Currying Favor An Interview With Emerge's New Editor, George E. Curry

Maybe it was the November 1993 cover image, an impish illustration that depicts “House Negro” Clarence Thomas with a handkerchief on his head. Maybe it was the June essay on rump-shaking, or the August piece exploring why blacks are attracted to cults. Then again, maybe it was that little December squib blaming Ted Danson's embarrassing Friars Club roast fiasco on his ex-girlfriend, Whoopi Goldberg, who “convinced Danson to appear in blackface; he assumed that because she was black, she knew what she was talking about.”

Whatever the reason, we find ourselves increasingly intrigued by Emerge, the upscale black news monthly. For this, we suspect we can largely thank its new editor, George E. Curry, hired earlier this year by D.C.-based Black Entertainment Television (BET) after BET acquired a majority interest in the publication. At same time that Curry was brought in, Emerge moved its editorial operations from New York to the Washington area, where it shares Rosslyn office space with YSB, a BET-owned magazine for black teen-agers.

We visited Curry there on a recent Friday, and found him overseeing the final edit of the December issue and wearing—rather uncomfortably—a pair of slacks and a striped shirt without a tie. Friday is “casual day” at the office; Curry, long accustomed to power suitage, thinks this is a dumb idea but goes along with the program.

Curry, 46, is an Alabama native, a graduate of historically black Knoxville College, and a 23-year veteran of mainstream journalism. He has never worked full-time for the black press before. As a college student, he received his introduction to journalism while working in the mailroom of Life, and after finishing college—with summer stints at Harvard and Yale—took a job at Sports Illustrated. That was followed by 11 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 1983, Curry was hired into the Washington bureau of the Chicago Tribune; in 1989, he became the paper's New York bureau chief. He also free-lanced for Emerge after its founding in 1989, penning cover stories on Charles S. Dutton and Louis Farrakhan, as well as a tartly worded piece on Jesse Jackson in which he noted that “if there is a parade, [Jackson] has to lead it. If there is a wedding, he has to be the bride (unless the groom is getting top billing). If there is a funeral, he has to be the corpse.”

Since taking over, Curry has redesigned Emerge graphically and editorially; his first cover, in May 1993, depicted a young black man being violently arrested by a cop. Straight-news stories on—to give a few examples—police brutality, housing discrimination, Haiti, and the graduation rates of black athletes at public universities are leavened by think-pieces on, say, use of theN-word among blacks. Curry has done another thing, too: He has cheerfully pillaged the mainstream press for talent, gleaning contributions from Sylvester Monroe of Time; Sheila Rule, Ronald Smothers, and Karen DeWitt of the New York Times; Trevor Coleman, formerly of the Detroit News; Karen Thomas of the Dallas Morning News; Lee Daniels, formerly of the New York Times; Joe Davidson and Leon Wynter of the Wall Street Journal; Jacqueline Trescott, Patrice Gaines, Kevin Merida, and Kenneth Cooper of the Washington Post; Scott Minerbrook of U.S. News & World Report; and, as of this month, New York Times writer William C. Rhoden, who will contribute a sports column to the magazine, whose circulation currently stands at 140,000.

What brought you to Emerge?

When BET got the controlling share, they decided they wanted a new editor. It wasn't like I was coming from the outside. I was kind of in the family already. I had some very clear views of where I wanted to go with the magazine. I thought the magazine had failed in a number of ways. One was: The first year of Emerge, it had more of a news orientation. Then it got away from that—they started putting celebrities and entertainers on the cover. I understand why they changed—they had serious financial problems and they were trying to get more readers—but I think it drove away some readers.

The first thing I did was, the magazine had a tag line saying “Our Voice in Today's World.” I always hated that, because what did it say? Whose voice? I wasn't hearing voices. My first issue, in May, I dropped it. I discussed it beforehand with [BET founder] Bob Johnson; I said, “The first thing I want to do is remove that thing and put up there "Black America's Newsmagazine' so that people can think of us as a black Time or Newsweek, or, better yet, think of them as a white Emerge.”

Who are your readers?

Basically highly educated, high-income readers. And unlike when I worked for the Chicago Tribune, where I had to write to an eighth-grade level, people are well-read and more sophisticated.

How would you articulate the difference between Emerge and other black magazines?

We try and be a cutting-edge, news-oriented, serious magazine, not a lifestyle magazine like Ebony. We're not a woman's magazine like Essence. And we are not a business magazine like Black Enterprise. We try and be a general interest, broad newsmagazine, and be clear on that. I had a friend who took Eddie Murphy's wedding pictures; if he had given them to me I wouldn't have used them, because that's not what we are about.

Since your readership tends to be affluent, educated, can you really claim to be black America's newsmagazine, to speak for the whole community?

Well, we have a story on sickle-cell anemia research, how it has taken a back seat to AIDS. Or we have a cover story on Clarence Thomas and his effect on the Supreme Court. So whether our readers are high-income, low-income, or no-income is irrelevant. These are issues that affect readers of color.

Why does black America need a newsmagazine?

Why does white America need Time and Newsweek? Our image is so distorted in the news media. I know; I worked in it for 23 years. There are so many stories that happen every day, and no one even thinks for a scintilla of a second: “How does this affect African-Americans, or people of color, or women?” It's basically a white male preserve. And that's the way news is viewed. That's why we'll have a story on how NAFTA affects blacks. Or Clinton's health plan. There are certain diseases that affect African-Americans more than other people—what is this going to mean to us? What is it going to mean to black doctors and black hospitals? How is it going to affect our community?

Also, it is a perspective other people want. Mainstream media is so narrow, they ought to call it “narrowstream,” in the way it looks at news and at people, the way it stereotypes people. So if you want to be well-read, you wouldn't just read Time and Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report. We get white readers, we get lots of white readers all the time.

You've assembled writers from virtually every major mainstream daily; how've you done it, and why?

I was not impressed by the staff they had before. There's not a single person that is still here from when I came in. That may sound cold to a lot of people, but if I want a news-oriented magazine, I want someone with a news background. I knew I had to do that, and moving to Washington made it easier. The staff all came here for an idea. The idea is that we can make a black publication, make it first-class, do the same kind of work we did before and not make excuses for it. I was about to go overseas as a foreign correspondent when this opportunity came up. There was no reason to hesitate. Some people say, “Why would you leave the Chicago Tribune, the security?” This is a dream, to come down here and almost start from the ground up.

What about the contrarian argument, that you are going to draw the black talent away from the mainstream press so that the mainstream press gets even worse?

It's kind of hard to imagine it being any worse.

I knew you were going to say that.

The people I'm using all still work at their regular jobs—Time, Newsweek, New York Times—but the reason they are writing here is that they are so frustrated. I won't say his name, but one major writer for a major publication had been waiting to run a story in his publication for 18 months, and once the story ran here, his editor was like, “Oh, I guess we should have run that story.” Journalists of color are totally frustrated. When I was at the Tribune, I was happy if there were three or four stories a year that I was excited about—stories about the black experience. That would be a banner year for me.

So you think that the frustration level is higher for black journalists than it is for journalists in general? We're all frustrated.

Of course. It's a character maker—a job qualification—that you be frustrated. But it is much higher for black journalists, because you see very, very little change. You hear all the words about multiculturalism, diversity, and it's still a white male club and we expect it to stay that way. You still see the stereotypes. Even though there are more whites on welfare, if you see a picture of a welfare mother in the newspaper, it's going to be a black. Or if you see someone connected with a crime and handcuffed, they are going to be black. Things really have not changed.

And if we are talking about opportunity—I could have been at the Chicago Tribune 100 years, and I wouldn't have been the editor of it, and that's the reality of it. You just accept it.

Why wouldn't you become the editor of the Chicago Tribune?

A lot of reasons. One, they have a lot of qualified people who can get there. And two, you can count on less than one hand the number of [black] people who are editors of a mainstream newspaper. It just doesn't happen. You're talking about information, you're talking about power. You're talking about shaping opinions. They don't give it up too easily.

Both the alternative and mainstream press worry about their lack of minority staffers.

I get sick of excuses, of people that say we can't find [black journalists]—that's bullshit. I've been running lots of journalism workshops, and I have no problem finding them. Get these kids young, get them interested in journalism.

At alternative papers, the stock answer often is that we tend to pay lower salaries, and that if someone is talented, the Washington Post is going to snap them up, the Philadelphia Inquirer is going to snap them up.

That's the same thing the mainstream media says: “As soon as I get one, and train one, he or she is off to the big papers.” Well, there ain't that many on the big papers. Secondly, go to a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists and you would be amazed how many African-Americans are there—skilled, qualified—that you could find to work for you. And the other point is everybody is not paying big money; the field itself doesn't pay much. A lot of people will be willing to trade off the frustration of covering a zone or a beat for the Washington Post to work for a “alternative” doing what he or she wants to do. The money's not going to be that much different, but you'll have fun.

I've got a young woman who graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College;I've got another young graduate from Morehouse, Dr. King's alma matter; another who is an honors graduate from UCLA. If I can do this at a little small black magazine, what the hell do you mean you can't find them? I just don't buy it. I hear excuses. I could pull out a drawer full of resolutions they have passed on diversity. Bullshit. If the media were really serious about the issue of diversity, they would mobilize behind it the way they mobilize behind a story they hope will win a Pulitzer Prize.

Are you committed to having an all-black staff?

I'm committed to people with a news background. There are whites on the advertising staff. It wouldn't surprise me if at some point we had somebody white on the editorial staff. But right now we don't have the money for any new staff. There are some whites I know who could work here.

Do black journalists and white journalists cover things differently? Or can a qualified white reporter cover communities of color as well as a qualified black reporter can?

What you should have is a sensitive reporter; they should be able to cover anything. Sometimes your color will be a certain advantage, sometimes it will be a disadvantage. I know a lot of people talk to me because I'm African-American, but I interviewed a person involved with the plumbers' operation for Richard Nixon and I used race there, too. I said, “Maybe you don't want to talk to me because I'm black?” And it was: “Oh, no, it's nothing like that, Mr. Curry.” So you use it to your advantage. I will not accept ever that a black person doesn't have the responsibility to cover whites fairly or that blacks don't have the responsibility to cover whites fairly. You call yourself a professional journalist, you better make damn sure that you are good and damn sure that you are not offensive and do the best job that you can. Once we say that blacks can only cover blacks and whites can only cover whites, I think it's a cop-out and we are not doing our job.

In one of your first editorial columns, you wrote that “one of our primary objectives at Emerge is to serve as a catalyst for debate between African-Americans.” Can you elaborate on why and how you're doing this?

Here's an example. I think it was in the June issue, I gave space to a conservative couple who said that gays in the military was not a black issue. I knew that it would create a firestorm, and it did. And I said in my editor's note that, in the next issue, we'll do somebody on the other side. As a follow-up. I deliberately decided not to pick someone from the gay and lesbian community to respond, because if I did that, people could dismiss him and write him off. I wanted somebody who was straight to take that position and let people make up their own minds.

I'm not sure people would write off the opinion of a gay or lesbian.

I didn't want to risk that. I think it's easy for people to say, “Oh, he's a gay, or she's a lesbian, what do you expect them to say?”

Where do you come down on the issue?

It's irrelevant.

You think the issue is irrelevant?

No—that's not my purpose. I think certainly both groups are oppressed, yeah. Are they parallel? The parallels are not direct, no. Absolutely not. Are people punished, harmed, ostracized because of their orientation? Yeah. But is that a direct parallel? No.

So do you think that gays should not be able to invoke the civil rights movement?

I think they can make a case on their own, on discrimination. I think there are similarities. But when you go too far with it, you minimize the horrors of slavery. They can make their own case. A lot of groups ride on the back of the civil rights movement. The women's movement did the same thing. But don't get me wrong: I think they should assert themselves. You have to assert yourself in this country. The other group isn't going to do it for you and voluntarily turn over power. I've always said that you will have true equality when you have inept minorities and women at the same rate you have inept white males. I'm waiting for that day.

How have your readers responded to your willingness to mix it up in the magazine, to be self-critical?

Most people appreciate it and the serious tone we have in the magazine. But there's a small segment of people in the black community that don't think you should criticize blacks publicly.

You don't air your dirty laundry.

Yes. But I say, “Why go to another cleaner's? Hell, bring it here. We'll give a good price.” I'm a journalist and I'm sorry—I feel we should hold civil rights leaders and everybody else accountable. If you blow it, who are you hurting? You are hurting me. I'm not going to let you hide behind this crutch of racism. It's like Marion Barry—hell, you know that if you don't break the law, you don't go to jail. It's just that simple. And if you break it, don't say, “Oh, my brother.” No. You came to the wrong place.

Whose idea was the Clarence Thomas handkerchief-head illustration?

I wish I can say I had this brilliant stroke, but it didn't happen that way. We were in the edit meeting and my managing editor, Florestine Purnell, was going over the story list. She said, “We got a Clarence Thomas piece where we went back and talked to the civil rights leaders who supported him.” I said, “So how do they like him now?” And Flo said, “Well basically, he's a handkerchief-head.”

As soon as she said it, I started laughing, and I had this look in my eye and I think everybody had the look in their eye and I said, “Let's put a handkerchief on his head.” If we didn't have the story I wouldn't have run it, but it was a solid story in every respect. Since then we've gotten several suggestions from readers. One is that we put a handkerchief on Whoopi's head, another is that we have a handkerchief hall of shame.

You've done a story on colorism—the pressure on people of mixed race to identify as black. How has the response been?

It's a major issue, and we're going to keep covering it. I have another story but I'm not going to tell you what it is.

What's your view on that kind of pressure?

You've got to be clear about what you are, and everybody else can go to hell. There are some people that think we should only use “African-American.” Well hell, if I used it in a headline, I wouldn't have room for anything else. Secondly, I'm old enough to know what it meant to fight for the word “black.” I use the two interchangeably. You don't get hung up on that.

What are the things that you think about a lot, worry about a lot?

Education. Part of it is personal—I grew up in total segregation, in a housing project. Neither one of my parents finished high school. Education was my passport out of the South. I have three sisters, all three of them finished college. Two of them have master's degrees. That's how we got out. So you'll see a lot on education. We're going to deal with the subject of crime a lot. A lot on foreign affairs, because we're not just talking about the confines of the United States. I'm making a concerted effort; I don't want these drive-by reporters who go to Africa for a week and come back and want to be an expert. I want people who live there, who are based there, to write for me. I want to broaden the magazine.

You've done a cover story on historically black colleges; what is your view on them? Do they provide a better environment for black students?

Black colleges play a certain role, and do a better job in my estimation, of educating blacks. Blacks come out with their self-esteem intact. Women's colleges and black colleges are very, very similar, as I found out reporting for the Tribune. As studies show, when a woman raises her hand and when a man raises his hand, the man is more likely to be called on in the classroom—these kind of things you don't have to deal with.

And it is very similar when you are talking about a black college.

But both groups have worked so hard to be treated as equal—to say, “I'm not different, I don't learn differently, I don't think differently, I'm as smart, I learn as well, I learn as quickly.” Then, to turn around and make the argument—and I happen to disagree with it as far as women's schools go—that you get called on at different rates, that you don't talk in class....

I don't think you read the studies. I'm not talking about what you think, I'm talking about facts here, studies that have been done showing that when women and men are in the same environment, women talk less, men take the leadership roles, teachers call on the males first.

Then change the teacher.

Wait a minute, wait a minute. You asked me about the role of black colleges, let's get back on track. There are similarities between black colleges and women's colleges. You might be the type of person that can function anywhere. But there are other people who would function better there. If you can come out of college strong, with your self-esteem intact, then you can go out and fight in the real world. For some people it's best, some people it is not. Everybody's not going to be like you. But studies show that a lot of women blossom better in all-female colleges, and that's OK! It doesn't mean that all women got to go to those colleges. Let them go anywhere. Instead of saying what we're going to eliminate—that's so backward to me—hell, get all of them, get some more. If the system isn't working the way it is now, try and find some other kind of system that will draw people into education. Instead of saying which is best, hell, all of them are fine—if it works. Different things work better for different people under different circumstances.

How do you explain the racial self-segregation that goes on at public universities today?

You have people that play on fears, people that have not had enough interaction. When I came to Sports Illustrated, I'd basically come from a black background. A friend of mine came from an all-white community in North Carolina, another came from Terre Haute, Indiana, another came from Boston. We are friends to this day. We had very narrow backgrounds, but we learned to interact. Sometimes it's just a matter of being exposed. I don't think that there are enough things that encourage it. You almost have to invent a system. You have to have different people's backgrounds represented in the curriculum. You have to make sure that there is integration in all aspects of government, so there is not a white student newspaper and a black student newspaper.

Who is “you”? Whose responsibility is this?

Everybody's. Everybody has to take responsibility. It can't be just them or me. We have to work together. Do you remember back in the heyday of the '60s and '70s—it's awfully silly when you think about it—people had teas and coffees, and it was “hmmm, you don't have horns on your head” and “hmmm, I like you.” But go to any corporate office in this country and you'll see people who are friends, who go to lunch together. When 5 o'clock comes, they go in different directions. They never see each other after hours—that's the test. Do they socialize together, go to the movies together, play ball together, go dancing together? Do they actually interact, or is that something that they do only in the workplace? I would challenge your readers. Everybody out there ask yourself: When you leave work, who do you socialize with from another race? That tells you how much progress we've made. And I don't think we've made much.

Why haven't we?

One, we haven't made it part of the agenda. We'd make progress if we said to managers at news organizations that you won't get your bonus unless you have more people of color—so at least you'd have more interaction in the work force. If we really enforced the housing laws, we'd end discrimination there. If we lived next door, we'd get to know each other better. Share a neighborhood, you share a bond. But if you live in this city, in Chicago, or most places, the residential areas are extremely segregated, the interaction isn't there. We have segregation of schools, maybe more so than before, segregation in housing, and you don't socialize after you leave work. Where is it going to happen? We are polarizing America, though we have more and more people of color here, a more global economy—it's stupid to let race divide us up.

It's so hard now to trace a root cause of something—say, housing. Twenty or 30 years ago, you could blame segregation on white flight. But in D.C., people of all races are leaving.

But the suburbs are still segregated.

Who's responsible?

You've got steering, you've got everything we talked about in our housing story [“Housing Bias Closes Door to Middle Class,” Oct. 1993]. Real-estate agents are not showing certain areas to blacks. And they profit from fear—oh, there are black people coming, or oh, there are white people coming. If they have a neighborhood to sell, it's Paul Revere time: “The blacks are coming, the blacks are coming.” They sell houses in there, that's a hell of a lot of commissions.

I don't want to get out of here without talking a little about local politics. You've lived in D.C., Chicago—are the issues different for black communities in these cities?

No. What is happening in D.C. is happening in other cities: You see the top offices being reclaimed by whites. Now you got a white mayor of LA, white mayors of New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, here the chairman of the city council. Look at the bigcities, we're actually losing some places. But when you are in office you have to make tough decisions, and it really won't matter what race—you have to make cuts, and people don't want to pay more taxes.

What do you think of Sharon Pratt Kelly's tenure?

I was gone for most of it.

Ha.

Ha. If you wanted to ask me about Marion Barry, I was here for that.

Then what do you think of Marion Barry's resurrection?

Stunned, totally stunned. But I don't think people give him credit. He was not a bad mayor. I'm not talking about his personal life, but when you look at development downtown, he did quite a bit of it. He stunk—he stunk up the place. But if you ignore his personal life and look at development, he was a good mayor in that respect.

Washington has a strong black press, old-line papers like the Afro-American, new papers like News Dimensions. Do you have contact with the editors of these papers, located over here in Virginia as you are?

I live in Washington. We're in Virginia temporarily, until the BET building gets built in Northeast. This is a temporary hiding place across the water. I know a lot of people in the black press.

And what does your magazine represent within the black press?

What I hope this represents is, when you see people like me and my staff coming from mainstream media, that we can bring quality and experience to black publications. A friend of mine left the Christian Science Monitor to become managing editor of the Chicago Defender. I hope what you are seeing is people with a depth of experience at larger publications coming back to take the helm of black publications—taking them to a higher height. There are more opportunities now: You don't have to work in the black press. But I am telling you that you will see more and more people choosing to work for the black press, because they are doing what they care about. Just like some people that have the option to go to Ivy League schools will choose to go to black colleges because it is a better environment to learn in.

My stepfather said when I took this job, “That's good, George. For the most part, white institutions have always taken the best of black institutions, siphoned them off, hired them away. I like the idea that this is one of the few instances where a black institution is pulling you away from the white media.” I feel like I've come home. I've been out there. I've learned everything there is to learn. I've traveled in Air Force One, I've covered the White House, I met the Pope at the Vatican, covered Jesse Jackson. I appreciate those wonderful experiences. Now I get the chance to come home with the challenge of a first-class operation. So when you think of Emerge you think of the same standards as Time, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report have—even higher. That's the challenge I accept.

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.

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