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The power of words

Spurring a state investigation of the Apollo Theatre with a series of editorials he co-wrote, Michael Aronson, AB’85, has reason to say that “journalists can make a real impact on society.”

Led by Aronson and Jonathan Capehart, the six-member editorial board of the New York Daily News launched a campaign in April 1998 to save Harlem’s legendary theater—where such stars as James Brown, Gladys Knight, and Pearl Bailey launched their careers. This April, the series won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

When Aronson and Capehart visited the once splendid theater, which has been state-owned since 1982, they found broken seats, a falling marquee, hanging wires, and boarded-up doors. The theater was open for shows only once a week. So they began investigating: they made phone calls, researched the theater’s finances, and read some 200 pages of lease and license agreements. “I learned the importance of reading original texts as a student at Chicago,” Aronson recalls, and the lesson stood him in good stead: “I pulled out some key facts from the documents.”

Those key facts, added to the theater’s condition, prompted the editorials. The newspaper charged the leader of the Apollo’s Apollo Theatre Foundation, U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, with mismanagement, noting that his friend Percy Sutton, host of the syndicated TV program It’s Showtime at the Apollo, was profiting at the theater’s expense. Sutton, the editorials revealed, had failed to pay the Apollo’s standard rental fee—25 percent of the show’s revenue—instead paying only $200,000 of the $4.4 million he owed.

“The Pulitzer board probably liked our editorials because the mismanagement of the Apollo entails various factors—racial, cultural, and political—and they not only stated opinions, but they effectuated change,” says Aronson. Sparked by the editorials, the New York state’s attorney’s office launched an investigation, currently under way. The Empire State Development Corporation, the Apollo’s landlord, has urged Rangel to quit the board. Meanwhile, Time-Warner is considering adopting the theater.

Aronson feels that the Pulitzer is but one achievement for the editorial board. “The ultimate success of our work would be if the next time we walk by 125th Street, instead of seeing a decrepit, closed-up building, we would walk past a sparkling, economically active theater that pumps money back into Harlem.”—J.P.

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