February 24, 2018 12:59 PM
I rarely tell the story about why I left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Usually, I tell people that in 2007 and 2008, the AJC was an unhappy place, and I had a path to something better. The AJC had been my dream job, though. Literally — the one big-city news job I had been working to get my whole career. And I quit three years in.
The way the media, and the AJC in particular, is treating Timothy Cunningham’s disappearance illustrates why I quit.
The disappearance of Timothy Cunningham should, by rights, be a screaming front page headline at the AJC, with a reporter devoted to its coverage. International publications — Time Magazine, NBC, the Daily Mail, others — are picking up the story.
Eleven days later, it is local news for the AJC.
Timothy Cunningham, 35, is a Harvard-trained disease investigator, a commissioned officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, and the guy the CDC would send in to find patient zero in a zombie plague. He left work on Feb. 12 and disappeared. He is indisputably intelligent, a leader … and black. And thus, apparently doesn’t rate the breathless reportage that a missing white woman would draw.
In January 2008, I had been working as a crime reporter for a year, a beat change after being hired as a growth and development writer in Gwinnett County. Crime reporting means chasing the next horror show for readers. I broke a 100-year-old byline record in 2007, churning out stories about murder and mayhem and personal tragedy. I was in the top five at the paper in collective readership online for those bylines. People want blood. But I might have made the front page once that year.
That January, Meredith Emerson, a recent UGA grad, went missing in the mountains of North Georgia. Emerson was found after days of searching, decapitated. Half of Gwinnett County poured onto Blood Mountain looking for her, and half the country’s media came to report about it. I wrote my ass off, describing the dread of her family and her friends, earning their trust quickly enough to turn it into brutal, compelling copy. I started making the front page, because … of course I would given the story. CNN asked me to provide studio commentary.
I refused. Because I was disgusted with them, and myself.
The entire exercise struck me as fundamentally exploitative, and ten years later I have yet to forgive myself for participating in it. The family wanted attention on the case, of course. We provided it, not because it was helpful, but because we knew the public would consume stories about a missing person who is young and white and photogenic.
Chandra Levi, Laci Peterson, Madeleine McCann. Gwen Ifill called it “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” the media’s over-focus on white missing persons cases while ignoring or under-reporting missing people of color.
The month the AJC hired me in 2005, the paper had been going insane over the disappearance of Jennifer Wilbanks, the “runaway bride.” Not long after, it sent an enterprise reporter to Aruba to chase stories about Natalee Holloway — someone with exactly zero connection to Atlanta.
I came home after this story looking at a life of reporting before me, racking up 200 stories a year where 90 percent of them would be 300-word blurbs of no-context reports with a black victim or a black criminal suspect, punctuated with lengthy reportage about people who have the right skin color to be humanized by the press.
Six months later I was in grad school at Georgia Tech.
AJC. Get your act together. Treat this with the seriousness it deserves.