AJC’s World Series book chops out Native American controversy
By John Ruch
Renewed controversy over the Atlanta Braves’ use of Native American stereotypes was one of the biggest stories surrounding this World Series season. But you wouldn’t know it from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s quickie book published to capitalize on the champs.
“Against All Odds” chops out the entire debate — heck, it lacks even a single mention or photo of the fans’ notorious “Tomahawk Chop.” Maybe, you say, the book is just — thank God — avoiding politics in sports? Nope. The racially loaded war over the Major League Baseball All-Star Game move is in there, even though it didn’t directly involve the players or the Series at all. Maybe it’s because the AJC’s book-publishing partner has a strong anti-racism mission statement that includes Indigenous people and has it backing away from teams with racist imagery.
I say maybe because the AJC did not respond to my questions about this editorial decision. Media ethics experts say that doesn’t meet basic transparency standards that apply to newspapers, even when selling souvenirs.
“Against All Odds” hit the market the night the Braves won the Series. It is 128 pages of stories and photos reprinted from the AJC’s coverage of the season and sold for $14.95 as a way to “savor this historic win.” A disclaimer in the book — which I bought in Kindle version — says MLB and the Braves played no role in its publication. The publishing partner was Triumph Books, a Chicago sports books company that specializes in these “instant” championship souvenirs.
While branded as a “special commemorative edition,” the book otherwise has the authoritative air of the newspaper upon which it is based and that holds the sole copyright to its contents. The AJC logo is on the front and its list of editorial and reporting staff is in the back.
Truist Park was the eye of the storm in two big-picture, national stories this season: The All-Star Game move in response to Georgia’s Republican-led voting law changes, and the rekindled debate over the name and the Chop in an era when grossly racist sports-team imagery is getting the boot in places like Cleveland and D.C. Those stories twined together in a quasi-triumphant World Series visit by ex-President Trump, whose humiliating loss of Georgia triggered the voting law changes, and who came to Truist and did the Chop.
The AJC covered both stories extensively. But only one made the book.
The All-Star Game controversy is represented with a lengthy story by AJC political reporters, albeit one that weirdly did not mention the racial implications of the debate — the part that President Biden called “Jim Crow in the 21st century” — until very briefly at the end. The story gets a photo, too.
But the Native American controversy — the story that actually directly involves the team, the players and the fans who did the Chop at every home game? Disappeared. Vanished. Canceled. The phrase “Native American” doesn’t appear at all and the Chop only occurs in the name of the ball park’s Chop House restaurant.
Triumph Books just happens to have a long and strong “inclusivity statement” that seems to be aimed at such teams. “We wholly condemn all forms of racism, prejudice, and injustice,” it reads in part. “Triumph Books recognizes that we live in a country where systemic racism and violence against Black, Indigenous and People of Color [BIPOC] has long been the norm.” Among the examples of racist “tragic murders” it cites is the killing of Ahmaud Arbery here in Georgia.
The statement also says the company “play[s] a critical role in shaping cultural narratives and influencing which voices are ultimately heard” and will “take an active stand against racism and discrimination in all facets of our publishing program.”
Well, now. How does that apply to a book about the Tomahawk Chop folks? “In general, in accordance with our inclusivity statement, Triumph Books has moved away from highlighting certain team nicknames and logos, although for identification purposes it is difficult to avoid their use entirely,” said Noah Amstadter, Triumph’s publisher.
And is the Braves one of those teams? Did that affect the content of the book? Amstadter said the company had no further comment.
As for the AJC, a spokesperson acknowledged receipt of my questions about the book but did not offer any answers. That doesn’t seem to square with the basic ethics of our journalistic profession — or the AJC’s own house rules — which emphasize telling the whole truth and answering annoying questions about editorial decisions. If anything, the AJC is known for explaining its print stories ad nauseam with details of who dropped a dime and so forth.
I bounced the situation off of a couple of experts: John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Pennsylvania State University, and Raymond McCaffrey, director of the Center for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Arkansas. They agreed that ethics of transparency in a newspaper’s editorial role and decision-making apply to such souvenir books.
Affleck said that, based on what I told him, “should the AJC be willing to explain why it apparently sidestepped the Chop in its World Series book? Answer: Yes.”
Including the All-Star move coverage was surely an act of journalistic integrity, but it also has the political advantage of both-sides-ism for a paper that covers a blue city and red suburbs. The reprinted story emphasized bipartisan disappointment with the move, and some Republicans later expressed triumph that the far better World Series came to town anyhow. However, the Native American stereotype debate has no promotional upside, merely raising the specter of Atlanta and Georgia’s worst PR fear — the rest of the country seeing us as a bunch of racist rubes.
In its daily reports, the AJC held up that mirror anyhow with a fair amount of all-sides coverage. But the book is a bizarre no-sides coverage that isn’t fair to anyone while nonetheless inherently favoring a team and other powerbrokers who wish the whole thing would just go away. Critics are silenced, fans are unrepresented, and posterity lacks any sense of what actually happened inside the stadium in this self-described historic moment.
Weirdly, even the Braves themselves aren’t totally silent as they, snake-like, repeatedly shed repugnant stereotypes and traditions while retaining and growing the underlying form of the brand. Granted, they like being quiet when toning down the odious Chop, as when they stopped fanning the flames with cartoon foam tomahawks and removed a “Chop On” sign at the park. But these days, they’re also leaning into the Native American brand, getting a distant tribe to endorse Cherokee-language souvenirs and erecting a display about Cherokee history and culture. The Braves popularized a “#KillTheNarrative” hashtag this season, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t mean that one.
These omissions aren’t just about telling a whole story. They are exceptionally significant in a time when all media outlets are grappling with how to appropriately cover sports teams with traditions now seen as offensive when viewed through lenses other than the white-led and clubby. McCaffrey at the University of Arkansas likens it to another historic moment in sports, media and culture he has studied: “The evolution of this policy is reminiscent of how news outlets chose to identify Muhammad Ali during the 1960s after he begin using his Muslim name instead of Cassius Clay.” Black-led media and a couple of select outlets correctly went all-in on Ali, a 1967 survey he cites reported, while virtually every other outlet was still using his former name.
One might expect the paper of record in the cradle of the Civil Rights movement and the home of Hank Aaron to never dodge issues of race in sports. Sure, this is a souvenir book sold as “celebrating the Braves’ World Series victory.” But while I agree the Braves’ Native American stereotypes aren’t worth celebrating, they aren’t worth ignoring, either. Ignorance, after all, is what racism is made of.