It may not go down in journalism history on quite the same level as Geraldo Rivera breaking into Al Capone’s empty vault on live TV, but Ben Raines’ recent stories for al.com about possibly finding the long-lost Clotilda slave ship have similarly focused massive attention on what ended up being a non-event.
On Monday Raines published a story revealing the shipwreck he claims to have discovered at the beginning of the year in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta during an extreme low tide has been determined by experts not to be the famed slave ship Clotilda, the last vessel to carry slaves into the United States roughly 160 years ago. Since January, Raines and other al.com reporters have written heavily about the wreck as possibly being the Clotilda, sparking worldwide media attention and causing teams of investigators to descend upon the muddy banks of the Mobile River.
But despite criticism from readers heaped online under Raines’ latest story chastising him and his publication for rushing to print before finding out whether the rotted-out wreckage was indeed the Clotilda, al.com’s star environmental reporter remains unbowed. He says despite the fact the ship he found turned out not to be the Clotilda, his reporting has focused attention on how important it is to actually find the wreck. He said of 12,000 ships involved in the slave trade, just 10 have been discovered.
“I don’t think I jumped the gun. I published a responsible story citing archaeologists who examined the wreck and said it might be the ship. Finding the Clotilda should have been prioritized long ago by the state and the marine archaeological community, especially given that there is an international partnership called the Slave Wrecks Project, involving the Smithsonian, the National Park Service, etc.,” Raines wrote in response to questions from Lagniappe.
“The fact is no one was looking for the ship. I think the fact that a newspaper reporter went out to look for it and came up with a 19th century shipwreck served as a powerful wake-up call to the marine archaeology community that this ship should be found,” he continued. “More to the point, the response we’ve seen involving major players in the archaeological world suggests how seriously they took my find. Just because it was not the Clotilda does not discount the fact that some of the world’s leading marine archaeologists were excited enough by the images and research in my story that they volunteered their time to come here and check it out.”
In January Raines and al.com published stories and video all but declaring the mud-covered wooden wreckage to be the Clotilda. The story was picked up internationally. The New York Times — where his father once served as executive editor — wrote a long piece detailing Raines’ discovery. CBS, The Washington Post, FOX News and many other media outlets across the nation carried the story. Our local television stations did extensive stories as well.
While Raines always wrote the wreckage “might be” or was “possibly” that of the last ship to bring slaves into the U.S., the tone, tenor and level of coverage might suggest al.com was reveling in the discovery even before it was confirmed. Part of their coverage has even included an online compilation of international media attention for their story and articles speculating about protecting the site and who owns it.
Part of Raines’ coverage even included bringing the ambassador from Benin to the wreck.
“The ambassador sought me out and asked me to take him to the site,” Raines explained. “He understood that this might not be the ship and even discussed it on camera while we were there. Still, it was a moving and powerful experience to see the entire issue of slavery from his perspective. I think the story and video of him there were enlightening. In his words, even ‘if this is not the ship, this is where this happened and I am glad to have been here to speak to my ancestors.’”
Monday’s article, entitled “Wreck found in Delta not Clotilda, the last American slave ship,” offered an explanation of how archeologists from the University of West Florida had “set in motion a full-scale investigation” of the wreckage after Raines brought them to the site. The discovery also set in motion activity by the Alabama Historical Commission, visits from the Slave Wrecks Project and Diving with a Purpose, which investigates slave shipwrecks. Jim Delgado, whose group SEARCH participated in exploration of the Titanic and helped raise the Mobile-built Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley, was involved as well.
Although in the end it was determined the ship Raines found was far too large to be the Clotilda and had many other basic characteristics ruling it out, he still believes al.com was right to go forward with the stories before being more certain he’d found the Clotilda. He cited instances in the past where his reporting had led scientists to follow up and said this is a similar circumstance.
“I did extensive research and published a comprehensive story. We discussed the issues you mention in our newsroom and felt the story was good investigative journalism. As journalists, when writing about science, particularly where we are doing some of the scientific work ourselves, our results are suggestive, not definitive. But that does not prevent us from writing about them. We use appropriate caveats and try to get the scientific community to follow up with more definitive testing,” Raines wrote.
Raines brushes aside any criticism from those who feel he’s letting the ends justify the means and ignoring journalistic standards to achieve his desired goals. True, there was no Clotilda, but Raines says everything he has done so far is going to lead to its eventual discovery.
“I am delighted to see what is going on in Africatown right now. There is an excitement in the community. I just left a meeting where leading archaeologists suggested the ship can and should be found, and that it probably won’t be too difficult, especially as my reporting revealed that the only section of the Mobile River that hasn’t been searched with modern equipment is the area right around where I found this 100-plus-year-old wreck,” he wrote.
“I’m proud of my work regarding the Clotilda. I wish it had been the ship, but I am confident that the ship will be found and believe my reporting played a role in starting that process.”
Tommy Russo passes
Past and present employees of WPMI-TV are among those mourning the sudden death of Thomas David Russo this past weekend at the age of 56.
An assignment editor at WPMI for many years, Russo was beloved by friends, family and co-workers. Memorials to him from many current and former members of local media quickly popped up on social media following news of his passing.
A burial mass was held March 7 at Christ the King Catholic Church.