Editor's note: This is a more extensive version of the story originally published.
March 25, 2004 – Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Melvin Claxton said on Friday that he was "troubled" by something that happened in the local news media this week.
Speaking at a V.I. Source Internet seminar, Claxton said: "Newspapers have an obligation to protect the downtrodden, to jealously guard individual freedoms and to ensure that the weakest among us are protected from the strongest."
He said journalism is a "profession from which few get rich, but from which all are enriched." And he said that newspapers should never retreat from their role to hold arrogant leaders accountable and to be a court of last appeal for the abused and ill treated who have nowhere else to turn.
Claxton said he was "troubled" by the local aftermath of reporting that he had done for The Detroit News, his employer, about Antigua's former Prime Minister Lester Bird and his family's regime. The stories were printed in Monday's issue of the V.I. Daily News with the Detroit paper's permission. Claxton, a native of Antigua, has written extensively over the years about Antigua's politics and the Bird family's control over the island for the last 50 years.
On Tuesday, the Daily News ran a guest editorial by its owner, Jeffrey Prosser, condemning his own publication for having carried the Antigua stories. "We have failed our readers," Prosser wrote. "Readers of the Daily News deserve better." He called Claxton's reporting "biased" and said it had no place in the paper the day before an election. (Bird was voted out of office on Tuesday.)
Prosser also had the stories deleted from his newspaper's online edition. And his response was not posted, since the material to which he was responding was removed.
Claxton was critical of Prosser's decision.
"A newspaper never fails its readers by telling the truth," he said. "It fails its readers by hiding the truth. The Daily News, by keeping the stories off its Web site, attempted to do just that."
Claxton said that just about every major federal and international law-enforcement agency has had a problem with Antigua. He said human rights organizations have criticized the Bird regime for abuses, and mobster Vincent Teresa — in his book "My Life in the Mafia" — called Antigua the most crooked place he had ever seen.
A good journalist will "tell the truth," Claxton said. "I offer no apologies for telling the truth." The facts of his stories speak for themselves, he said.
"These stories detailed well-documented corruption and abuse of power by a government on a neighboring island. The stories showed that Antigua, under the Bird government, was exporting its danger."
And, he continued, "Drugs exported from Antigua and other Caribbean islands often end up in the Virgin Islands or U.S. mainland."
He said at the time of Tuesday's elections, three of the 12 elected members of Bird's ruling council faced criminal charges — one charged with murder and two accused of embezzlement from a medical assistance program for the poor.
Antigua was involved in other scandals, Claxton said. Among them:
John Allen Muhammad, "the D.C. sniper, had an Antiguan passport, although he wasn't Antiguan. The attempted shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had a ticket to Antigua. The island is a haven for money launderers and drug dealers.
"Internet gambling operations, psychic hotlines and phone sex operators had set up shop on the island. The Bird government was attempting to take a $32 million hotel from its rightful owners, an American family that operated the hotel for 30 years."
Noting the relative ease with which Muhammad got his passport, Claxton said it took him six years and the services of a lawyer to get the Antiguan government to renew his passport.
Claxton recounted two instances of investigative reporting he has done in Detroit.
He told of being contacted by American Indians who were being denied basic rights on their reservations by tribal officials. He said that although The Detroit News sold few newspapers on the reservations, it went ahead and did the story exposing the abuses.
Following the publication of the stories, Claxton said, several tribal leaders were swept from office. Stories when done right, he said, should have impact.
Claxton was the lead reporter on a two-member Detroit News team that investigated the failings of the Detroit fire department that led to at least 22 deaths and dozens of injuries over a five-year period. In one story of the series they produced, he recounted how a 7-year-old child was left paralyzed and her mother and 2-year-old sister were killed when a fire truck known to have a broken ladder was sent to their rescue.
On the first day of the series, the mayor of Detroit called a press conference and announced he was giving the fire department an "open checkbook" to fix the problems, Claxton said.
The former St. Thomas reporter, who studied journalism at the then-College of the Virgin Islands, had many friends in the audience and received a standing ovation.
Speaking later in the day with talk show host Jose Raul Carrillo on WVWI Radio, Claxton elaborated on his earlier comments. "It would be a long time before I would take journalistic advice from Jeffrey Prosser," he said. "A newspaper is supposed to bring about good. The Birds have been in power for decades, have done every vicious thing under the sun. They have a documented history of malfeasance and corruption which I have written about."
He said Prosser's decision to apologize for running the Antigua stories, and his taking them off the newspaper's Web site, raised serious questions about the independence of the newspaper he owns.
When newspapers "are the voice of the community, we are relevant," Claxton said. "When we don't do that, we become irrelevant. Our decisions must be driven by what's good for the community."
Asked by Carrillo how he felt about being attacked in print, Claxton said: "Attacks are badges of honor."
In answer to another question, he said that while winning prizes is gratifying, it's "when we do a big story shaking up comfortable people — tribal chiefs, presidents that we get our greatest reward."
Northside Civic Organization member Jason Budsan, long active in the St. Thomas group's so far fruitless fight to get the Dorothea fire station reopened, called in to the talk show to tell Claxton: "That was inspirational."
Claxton said that at the end of the day, "it's going to bed knowing you've done the right thing" that gives a reporter the greatest satisfaction.
Asked by Carrillo for some advice for aspiring journalists, Claxton replied: "It's good to be rounded in other backgrounds. I was in statistics before. I love history, economics; I love to read. But most of all, you have to have an inner compulsion to help, to be a part of the solution."
Editor's note: Here is a link to an article by Melvin Claxton published in The Detroit News about moves by the Lester Bird government to seize the privately owned resort hotel in Antigua.
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