Remembering C. Gerald Fraser: Pioneer of A New Journalism

They are going, one by one, rapidly and relentlessly. They did their round of journalistic duty to the fullest extent they could, but men like C. Gerald Fraser of The New York Times always felt that in this world of trauma and travail there was so much more to be written about the dispossessed and the despairing.

They had the skills to cover these often overlooked topics - oh yes, they certainly had the skills -- they had the tenacity to pursue every inconvenient angle, they had the strength of legs, they has strong backs, and they had courage. White officials who felt that the place of black men and women was forever at the back of the bus did not easily intimidate them.

But what great journalists like Gerry lacked was time. He died on December 9 at the age of 91, his senses still sharp, his passion for writing still acute. They were long years in journalism, of course, but they weren't enough. They were tough years in the journalism of an era where blacks weren't necessarily welcomed and their acuity questioned, however subtly.

Gerry Fraser overcame by the sheer sturdiness of character. He would come up with his own assignments - not only about the burgeoning black communities in New York state, but also about a wide range of issues, including electoral politics. He would always say that a black reporter could and should cover issues beyond blackness. And he was very good at it.

He mentored young men and women. He taught them - myself included - that every question relating to social justice could and should be pursued with determination. He taught us that in journalism fear had no place. Fear had to be overcome.

He taught all this well before technological tools like the Internet and email made it easier to report on the exigencies of our times. He came of age in an age when an out-of-town reporter had to phone in stories, or send them to headquarters by unreliable telex machines. The logistics of filing articles was as daunting as reporting and writing them.

The thing about Gerry Fraser was that he didn't expect any special treatment because he was black. He knew that, in those days, only the color of ink was black - so your stories simply had to be good. The publisher of The Times used to select five or six stories each month and give cash awards of $100 each; I've forgotten which story Gerry won an award one month, but it was what was known in the business as a "K hed" - just a very short paragraph. He lived off that story for years. "Can you imagine - getting $100 for fewer than 100 words," he would cackle.

So he's gone now, gone with giants of the game at whose knees I learned my journalism: Abe Rosenthal, Arthur Gelb, Punch Sulzberger, George Barrett, Louis Silverstein. It's a cavalcade of stars, those heroes of mine, men of integrity, men of ideas, men with superb judgment about the use of words to match stories. Honest men. Trustworthy men.

We will meet again one again in that zone from where they're surely watching what passes for journalism in this digital age. We will recall our adventures in chasing stories. We will roar with laughter at our follies. We will rue that the technologies that have made quick transmission of stories these days weren't available to us in our time.

But most of all, like C. Gerald Fraser, we will be thankful that we got to practice journalism in an age when it was fun to be chasing the story, and then regale ourselves with what it too to slip a mischievous word or a double entendre past a distracted copy editor. We will be thankful that we got to cover the great issues of social and economic justice of our times. We will be always thankful that we did the best we could to serve our readers, the one audience that truly mattered. We may not have always succeeded, but we tried. We will be thankful for the joy that journalism gifted us.