AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2011

Acel Moore’s Storied Career   

Soon to receive a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists, the retired Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and columnist looks back. Wed. June 8, 2011

By Andrew Damstedt
Andrew Damstedt (adamstedt@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

To the Pulitzer Prize-winning, world-traveling and now retired journalist Acel Moore, Philadelphia always has been where the story is, and that city, his hometown, is where he's going to receive a lifetime achievement award.

"I've concluded there are only two kinds of people in the world," Moore said in a telephone interview. "Those who are from Philadelphia, and those who wish they were. And anybody who reads that and knows me will say, 'He's still telling that old story?' And the answer is, 'Yes, I really do believe that Philadelphia is a best-kept secret.' "

Now 70, Moore rose through the ranks at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He started as a copy clerk in 1962, became a reporter in 1968, and received his own column (and a place on the paper's editorial board) in 1980.

He is receiving the lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists, an organization he helped found, at its annual convention in August.

Arlene Morgan, associate dean at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, says she formed an immediate bond with Moore when she started working at the Inquirer in 1969 after they learned of each other's South Philadelphia roots.

"I've actually watched him grow and develop from streets reporter to really top investigative reporter," Morgan says. "But he never lost the streets. Never. He was the one person who people in the community, especially people in the African American community, really trusted. Trusted that he would get it right and trusted that he understood what they were going through."

Moore's column often reflected voices of Philadelphians that were rarely heard, Morgan says. "He didn't spend time hanging around the office. He was out on the streets, coming back with so damn many ideas," she says. "People just trusted him and would tell him stuff. He's a reporter's reporter in terms of really building trust in communities that don't have a lot of reasons to trust the press."

Eli Anderson, a friend of Moore's and a Yale sociology professor, says Moore "writes about local life in Philadelphia in a way that people can identify with... He's got this ability to tell this interesting story. It might be about blacks, but it's really about people. That's an important feature of his writing."

Harold Jackson, the Inquirer's editorial page editor, says Moore was "the voice of the people" at the newspaper. "He was also one who profiled people who otherwise would be forgotten in the city, men and women who lived, who were of modest means, who had jobs that might not be very flashy but helped the city run," Jackson says. "People who were educators, social workers, police officers―profiling those people in his columns and giving the city an opportunity to know more about the folks who ordinarily wouldn't be in the news."

Jackson recalled how Moore helped him find a place to stay in Philadelphia when he first moved to the city in 1985. J. Whyatt Mondesire, a former Inquirer reporter and now president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, also recalled how Moore helped him get to know the area when he moved to Philadelphia in 1974.

"I say his main contribution is that he always opened the door," Mondesire says. "He certainly opened the door for me, coming to Philadelphia. I'm a New Yorker by birth and I worked in Baltimore. He was always kind and made sure I met Philadelphians. Philadelphia is a much more parochial city than, say, New York, L.A. or Chicago. It's hard to get to know people. He was always very open about making sure I was given access to people in the community, leaders whether they be black or white. That's pretty much the way he treated everyone who came into the building."

Moore says when he first started at the Inquirer, he was "one of the few black people who didn't clean the place or sweep the floors." He started his reporting job one month before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. He says he was able to cover the civil rights movement even though he was assigned to the police beat and also did general assignment reporting.

"If you read a newspaper, even in '75, but certainly when I first started, black people never died, never got married. They were unremarkable people. If you read the newspaper, you never saw an obituary of anybody who looked like me," Moore says, noting that the only black people who were mentioned were entertainers and criminals. "Things have changed. The picture that was being painted wasn't an accurate picture. It wasn't a true story. I think we have demonstrated that and that was the reason why we got together" and formed NABJ.

Moore was committed to diversity and was Morgan's ally when she was in charge of forming a plan to create a more diverse newsroom.

"What I think is most remarkable about Acel is that he was selfless," says Gene Foreman, a former Inquirer managing editor. "He did not concentrate on just his own career. He was doing his own reporting, but he was also very dedicated from the beginning [to] helping other African American and other minority groups to have opportunities in journalism."

He says that Moore was committed to making the Inquirer's newsroom more diverse. "I think that today's journalism..is more apt to reflect the entire community, and not just a certain part of the community," Foreman says. "That can be traced to diversification."

In addition to his diversity efforts, Moore helped establish more training opportunities for young journalists. He started the Art Peters Copy Editors internship, named for the first black columnist at the Inquirer, as well as a high school program to introduce students to journalism that now bears Moore's name.

The advice he gives young journalists is to "look for the truth. Ask questions, don't be afraid to ask questions," Moore says. "Write well. Do your research.... Distinguish between opinion and fact. And just be a good reporter." Moore says he's thankful that he found "by accident that journalism was the thing that satisfied all the interesting things I had pursued. I was in the Army. I could've gone on as a musician... I picked [journalism] up because I took a job as a copy boy at the Inquirer, first job out of the Army. And that exposure, all these white men screaming at each other and me in the midst of all of that. I was able to conclude that this is what I wanted to do and vigorously pursued becoming a reporter and a journalist."

He says he's had experiences that he never would have otherwise, such as traveling to South Africa or Yugoslavia on assignment, and researching the brutal treatment of inmates at Farview State Hospital, which garnered him and Wendell Rawls Jr. a Pulitzer Prize in 1977.

Columbia's Morgan recalls the pieces Moore wrote about gang violence in Philadelphia in the 1970s, saying that "Acel led a journalistic campaign through stories and columns to get that violence stopped. He's out on the street doing those kinds of stories. He would see inequities. He saw real systemic issues or problems, and he would get out there and write about them in a way nobody else could. Nobody else had that kind of credibility."

After his retirement in 2005, Moore continued to write for the Inquirer about local and national issues and how they affect the common man. However, since spinal surgery in March 2010 left him paralyzed from the waist down, he has written only one piece.

That December 24, 2010, article mentioned his paraplegia but went on to mention Philadelphia shops he had frequented for his last-minute Christmas shopping runs, something he wasn't going to be able to accomplish that year.

At the NABJ convention this August, Moore says he would like to be able to stand when he receives his award. He's been working out and lifting weights in an effort to reach that goal.

"I had a dramatic change in my life," he says. "I didn't think I was going to make it. But I have."