Thank You, Stan Wischnowski, for Two Decades of Solid Journalism in Philadelphia

by Christopher Paslay

Despite Wischonwski’s decades of promoting diversity, reforming school violence, and holding state government accountable, he’s leaving the Inquirer amid blowback over a ‘racist’ headline.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Stan Wischnowski is resigning.  As reported by the Inquirer:

Stan Wischnowski, the top editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, has announced his resignation, days after discontent among the newspaper’s staff erupted over a headline on a column about the impact of the civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. . . .

It was the placement of an insensitive headline over Inga Saffron’s column in the Tuesday newspaper that may have set the stage for Wischnowski’s departure. He joined the two other top editors in signing an apology to readers and staff, characterizing the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too,” as “deeply offensive” and apologizing for it. The column had explored the destruction of buildings amid the looting that accompanied some of the nationwide protests over police violence.

Gregory Moore, co-chair of The Pulitzer Prize Board (left), presents the 2012 Public Service Prize to (left to right) John Sullivan, Kristin Graham, Sue Snyder and Stan Wischnowski of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Wischnowski, who worked at the Inquirer since 2000, believed in bringing positive change by holding all members of society accountable for their behavior and decision making, and dared look at all sides of an issue.  In 2011, Wischnowski oversaw an investigative series into the violence plaguing Philadelphia public schools—titled “Assault on Learning”—which went on to win a 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Community Service.  The series pulled no punches, taking an honest and detailed look at the violent realities of public schools and their surrounding communities.

The series not only helped reform Philadelphia School District discipline policy and school policing—ushering in positive behavior supports and restorative justice—but also called attention to systemic issues such as inadequate school funding, high teacher turnover, the underreporting of school violence, and the breakdown of the relationship between urban communities and schools.

The series is archived at the Pulitzer Prizes official website, and can be found here.  

Some of the more notable stories in the series are:

  • Climate of violence stifles city schools
  • Taking a closer look at the numbers behind school violence
  • Underreporting hides violence
  • Young and violent, even kindergartners
  • Violence targets teachers, staff
  • A flawed system of intervention
  • Some antiviolence efforts are working
  • Who is policing the Phila. school police?

The fact that this kind of honest journalism once existed is curious, as most of these stories—under pressure from political correctness and the anti-racism movement—would never run today; an investigation highlighting the violence of black and brown youth in their schools and surrounding communities is a big no-no in today’s culture.  According to Robin DiAngelo, whose book White Fragility is part of the Philadelphia School District’s anti-racism curriculum, this is known as “danger discourse” or “racetalk.”  This racetalk supposedly creates a racial “us” and “them,” and reinforces a racial hierarchy of whites as superior and dominant, and people of color as inferior and minoritized.

A racist white society, comprised of white supremacy and white privilege, is the one and only cause of inequality in America.  Privileged white oppressors target and victimize oppressed people of color, and any narrative to the contrary is rejected by an American culture obsessed with identity politics (interestingly, stereotyping all whites as “privileged” and “racist” somehow doesn’t create a racial “us” and “them”).  This is why the mantra “people over property” has emerged, despite the fact people and property cannot be so neatly separated, as multiple black lives have been lost in the looting and rioting over the past 10 days, and scores of black businesses—from Philadelphia to Los Angeles—have been burned down, many never to return.

According to “Buildings Matter, Too,” the Inquirer story beneath the headline Wischnowski is apparently resigning over:

“People over property” is great as a rhetorical slogan. But as a practical matter, the destruction of downtown buildings in Philadelphia — and in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a dozen other American cities — is devastating for the future of cities. We know from the civil rights uprisings of the 1960s that the damage will ultimately end up hurting the very people the protests are meant to uplift. Just look at the black neighborhoods surrounding Ridge Avenue in Sharswood or along the western end of Cecil B. Moore Avenue. An incredible 56 years have passed since the Columbia Avenue riots swept through North Philadelphia, and yet those former shopping streets are graveyards of abandoned buildings. Residents still can’t get a supermarket to take a chance on their neighborhood.

Unfortunately, Stan Wischnowski veered outside the boundary of acceptable speech and thought, if only for a moment (and very likely unintentionally).  He indeed meant well, and even apologized to readers and staff publicly for the insensitive headline, rewriting it twice.  But this was not enough, not in today’s toxic, polarizing climate of identity politics; the Inquirer’s headline writing process may indeed be systemically racist, and a thorough review is underway.  Neither was his legacy of social justice, as Wischnowski doubled minority representation of the Inquirer’s editorial workforce under his watch, bringing it up to 27 percent in the past four years.  

Under Robin DiAngelo’s dynamics of anti-racism, intent is meaningless, and only impact matters.  As a white person you might mean well, but if people of color are offended or perceive any action as racist or insensitive, that’s all that matters; under an anti-racist framework, communication is one-sided, and the perception of reality only works in one direction.

Thank you, Stan Wischnowski, for two decades of solid journalism in Philadelphia.