Bankole: Wolman leveled media playing field

Bankole Thompson

It was an early Saturday morning in 2017 when Jon Wolman, the late principled publisher and editor of The Detroit News, showed up at a local church on the city’s west side and sat quietly in the back waiting for me to conclude a town hall I was moderating on education and civil rights.

From Left to right: Columnist Bankole Thompson, Detroit News publisher and editor Jonathan Wolman, Rev Jesse Jackson and Rabbi emeritus Daniel Syme of Temple Beth El at the 2018 Let Freedom Ring Award Ceremony at Cobo Convention Hall.

We had spoken the night before about my journey in news, but I was surprised that as I concluded the town hall he was right there waiting. He asked me to leave my car in the parking lot and hop in his car and we drove to the nearest restaurant.

There we sat for about an hour discussing my experiences at the newspaper he'd led for 12 years, and the challenges of journalism in an ever-evolving multimedia world. And that was just one of many sit-down exchanges I had with him over the last 10 years that I’ve known him, during which he showed a strong interest in my career and supported my work fervently.

A first-rate journalist and industry leader whose indelible work put him in the ilk of Walter Cronkite and other towering figures in American journalism, Wolman understood that the media can be a powerful force for good, and he acted accordingly.

In demonstration of his beliefs in journalistic inclusion and diversifying the franchise of opinion journalism, Wolman readily asked me to join The News following my resignation from the Michigan Chronicle. I remember his was one of the first emails I received in 2015 less than an hour after my resignation became public. Two weeks later, he asked me to meet him for lunch at Selden Standard restaurant in Midtown, where he invited me to write columns for The Detroit News.

What followed were periodic meetings over lunch and sometimes dinner regarding a wide range of issues of legitimate public interest about the recovery of Detroit. He wanted The Detroit News to document the uneven recovery and to give voice to those who are often left out of the comeback narrative, especially the poor.  

But Wolman also had a powerful intellect and knack for questioning. I recalled a 2016 Thanksgiving Day at his home in Franklin. After dinner, he was peppering me with questions about the just-ended presidential election, which was a hot topic at the dinner table. He wanted to know why I had certain assumptions about the political climate and the future of the nation. The more I laid bare my observations, the more questions he had in store for me.

But that was classic Jon Wolman. He wanted us to make stronger arguments in our dissection and analyses of issues.

A seminal moment for me at The Detroit News was in 2016, when I and the paper were sued by a white nationalist for a column I wrote. Wolman took me out for lunch and reminded me of the challenges we face as journalists, and basically cast the lawsuit as such.

After more than a year we won by a unanimous published decision of a three-judge panel in the Michigan Court of Appeals. Wolman sent me a note praising the outcome. I replied, thanking him for having my back during that ordeal.   

He supported those who worked for him. Former Associated Press Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier and I have repeatedly discussed Wolman’s impact on our careers after he introduced us. We appreciated being products of Wolman’s genuine journalistic commitment. 

Wolman enriched all of our lives. He also believed that though the moral arc of the universe may be long, it bends toward justice. I never viewed him as a stern ideologue or a partisan. He was a fair-minded journalist who knew how to play the balancing act. That’s why many across the ideological divide were drawn to him.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who’d known Wolman for decades, told me on Tuesday, “My heart is heavy after learning that we lost Jonathan Wolman, an outstanding journalist whom I first met decades ago in Washington, D.C. His quest for fairness and truth challenged the darkness throughout his long and distinguished career. His quiet, yet effective leadership as publisher of the Detroit News shall be missed. He was loved and respected by those who knew him.” 

Yes. Wolman bowed out with dignity as an esteemed journalist, and I will remain indebted to him for his refreshing candor.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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