On last week’s episode of MFP Live, co-host and Mississippi Free Press publisher Kimberly Griffin and I had what many people sadly might see as a traitorous conversation with Mount Olive, Miss., native and author Ralph Eubanks, especially considering that folks from across the U.S. tune in to watch our forthright dialogues about our home state of Mississippi. I say traitorous intentionally because that’s how too many people still react when Mississippians openly talk about the truth, racism, misogyny and violence of our history and, still too often, our present. When we call out lies we were taught, we’re traitors. We make Mississippi look bad by facing and telling the truth, as we’re often admonished.
We’re supposed to be “patriotic,” we’re told, and that means just talk about the good and honorable parts of Mississippi’s and the nation’s history. Let sleeping dogs lie. Don’t stir up the past. We today didn’t do those things! Don’t make Mississippi look bad. We’re not supposed to “probe the silences,” as Ralph puts it in his wonderful new book, “A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape.”
But many of us know that refusing to probe those silences, overturn the stones, face the rough parts of our history means that we freeze the inequities it created in place rather than working to erase them by understanding where they came from and inviting those who still benefit from them to be part of the solution. Think about it this way: Had Kimberly and I started the Mississippi Free Press a year ago and chosen to wriggle ourselves into the status-quo journalism space, and not ripple existing waves, we might have been careful to, at best, have a board of directors that’s at least half men, and then focus our reporting on the halls of power and political gamesmanship like so many journalism outlets here have always done and that newer ones emulate. That is, by doing old-style he-said-she-said problems journalism about mostly power brokers rather than approaching every story as a chance to dig out causes and expose inequities on the road to potential solutions.
There’s nothing actually fair or helpful in such a fake, surface parity, and it moves needles barely if at all. What journalism and society now need is to make up for disparities: our past has been dominated by white, male voices and points of view, and it’s time to not just balance those voices now, but to lift up more of the perspectives of people long ignored daily—a more truly equitable approach to journalism. The Mississippi Free Press does that regularly, while including plenty of voices by men, too. We don’t exclude them, either.
A good example is our new series on Black women running for local office in cities and towns across Mississippi. These profiles, by a multi-racial group of wonderful women journalists, look at a group who are historically left out of political decision-making in our state and who struggle for party support for their campaigns. The point is not endorsements (and some of are running against other women, too), but to tell their stories of resilience and what inspired them each to take the difficult step of opening their lives to public scrutiny and running to serve their communities. What are their hopes and challenges? Follow these stories as more go up here even after the party primaries tomorrow and headed into the general election.
All of our journalism is for all Mississippians; we reject the idea of journalism just for women; “women’s issues” are societal concerns that affect us all. All of us must grapple with the realities women in Mississippi face that not only strain their families but affect our state’s strength, including economic.
Case in point: Erica Hensley and Nick Judin did an outstanding, in-depth piece on Friday about the Mississippi Legislature killing one of the few bright spots of the 2021 legislative session for many people: postpartum Medicaid coverage. This legislation could have literally saved women’s lives—more Mississippi mothers die in the 60 days after birth in Mississippi than any other state. The reasons are systemic and passed forward over the decades, and must be reported deeply—which Erica’s reporting focus on women’s health allows—and then acknowledged (stay tuned for more). But experts say one potential solution was easy, and politics killed it. Or was it racism because most of the women affected are Black?
It’s hard to say for sure, but the result is the same. And this is decidedly not just a women’s issue.
Another example of probing the silences, of course, was the University of Mississippi emails series that the Mississippi Free Press was the only media outlet in the state willing to take on. Why? Because a whole lot of folks didn’t want these secrets aired out publicly—but Mississippi owed it to the victims to expose the wrongdoing, and future students and faculty should be safe from being the butt of vicious photos, video, and commentary passed about among donors and deans.
As a result of the UM emails coverage (see timeline here), MFP has just learned of our first journalism honor after a year publishing, and it’s a big one: We are a finalist for the 2021 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism from the University of Oregon School of Journalism for the series. The annual national award “celebrates the tough decisions made in the newsroom and in the field—decisions that make a difference in the community but are often invisible to the public.” Congratulations to reporter Ashton Pittman plus the stellar company we’re keeping on this one. The award winner is a ProPublica collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News about sexual assault. Other finalists are the Associated Press and The Washington Post. We will be recognized at a virtual awards ceremony on April 29, and will discuss our work and decisions along with the other honorees. Join us if you can.
It goes without saying that we will be the journalism organization with the smallest resources of any in that ceremony, but your support made the UM emails series and our other impactful journalism possible in our first year. As a result, we are being inundated with story tips from around the state, much of it journalism that desperately needs to happen to lift up stories unlikely to be told if we do not tell them at the Mississippi Free Press.
To help us grow our reporting team and our investigations, please give any amount at mfp.ms/donate. We love recurring monthly donations, too.
Seriously, all, you make all this urgent journalism happen because you believe Mississippi can both probe the silences, as Ralph puts it, and use what we learn to together create a better and safer state for all our people. We appreciate you more than you know.
This MFP Voices essay does not necessarily represent the views of the Mississippi Free Press, its staff or board members. To submit an essay for the MFP Voices section, send up to 1,200 words and factcheck information to [email protected]. We welcome a wide variety of viewpoints.