Philadelphia Magazine editor faces critics on race article

Author Robert Huber (second from left) listens to Farah Jimenez. With them were Walter Palmer (left), Solomon Jones, and Christopher Norris.
Author Robert Huber (second from left) listens to Farah Jimenez. With them were Walter Palmer (left), Solomon Jones, and Christopher Norris. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 20, 2013

Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath and Robert Huber, author of the controversial "Being White in Philly" cover story, faced their critics at a forum Monday night at the National Constitution Center.

McGrath opened by saying he was sorry to anybody who was hurt by the article, because that was not his intent, but adding that he did not regret publishing the story in the March issue.


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Huber told the packed auditorium of about 200 people that the purpose of the article was to explore "how white people relate to black people in the inner city, or don't relate to them."

In his piece, Huber wrote: "We need to bridge the conversational divide so that there are no longer two private dialogues in Philadelphia - white people talking to other whites, and black people to blacks - but a city in which it is OK to speak openly about race."

The story, however, was criticized as dwelling on negative experiences that whites had with blacks that often fit into racial stereotypes.

In a scathing letter, Mayor Nutter last week requested that the Philadelphia Human Relations Commission consider whether the magazine and Huber deserved to be rebuked for the article.

Nutter said Huber ignored positive anecdotes "to feed his own misguided perception" that African Americans are "lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal."

McGrath served as moderator for a panel that included Huber; journalists Solomon Jones and Christopher Norris; People's Emergency Center president Farah Jimenez; and University of Pennsylvania lecturer Walter Palmer, who teaches about racism and social change.

Jones ripped Philadelphia Magazine for what he said was the publication's history of racial insensitivity - a contention Nutter also raised in his letter.

"This is the most infuriating thing about it," Jones said. "I was not surprised."

Jimenez said Philadelphia Magazine, which has an all-white editorial staff, was not the right "messenger" for a story encouraging racial dialogue.

She also repeatedly said the magazine and its critics were confusing issues of race with problems associated with being poor.

Norris said that he understood the outrage over the article, but simply viewed the piece as the work of an older white man writing about his experience. Huber is 58.

When McGrath was questioned about his staff's lack of diversity, he replied, "I'm committed to having a more diverse staff," and, "I am committed to do something."

He also was asked why the magazine had a different cover for copies distributed to hotels and tourists. McGrath said it was a long-standing practice to use alternate covers when the main cover was controversial. He cited a cover that depicted a gun, saying a different cover was used for hotel copies.

The article was criticized for quoting people only by their first names, and one audience member questioned whether they were actual people.

McGrath said the magazine contacted everyone quoted in the story as part of its fact-checking process. "We are confident Bob did not make any of this up," McGrath said.

Several participants noted that Monday was the fifth anniversary of President Obama's famous Constitution Center speech on race, after his 2008 campaign was rocked by the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

While anger was directed at McGrath and Huber, there were several heated exchanges between some black audience members and black panelists about crime and personal responsibility in African American communities.

McGrath said the process of guiding the story to publication and the subsequent reaction was "enlightening to me."


Contact Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.

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