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Tough Times

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 9/6/2000

It's often lamented that Baltimore is a "one-paper town," a slur that's not even true when you count dailies--last I checked, The Daily Record was still publishing. The lament further ignores the scintillating journal you're currently reading, and a stack of other pulp-based periodicals that serve the city and its various geographic and social subdivisions. The weeklies and monthlies may not provide the soup-to-nuts menu of a mainstream daily, but if you want viewpoints to contend with The Sun's, they're available--many of them free of charge. So, all ye lamenters, quit bitchin' and read. Lately I've been browsing what might be Charm City's most underappreciated newspaper, The Baltimore Times. As a paper published by and for African-Americans, the 14-year-old Times is a relative upstart, competing with the 108-year-old Baltimore Afro-American. The temptation to compare the two papers is irresistible: Besides pitching to the same readership, they have the same publication schedule (every Friday), and they're neighbors, nearly next-door to each other in the 2500 block of North Charles Street. The most obvious difference is that the Afro (which used to publish twice a week) is a bigger, more comprehensive newspaper on the model of a daily; the Times (which used to be monthly) is a tabloid, more akin to a community paper such as Northwest Baltimore's Messenger.

Editorially, I find the Times a more intellectually challenging paper than the Afro, which tends to speak for the city's black establishment. The Times regularly and explicitly critiques African-American leaders, usually in front-page opinion pieces signed by staff writers R.B. Jones and the pseudonymous Jehuti El-Malik Amen-Ra, and sometimes by syndicated columnist Earl Ofari Hutchinson, who also gets picked up by the Afro. (The Afro also shares a columnist with City Paper, Wiley Hall III.)

A good example of the Times at its best was Amen-Ra's report-card evaluation of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president Kweisi Mfume, which ran July 14 alongside the paper's coverage of the NAACP's national convention. Amen-Ra gave Mfume "A" grades for visibility and "magnetism"; "B" for fiscal management and outreach to youth; "D" for political strategy, priority-setting, economic-development efforts, and "embracing black nationalists"; and "F" for dealing--or not dealing--with black-on-black crime. Alluding to the NAACP's attention to the purported lynching of a black youth in Mississippi, Amen-Ra demanded, "How can Mfume . . . place greater focus on a possible hate crime than [on] the sad state of affairs in Baltimore, where homicides have topped 300 for the last 11 years?" The writer ultimately gave Mfume an overall "C," but added, "I admire the man's efforts and the organization's potential to do greater work," and exhorted the NAACP to work more on crime and black business development.

The most refreshing aspect of the Times' several voices is that they usually dodge the liberal/conservative pigeonholes of white-dominated media and politics. Its slant might be described as "black nationalist"--the paper is vigilant about what its writers see as the interests of the African-American population, but is outspokenly skeptical about welfare-state bromides and somewhat indifferent to the old ideal of racial integration. There are some points of resemblance with The Sun's Gregory Kane, but Times writers express themselves without Kane's braggadocio or hormone-driven reasoning, and wind up making more sense.

Confrontational opinions might seem to be at odds with the Times' Pollyannaish motto, "Positive stories about positive people," but both spring from the philosophy imported by the paper's founder and publisher, Joy Bramble, and her husband, Episcopal priest Peter Bramble, both natives of the Caribbean island of Montserrat. As explained by managing editor Dena Wane, "positive stories" means that the Times doesn't cover crime, but tries to address the issues underlying crime while putting "a positive light on African-Americans and people of color." Peter Bramble, who now leads a church in Brooklyn, N.Y., established the format for the Times' front-page bully pulpit. His favorite theme was "overcoming"--the idea that blacks, in spite of history and society, need to take responsibility for their conditions. In keeping with this idea of personal and collective accountability, Bramble urged readers to challenge authority, including his own. Amen-Ra, in fact, first appeared on the Times' front page as an indignant reader, writing to rebut one of Bramble's sermons.

In a telephone interview, Wane diplomatically plays down comparisons between the Times and its older rival. "I have every respect for the Afro," she says. "Our venues are different. Why not [read] both? We both have our missions. Both papers have a stronghold in the community and both do their part."

But R.B. Jones--stressing that he was speaking strictly for himself and not the Times--articulates a class distinction between the two papers. "The Afro grows out of a multigenerational black elitism," Jones said, referring to the Murphy/Oliver family dynasty that has run the paper since its inception 1892. (Current publisher John J. Oliver Jr. is the great-grandson of Afro founder John H. Murphy.) He contrasts that with the Times' "immigrant, entrepreneurial viewpoint."

"There are benefits [for the Afro] to being part of the black establishment, but there's also a lot of baggage," he says. "You know what positions they're going to take."

Jones, who has also been an occasional CP contributor over the years, isn't shy about declaring his own baggage: He worked at the Afro from 1983 to '88, then resigned after management suspended him for violations he characterizes as "bullshit." (Regular readers of Jones' work, however, know that his disgruntlement is not limited to the Afro but rather seems a congenital condition.) He also has praise for his former employer. "The Afro's done a tremendous amount of good over 100 years," he says. "But they've got a lot to straighten out."

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