What do you when your publication aims to cover the full range of the African-American conversation, and your founding editor happens to be smack-dab in the middle of it?
That happened to be the quandary for the editors of The Root, an 18-month-old online publication which was founded by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. When news of the Harvard scholar’s arrest at his Cambridge home surfaced last week, it reached all the way to the Oval Office, where Barack Obama, a friend of Gates, first criticized the arresting officer and then, by week’s end, ending up inviting both the professor and the policeman to the White House for a beer.
According to Donna Byrd, The Root’s publisher, traffic increased on the site, although she would not tell The Daily Beast how much. Searches for “The Root” through Google increased tenfold during the course of last week. What also increased for The Root was the difficulty of covering the week’s news.
“The Root was not going to be the Skip Gates message room,” said the magazine’s deputy editor.
“Certainly, it’s been a week that has been uncomfortable for us quite honestly,” Byrd said.
Deputy Editor Terence Samuel said there was almost no communication between Gates and the editorial staff on how to cover the story. But Gates’ side of the story got a thorough airing on the site. About 45 minutes after the news of the arrest broke in The Harvard Crimson on Monday, July 20, The Root posted a statement by Charles Ogletree, Gates’s friend and attorney. The Root’s Washington reporter, Dayo Olopade, interviewed Gates the next day, July 21, in a piece titled “Skip Gates Speaks.”
"We did have the advantage early on of getting Skip's statement, and so I think people were coming to us to hear what we had to say about it and also see what Skip had to say,” Samuel said. “But he talked to The Washington Post as much as he talked to us."
By Tuesday morning, July 21, the site had begun to publish pieces which challenged how Gates handled his interaction with the Cambridge police. Root blogger Jimi Izrael questioned how the professor handled himself, writing, “I can empathasize with Skip, but when the cops come to your house, it's never a social call. Offer them coffee and a sweet roll, but this is no time to conversate.” On Friday, July 24, another writer challenged Gates, saying his intention to make a documentary out of his arrest overlooked more deserving subjects of discrimination. That day, The Root printed Gates’ statement indicating that he had accepted Barack Obama’s offer to have a beer with Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer.
“In some ways, this was the classic Root story, with a big national issue very focused on African-American concerns,” Samuel said.
It just happened to focus on the boss. Both Byrd and Samuel said they tried to forget that fact.
“If this was anyone else,” Byrd said, “how would be we treat this story?”
In January 2008, Gates, with the support of The Washington Post’s Donald Graham, started the Web site with a stated mission both parochial and wide-ranging. Gates said he wanted to create a space online that echoed the neighborhood.
The professor said last spring, “I wanted to replicate the ideological freedom that a black man feels going to a barbershop or a black woman feels going to a beauty salon, engaging in freely exchanged debate about every aspect of the black experience without fear of censorship or fear of being called an Uncle Tom.”
But in launching the site, Gates said he was reaching to reestablish a kind of national or perhaps even global standard, comparing The Root to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Crisis and the founding of Ebony magazine in 1945.
In the past, Gates has taken his vow of journalistic purity very seriously.
When ask by a reporter last May whether he would vote for Barack Obama, Gates demurred. “I can't say. I'm editor in chief of TheRoot.com. I've got to be a journalist. I've got to be impartial.”
The site was flagged early by the conflict-of-interest watchers for directing readers to another commercial site founded by Gates that helps visitors reconstruct family trees. Currently, that portion of the site appears to have been taken down.
Gates wears many hats—scholar, filmmaker, editor, public intellectual—and they don’t always fit easily on the same head. He is a kind of academic-industrial complex unto himself: A book is usually connected to a documentary, which may be related to a commercial enterprise, which, if all goes well, often results in an appearance on Oprah. (Contacted over the weekend, Gates directed The Daily Beast to other Root editors and said he was out filming.)
Sunday night, the site was plastered with stories about the incident including the interview with Olopade (900 comments and counting), a story on Obama’s reaction (“Obama Finally Sounds Like a Black Man”), a news wire article on Crowley, an opinion piece by Gates’ Harvard colleague Lawrence Bobo (“What Do You Call a Black Man With a Ph.D.?”), and a half-dozen more Gates-related stories.
During a very busy week for the site, Samuel said The Root tried to continue to demonstrate “the obvious fact that black people don't have one opinion on anything.”
“I knew that we had to bend over backward to make sure we did not seem and were not seen as being unfairly supportive of Skip,” he said. “The Root was not going to be the Skip Gates message room.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.