New Orleans opinion columnist used racial slur in city council

Danae Columbus, a columnist for New Orleans-based news site Uptown Messenger, was fired from her job as City Council spokeswoman in 2006 after using a racial slur in council chambers. Columbus, who is white, “used the term ‘n*****-rigged’ to refer to the council chamber’s shoddily constructed light fixtures,” according to a December, 2006 Times-Picayune article on the incident.

Elton Jones, director of New Orleans Access Television, was among several African-Americans present at the time, according to the Times-Picayune report. “I was so shocked I stood up and said, ‘What did you say? “‘ said Jones. ‘She replied ‘You heard me.’ Jones added that the comment was ‘almost unbelievable, even more so since it came from the official spokesperson for the council.’”

Columbus’ poorly written columns in Uptown Messenger have continued to trade in racial bias, as well as undisclosed conflicts of interest and poor fact checking. In a December 2016 article, she uncritically backed up then-President-Elect Trump’s false assertions on crime, writing in clichéd, alarmist prose, “Criminals are stalking the streets of America and killing innocent victims at unprecedented rates.” The article goes on to uncritically support Trump’s support of expanding mass incarceration, and implies that “African-Americans and Latinos who live in poor urban neighborhoods” would agree.

Columbus, who also was caught using ethically dubious tactics in a 2012 city council race against LaToya Cantrell, writes for the Messenger while maintaining her job as a publicist for local politicians, and her columns read more like press releases than political analysis. A March, 2017 column about Stacy Head, a client of Columbus, is an uncritical list of Head’s accomplishments. Columbus describes Head as a popular candidate who “soundly defeated” her opponents.

It would be more accurate to say that Head, one of the city’s most racially divisive figures, is popular among white voters and deeply unpopular among Black voters. In her first election, Head likely only defeated Black incumbent Renee Gill Pratt because most Black residents of the district were still displaced after Hurricane Katrina. Pratt, who was under federal investigation at the time, was still more popular than Head among the Black residents of the district. Head won her 2010 election in that same district with 98 percent of the white vote and 30 percent of the Black vote. In Head’s 2012 primary race for the city council at-large seat, Head received 96% of the white vote and 5% of the Black vote.

Columbus’ June 9 column should offend every New Orleanian concerned about fairness. She spends most of her space attacking Norris Henderson, a national figure in criminal justice reform who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Columbus believes that if Henderson was convicted, he must be guilty. Her thinking conveniently ignores the fact that Louisiana is fourth in the nation for death row prisoner exonerations, while New Orleans leads the nation in exonerations for all crimes per capita.

Columbus framed her attack on Henderson as a defense of City Council president Jason Williams, referring to Henderson’s “dark side” while describing his testimony to city council against expansion of Orleans Parish Prison. However, in a statement this week, the Council President rejects Columbus’ depiction. “Given our city’s history and propensity to jail large numbers of poor people for petty crimes, I completely understand their position,” Williams said, in reference to Henderson and his allies. “His commitment to a right sized constitutional jail is a national best practice.”

Williams also rejects Columbus’ focus on Henderson’s past conviction. “The matter of Norris Henderson’s legal journey is a red herring,” says Williams. “The real issue is government’s historical over reliance on outdated, stale and unfair policies.” Williams adds that anyone familiar with this city’s justice system should expect a high rate of false convictions. “In 1997, the year I was sworn in to the bar, over 6,000 people were in our parish jail and the system convicted countless defendants in one and two day trials based on reports and investigations that were opened and closed in 48 hours.”

It is perhaps not coincidental that Columbus’ article comes as Henderson has achieved some of his greatest successes. Henderson was a leader in passing an historic package of criminal justice reforms signed into law this week by Louisiana Governor Edwards. Henderson has also taken leadership in the current campaign against the abuse of power by New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro. The DA is another of Columbus’ clients, although she has not disclosed that conflict of interest when she has written uncritically about him. Since Columbus writes her columns to promote the interests of her clients, will she disclose which one asked for an attack on Henderson?

A quick call to some of the advertisers listed on the Uptown Messenger site found that they were not aware of Columbus’ history of racial bias and undisclosed conflicts of interest, and several were quick to distance themselves from the Messenger. Jay Forman, owner of Gracious Bakery + Cafe, said that although he is quoted on the Messenger site as a satisfied advertiser, he was not a current advertiser. Forman added that he “would take that information into account” in any future advertising. Zeus’ Place owner Michelle Ingram also expressed concern, adding that “Of course, I stand against against that sort of language.”

Will Uptown Messenger continue to give a platform to Danae Columbus’ unethical behavior?

More articles by:

Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South