”
Paul Mann is a former foreign affairs correspondent who covered the White House from 1982 to 2002. He also reported international security affairs from the Pentagon, the State Department and Congress.
Mann has covered the Lawson homicide since its onset, while working as a freelance journalist for the Union. He reported on the preliminary hearings and was also the first journalist to interview students who were with Lawson the night he was killed.
Mann has also attended the sessions hosted by the Arcata City Council. In an email response, Mann wrote about Starchild:
“Poised, articulate and mature, she addressed issues of race well beyond those raised by Mr. Lawson’s death with cogency and clarity of mind. It was evident that the substance of her remarks merited the attention of a much larger audience, especially in tense and troubled times. I was certain she would provide much-needed perspective in a calm and deliberate manner and I asked her for an interview.”
The Union did not request the article, but as a freelance journalist Mann presents the editors with story ideas in hopes they would be interested in publishing.
Mann said the Union’s editor asked him if the story would be “cast light” but he raised no objections nor did he reject the story.
When Mann submitted his article however, the Union refused to publish it.
It was not the context of Mann’s story on Starchild that was a problem but the content, according to the Union.
“There are numerous deficiencies in the article. It was incomplete and did not include responses from those who were criticized, as any news story must at least attempt to do,” the Unions editor Jack Durham wrote in an email.
“As one example: Paul Mann presents a second-hand quotation by Arcata City Manager Karen Diemer that comes off as clumsy and insensitive. He includes no response from Diemer. That’s fundamentally unfair.”
Durham offered Starchild the option of writing an opinion piece, to which she politely declined.
How would you feel after being asked for an interview–so you share your time and insight–only to be sent an email from the editor asking you to pen and submit your own opinion piece?
For someone unfamiliar with journalism outside of reading the newspaper once it is produced, it could seem like total rejection.
“I just couldn’t wrap my head around it,” Starchild said in response.
“He [Mann] asked me some really potent questions. He was to the point and it made me have to be as honest as I could. It was a good connection, I felt safe with him. I felt that he was respecting me, so I felt okay to be candid,” she continued.
“I remember telling him that I can not speak for all Black people and that I can only speak for myself.”
Starchild felt Mann understood that. So when she received an email from him saying that the editor declined to publish because “it was one woman’s opinion” she was confused and hurt–so she sought uplifting from her pastor.
“Zera said it felt like a real honor to be interviewed and she felt that Paul had relayed her story correctly, so she was real disappointed when it wasn’t published,” said Bryan Jessup.
Jessup is Pastor of the Unitarian Church in Arcata.
“I think that Zera felt the editors that Paul offered the story to, didn’t want to ruffle the waters of City Hall in Arcata or Humboldt State because folks, and when I say folks I mean people in institutions, and in Humboldt those institutions are largely white, they are really trying to tackle the problem of racism in our society, but they’re not calling it racism,” he chuckled and smiled. “They are calling it implicit bias. That was my understanding.”
Coincidentally, Jessup was scheduled to do a sermon on the difficulty of listening to hidden truths. Sermons like these are the steps that his church and the whole Unitarian organization are taking in attempts to wrestle with the problems of institutional racism.
“I don’t want to make our newspaper editors out to be evil people. Honestly, I don’t believe it. But I do believe us white folks have to do a lot of listening if we are going to change institutions.”
Mann and Starchild were both asked to share their experience with the congregation of the Unitarian church because it coincided with the upcoming sermon.
Paul relayed the editors did not want to publish his article and he felt censored. Starchild reiterated her point of the timidity in the refusal to call racism what it is.
“On first submission, [Durham] sent a letter charging the article racist. He did not elaborate. That was all he said. Aristotle said, “You must state your case and then you must prove it.” Mr. Durham did neither,” Mann wrote.
“It was evidence of an undisciplined editor able to justify his decision on rationale grounds.”
Durham states that he does not recall calling the article racist.
He did note however, that Mann offered to go through his article to make it fit for publication in the Union.
“Paul did offer to go through the story and remove problematic portions. But then we would be shaping or censoring the subject’s views, and that’s exactly what we don’t want to do,” Durham relayed.
Before Mann spoke with Starchild at the church, he contacted two other local publications to see if they would print the article. The North Coast Journal declined on grounds that the article was a single source.
In an email, Thadeus Greenson, News Editor of the Journal, outlined numerous parts of Mann’s article that he found problematic.
He felt that Mann’s story needed to be developed more and the “piece failed to flesh out some of the more fascinating and potentially impactful aspects of Ms. Starchild’s story” and it “lacks the added layers of reporting needed to give it context.”
Greenson also mentioned previous coverage of the Lawson case which made him question Mann’s byline at the Journal; calling his writing style “stuffy” and “pretentious” with “$10 dollar phrases” set to go over the heads of half of their adult readership.
This outline was presented to Mann after Greenson realized Mann was actually offended by the declining of his article.
“‘What it’s Like to be Black in Humboldt,’” and pitched under that premise, to work, it would need a multitude of voices offering their experiences,” Greenson wrote.
The response Mann received from the editor of the Lost Coast Outpost was that they did not pay freelance fee’s and that Ms. “Starchild’s views were “pretty sweeping.”
“I volunteered to forgo a freelance fee. Sims never replied. Neither editor furnished anything remotely resembling a thorough review of the report. Both were dismissive in their responses. They denied Ms. Starchild professional respect for her views and experiences.”
Mann attempted to re-submit his article to the Union, and suggested that the article be a companion or sidebar to Kevin Hoover’s report on the city’s October session regarding Lawson and student safety.
According to Mann, Durham did not have the courtesy to acknowledge the article and Mann submitted his resignation Oct. 31.
“When the rejection story became public, Mr. Durham promptly started altering and supplementing the reasons for his decision. Instead of labeling the story racist, he said it did not meet basic journalistic standards. He didn’t specify just what those standards were. It was a mere rhetorical flourish that failed to give the reading public the true background of the articles rebuff,” Mann expressed.
“Durham pronounced me out of the blue as unqualified to interview a person of color because I am white. He had never told me that before.”
“It’s so much simpler if the person expresses their opinions directly, as so many do every week in our newspaper. They send it, we publish it without a writer, it’s that simple,” Durham replied.
Durham concluded that Mann’s piece was incomplete and not something that belonged in the news section.
After Mann and Starchild spoke at the Unitarian Church, calls and emails were sent to editors of the newspapers.
In addition, a letter has been written to the Southern Poverty Law Center by a local resident, notifying them of Mann’s plight with local newspapers. The Eureka chapter of the NAACP are also planning to discuss the article at their meeting today.
In the end, KHSU published Mann’s article on their website.
KHSU is HSU’s radio station and they are committed to sharing the voices of diversity in Humboldt County. Their broadcasts include shows centering around race relations and the prison industrial complex.
KHSU’s General Manager Peter Fretwell, shared why it’s important that KHSU sticks true to their commitments.
“What is our commitment to giving diverse voices a platform if we are not doing exactly that?” he questioned.
He passed me a Letter To The Editor published in one of the local newspapers. It read:
“HSU students and administration are taking an inordinate amount of city hall space and time over the recent death of HSU student Josiah. I feel sorry for his mother’s loss but she is not an Arcata citizen….putting the city at her beck and call when she should be focusing on law enforcement, not the city council. And now there is a race problem? It is created by HSU students and staff.”
“I look at that, as a veteran broadcaster and a veteran journalist and I say, ‘nah.’ Our call is to do what we think is right and let the chips fall where they will.”