City Desk

Black and White and Read All Over

If you've been assaulted or murdered by somebody of another race, or you've assaulted or murdered somebody of another race, Howard Witt is probably on your case. And he's gonna make you famous.

Plainly, nobody in the news business has had a year like Witt, the former City Paper editor. He broke the Jena 6 story with a May article in the Chicago Tribune, where he now heads up the paper's Southwestern bureau.

Two months earlier, Witt broke the story of Shaquanda Cotton, a black Paris, Texas, 14-year-old who was sentenced to up to seven years in a juvenile detention center for allegedly shoving a white school employee. Cotton was released after Witt's reporting drew national attention to the case.

In June, Witt's story on Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom, a white Knoxville couple allegedly kidnapped and murdered by four blacks, fueled a national debate on what constitutes a hate crime.

Asked to explain his big year, Witt, back in D.C. to cover the Jena 6 hearings on Capitol Hill, says via e-mail:

"I think these stories caught fire across the nation first because of the power of the Internet, and hundreds of African American bloggers in particular, who quickly distributed them on blogs, Websites and via email. And the stories were so resonant because, even if many white Americans don't believe it, many African Americans know that discrimination and unequal treatment persist across the nation, and not just in the Southern towns I have been writing about."

Witt's magic touch isn't as evident when he strays outside the race-crime beat. A July 29 story on his grandmother's kugel recipe hasn't incited demonstrations for or against Jewish noodle dishes. Yet.

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  • Afi Scruggs

    No, Witt did not, repeat did not break the Jena 6 story. He took it out of the arena of emails and local news and into that of the national press. But I don't think it's accurate or fair to say he broke the story when the local paper in Alexandria, LA had also been following it for quite some time.

  • Allan Hubbard

    Let's be abundantly clear, as well, that Witt's efforts are not what freed Shaquanda Cotton. It was a Houston state representative (with a penchant for drinking and driving) who capitalized on an existing, unrelated controversy inside the state's juvenile prison system that freed Shaquanda Cotton. Additionally, it's very interesting that such a story is hanging on for so long and drawing comparisons that are unwarranted. Jena 6 and Shaquanda Cotton have only 3 things in common: 1) happened in the South, 2) defendants were black, 3) a crime was committed. Witt is an opportunist, not a journalist.

  • Aquinas Looney

    Is he the black Howard Witt or the white one? That's important in stories about race.

  • Larry Lorenz

    Afi Scruggs is right. Witt and the Tribune were far behind reporters for The Town Talk of Alexandria, La. They began covering the story in September of 2006 and the Web site carries a good history of the case (, including a good bit of information that national reporters have not included in their stories. Check it out.

  • Alan Bean

    The Alexandria TownTalk coverage was never going to make any impression nationally. I sent the story to Howard precisely because he had done such a nice job with the Shaquanda Cotton story. When I sent my narrative to Mr. Witt, the TownTalk wasn't doing anything with it and Jena Times orthodoxy prevailed. Witt's reporting caught the attention of a national audience--that's what it means to "break" a story. Regional coverage is good, but it isn't enough.

  • Blair

    In Texas, assaults are classified as misdemeanors, but they become felonies if the person assaulted is a federal servant, such as a police officer or school teacher. Two witnesses testified they saw Shaquanda Cotton assault the teacher and refuted Shaquanda version of the incident. Had the incident been an isolated incident, it probably would have resulted in mild in-schooll punishment, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. The school reported the incident to police and the district attorney’s office decided to file charges because of her record of previous offenses. (The Paris School District has announced its willingness to release Shaquanda disciplinary records to reporters, provided they first get her mother’s approval.)

    Most children aren’t afraid of getting into trouble at school; they are afraid of the trouble they will get into at home for getting into trouble at school. Teachers refer to some parents as “problem parents.” These are parents who refuse to believe their children can ever be at fault. They take the position that everyone—administrators, teachers and other students—who say their child was in the wrong must be lying. If their child repeatedly gets into trouble, then it’s because they are being picked on.

    Before Shaquanda went to trial, the district attorney’s office offered a plea bargain reduction from felony to misdemeanor assault and two years juvenile probation. Her mother and defense attorney turned it down. She was tried and adjudicated as delinquent. The defense asked the judge rather than a jury to set punishment. Texas law allows judges to release juveniles to their families, provided family members provide verbal assurances that they will do their best to ensure the juvenile meets the provision of the parole by staying out of trouble. The judge offered to release Shaquanda to her mother, but her mother refused to provide the verbal assurances required by law. She took the stance that her daughter had done nothing wrong and should not have to abide by provisions of parole. Therefore, the judge turned Shaquanda over to the Texas Youth Commission. She was placed in a juvenile detention facility for an indeterminate period, lasting a long as it would take her to complete the commission’s behavior modification program. The minimum time required to complete the program is nine month. Due to some minor rule infractions, Shaquanda spent about 12 months before being released.

    The Paris white girl who burned her own house accepted a plea bargain and was released on parole to her family. Her family, unlike Shaquanda’s mother, provided the required assurances required by law that they would do their best to ensure that their daughter complied with the parole provisions. A manic depressive with a history of suicide attempts and self-mutilation, the girl soon violated her parole and was sentenced to the same juvenile detention facility as Shaquanda Cotton. Once there, the girl became one of several girls sexually molested by a prison guard in a case that became a major scandal. A victim of multiple rapes and the focus of a major scandal, she remains in the juvenile detention cneter.

  • Suozzo

    cool picsxx