By Roldo Bartimole
How do you do aggressive, honest reporting? Ned Whelan, who died Wednesday, days after an accidental fall, showed exactly how. He died in Phoenix, visiting his daughter. He was 70.
As a Plain Dealer reporter in 1970, Whelan covered a meeting of the Bluecoats, an organization of the top corporate executives in town. The Bluecoats support police killed on duty with financial help for family and children.
The situation was an introduction by top corporate Cleveland elite, Fred Coolidge Crawford. He was then board chairman emeritus of TRW, Inc., a major American corporation based here and on the boards of other major corporations.
In his talk Crawford uttered two racist “jokes.” Whelan was covering the meeting for the Plain Dealer. He had the courage to write into his article the essence of this elite’s attempt at humor. Of course, the material never made it to the newspaper the next day. Ned’s honesty was killed. Left on the cutting floor by editors.
I wrote at the time that “Such incidents usually die with self-censorship by reporters,” not so with Whelan. He wrote it.
Someone, maybe even Whelan, as I remember it, sent me the actual edited copy. The material missing in the PD appeared only in my newsletter Point of View in November 23 1970.
Whelan wrote: “Crawford told two racial jokes to the all-white audience.
“In prefacing one joke, he commented upon someone being ‘black-balled.’
“Crawford then added: ‘I guess it takes two black balls to get elected in this city.”
He injected this racial slur to an audience of police officers. All white.
He also made another racist comment about a “colored boy” and a general, a joke in a Step ‘n Fetchit dialect, Whelan reported. The joke didn’t even require any racial references.
Whelan must have known he was taking a chance. He probably expected to be edited by his bosses. Reporters often don’t want to make their editors uncomfortable. So they leave uncomfortable material out of their stories.
Carl Stokes, the first black elected mayor in a major U. S. city, of course, was mayor at the time.
Whelan continued: “The remark elicited a mixture of laughs and agitation.
“Reston (New York Times noted editorial leader and guest speaker) did not comment upon Crawford’s digression.”
Some people don’t speak out against obvious racism. That helps it along.
It takes courage to write what Whelan did. This was a time of high racial tensions. Crawford was one of the most lauded of corporate leaders. He was speaking to an all-white crowd of police and corporate executives.
One can be sure that he expected not to be quoted in a manner that would bring him disgrace.
Whelan did quote Crawford, however. But the TRW boss’s confidence of editorial protection proved valid. The inherent sense of censorship at the Plain Dealer for the chosen didn’t fail him.
Ned had very conservative opinions, very opposite of mine. I’ve sometimes taken jabs at him but he was always gracious and kind when we met. I’ll miss him. It is a very sad ending.
[Photo via Cleveland Magazine]
In 1991 he was awarded the Second Annual Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage in Washington, D.C. He received the Distinguished Service Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, Cleveland chapter, in 2002, and was named to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, 2004. [Photo by Todd Bartimole.]