Barry Saunders

As a reporter and editor, Claude Sitton set the standard

Claude Sitton, editor of The News & Observer, at work in his office in October 1990, shortly before his retirement.
Claude Sitton, editor of The News & Observer, at work in his office in October 1990, shortly before his retirement. hlynch@newsobserver.com

There’s usually one, maybe two in any profession – someone who sets the standard for excellence and whose name is spoken in hushed, reverential tones.

If they set the standard high enough, though, their names are just as often spoken, if at all, with contempt, the words dripping with bile.

In business, it may be Ford or Buffett. In technology, Jobs. In basketball, Jordan, Wilt, Kareem. All had their fans, but all had detractors, too.

In journalism, the name that evokes both reactions – praise and scorn – is Sitton, Claude Sitton. If he were reading this column, he’d be yelling at me for taking too long to get to the point. He’d also likely be yelling at me for praising him for doing his job.

But boy, could he do it. A young reporter reading Sitton’s coverage of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s could be intimidated, sort of like what happens when a teacher assigns a novice writer to read Hemingway or Capote.

Man, I can’t write like that.

Sitton, a former columnist and editor at The News & Observer and a New York Times war correspondent – you try covering the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s in the Deep South and say it wasn’t war coverage – died Tuesday. He was 89.

Sitton left the N&O three years before I arrived, but I sometimes called him to ask about some civil rights incident or personage he covered – which was most of them.

Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of a seminal civil rights event, the assassination of Medgar Evers in Mississippi in front of his family, I called Sitton to ask what he remembers about that time. “You’ve got the story. Read it. I was in Birmingham when he was shot. I chartered a plane and flew to Jackson.”

Everything Sitton wrote as a reporter that I read in books or on microfilm – that’s what we used before the Internet – I liked, so I considered it a free lesson when he’d call with criticism or, occasionally, praise.

I liked most of the things he said, too, even when he was telling me I was full of hooey – because he would usually tell me why I was full of hooey.

What he said during one conversation, though, I did not like. In a column, I’d written something complimentary about Stokely Carmichael, a charismatic college student leader of the movement who thought violence should be met with violence.

The morning the column appeared, my phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Stokely Carmichael was a loudmouthed punk.”

I don’t remember why Sitton said he felt that way, but from research I discovered that Carmichael, in addition to railing against nonviolence, also railed against white reporters.

That, apparently, sometimes put them in danger.

In their book “The Race Beat,” about the reporters who brought the struggle for civil rights in the South to doorsteps and living rooms across the country, Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff wrote of one such instance:

Carmichael, spotting Karl Fleming, a Newsweek magazine reporter and “the one white face in a crowd of 300,” said, “‘And we need to stop these (white) reporters from coming down and exploiting us.’”

“An hour later,” they wrote, “Fleming returned to his car to put his camera into the trunk. A blow from behind ... struck him to the ground. His skull was seriously fractured.”

OK, I can see why reporters weren’t fond of Carmichael, even though most of the dangers they faced were not from him.

You know those little notebooks reporters carry around? Sitton’s contemporaries credit him with inventing them – of being the first to cut down large, unwieldy notebooks so they’d fit into a jacket or pants pocket. See, being identified as a reporter in parts of the Deep South was not viewed as a badge of honor, especially by some of those who carried badges.

So thanks, Claude, for the handy notebooks. Thanks mainly, though, for setting a standard to which we all can aspire – even though few will reach it.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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