In Trayvon Martin case, news media need to examine their own role

Last spring, the Association of News Editors (ASNE) announced that the percentage of minority news employees at American newspapers and news websites had declined for the third consecutive year, even as the overall percentage of non-white Americans continued to rise rapidly.

It was not the stuff of national headlines. But perhaps, given the slow initial reaction of the American news media to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, it should have been.

In 2010, just 12.79 percent of editorial employees were minorities, ASNE reported, down about a half percent from the year before.

Noted ASNE President Milton Coleman:

“At a time when the U.S. Census shows that minorities are 36 percent of the U.S. population, newsrooms are going in the opposite direction. This is an accuracy and credibility issue for our newsrooms.”

While the percentage of minority representation was better in television — about 1 in 5, RTNDA’s national survey of women and minorities shows the percentage of African-American news employees in television was lower in 2011 than in any of the prior six years, lower than in 2000 and lower than in 1995. In print newsrooms, nearly a third of black journalists left or were laid off in the first decade of this century as newsrooms shrank their full-time workforces by a quarter.

As the American public watches, riveted at each new development in the Martin case — the 911 tapes; a video showing the man who shot him, George Zimmerman, brought into Sanford, Fla., police headquarters; an interview with Martin’s undertaker, who says he saw no signs of a struggle in preparing the boy’s body for burial — it is easy to forget how slowly the story surfaced.

In the first couple of weeks following the Feb. 26 fatal shooting and Zimmerman’s release after claiming self-defense under Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law, few Americans knew anything about it.

In fact, the news coverage was so sparse after Zimmerman walked away that night without charges, a physical examination or any subsequent investigation that the public radio show “On the Media” on March 23 devoted two segments to the issue of the case’s coverage.

The show’s co-host, Brooke Gladstone, interviewed two African-American journalists — Trymaine Lee ofThe Huffington Post and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, who were among the few to cover the story early. They are interviews worth hearing.

“I think we’re still dealing with complications of race and stereotype, even within our newsrooms,” Lee told Gladstone when she asked why the media had been slow to respond.

Later Gladstone, who noted these two men and black columnist Charles Blow of The New York Times kept the Martin shooting before a national audience, said, “I just think that makes a very strong argument for diversity in the newsroom.”

It’s too early to know how the Trayvon Martin case will be resolved. But the verdict is in on whether American newsrooms have worked hard enough in recent years to diversify, and it is a resounding “no.”

This isn’t a small matter.

Years ago, I worked as a consultant for the Maynard Institute, an Oakland, Calif., organization dedicated to the integration and improvement of journalism. It believes, among other things, that one of journalism’s highest callings is “to see ourselves and our communities whole.”

That is difficult to do when the vast majority of news leaders see those communities through the prism of white America. (Yes, a good reporter can provide insight into anyone’s life experience. But reporters and managers are nonetheless shaped — in their outlook and story interests — by the various components of their own backgrounds.)

In an article on the Trayvon Martin case, Maynard Institute President Dori Maynard put it this way:

“I don’t know George Zimmerman. I don’t know whether he is racist, and I have no idea what was in his heart and mind when he shot and killed the 17-year-old.I do know that if Zimmerman consumes news, it’s likely that he’s being fed a steady diet of distorted and scary images of black men.

A content audit released last October by The Opportunity Agenda (TOA) in New York examined coverage of black men and boys found that often missing from that coverage is mention of legions of boys and men of color who rise every morning and go to school or serve in the military, who are businessmen, schoolteachers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, stay-at-home dads, bloggers and more.

That one-sided portrait of a multidimensional community has consequences for all of us.”

Most white Americans I know, academics included, bristle at the term “institutional racism.” It is a form of racism that can be unintentional and carried out without malice. It also is deeply embedded in the way American society goes about its business. It refers to a world in which institutions operate in ways that reflect the stereotypes and cultural beliefs ingrained in the dominant, white culture — the very thing Maynard is writing about.

In newsrooms, as elsewhere, those ingrained misperceptions affect coverage. When a white kid gets shot and killed in a wealthy suburb, no one sits around a newsroom wondering whether the story is worth covering. This is big news. But when a black kid gets killed somewhere less affluent — and especially if that kid is wearing a hoodie — it is seen, as Lee told Gladstone, as another “garden-variety killing.”

Such assumptions shape the nature, speed and depth of coverage — assumptions like, “something bad must have been going down; the kid, undoubtedly, was up to no good.” And the story either doesn’t get covered, or gets covered perfunctorily.

That is institutional racism. And, I suspect, it helped shape the slow response to the Trayvon Martin story.

If journalists are going to see their communities whole, they need to stop trafficking in stick figures, stop making assumptions — for example, that kids who wear hoodies are somehow “hoods,” or that kids who are born with a certain skin color mean more harm to others than those who aren’t.

 This piece appeared in the Huffington Post


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Will Occupy Make a Comeback in 2012?

So what now?

Six months ago, the Occupy Wall Street movement swept across the country, encapsulating growing economic inequities through chants and slogans, even as it failed to cohere in formulating plans to address them.

The movement, with its encampments of protest and poverty, hope and homelessness, quickly captured the media’s and the public’s imagination, only to fade in the face of winter and the sometimes measured, sometimes ugly force of police departments intent on shutting the tent cities down.

Left behind was a resounding question for all Americans — are you with the 1 percent or the 99? — and a vague sense of promise that Occupy had at least changed the ground rules of America’s economic debate.

But has it really?

Caught up in the spirit of the moment, I predicted, somewhat gushingly, in a Nov. 15 blog, that, “whatever happens for now, the Occupy movement has made its mark. News has finally focused on the enormous and growing disparities between the “1 percent” (and especially the .1 percent) and everyone else.” I suggested, the movement would re-appear “stronger and smarter, come spring.”

Well, it is officially spring. So this week I decided to take measure of Occupy’s pulse. Leafing through news reports and Occupy postings, a few things seem clear.

For one, the movement certainly hasn’t gone away. In my home city, Boston, Occupy has 66 “working groups,” an Occupy activist told two of my Emerson College graduate reporting students last week. Their article noted that a recent post to Occupy Boston’s Facebook page reads, “#OccupyBoston doesn’t rest. The #AmericanSpring is about to bloom. Occupy Boston 3.0 is here. You can’t evict an idea!”

In other words, stay tuned.

In New York City, whose Zuccotti Park encampment gave birth to the movement, Occupy Wall Street is again on the march. Hundreds of Occupiers this weekend called for the resignation of the city’s police commissioner, reports London’s Guardian, after the arrest earlier in the week of 73 protesters in “a crackdown most Occupiers described as excessively violent.” The movement’s New York newspaper, The Occupied Wall Street Journal, continues to post its “Reports From the Front Line.” But then, it may say something that one of the more comprehensive reports of the weekend protest appeared in a British newspaper.

Of 6,620 listings for “Occupy movement” Monday afternoon at news.google.com, one headline in particular, from Voice of America, caught my eye. It read “Occupy Movement Seeks Renewed Physical Presence.”

This gives pause. Is the movement in danger of replaying the same tune one too many times?

It’s true. The idealistic eccentricity of Occupy’s initial presence in tent cities, governed in general assemblies by the collective in the common, did capture attention. But I doubt that can happen again with the same force. Reporters are a skeptical lot, sometimes cynical. That so many latched on to the story of Occupy’s protests last fall says more, I believe, about the movement’s overarching message than its idealistic methods.

Last fall, I didn’t share critics’ complaints that Occupy needed to wed its message to focused political action. Now, however, I believe it does. If it re-emerges as more of the same, it will be less than in the past.

That’s why one date on the horizon — set not by Occupy but by a splinter group calling itself the 99 Percent Declaration seems intriguing. On July 4, the group, co-founded by New York lawyer Michael Pollok, plans to hold what it is calling a “Continental Congress 2.0” in Philadelphia.

At its web site, which describes its evolution, the 99 Percent Declaration, states clearly “that we are organized to effectuate political change.”

Its plan includes:

  • Electing a man and a woman to represent each of the Congress’ 435 Congressional districts as part of a plan to send 488 “delegates” to Philadelphia during the July 4 week.
  • Ratifying a petition for a “redress of grievances” under a clause in the First Amendment that would then be given to all members of Congress, the president and the Supreme Court justices, Pollok said in a telephone interview.
  • Nominating candidates to oppose sitting members of Congress in the 2014 election if those members failed to address these “grievances.” The grievances, which now number 21 but Pollok said are likely to shrink to about 10, range from calls for the end of the electoral college and the war in Afghanistan to the instituting of Congressional term limits and a fair tax code. Most center on economic inequality.

A pipe dream? It probably doesn’t help matters that this convention has not been endorsed by Occupy Wall Street because, the Associated Press reports, it never met with the approval of Occupy’s general assembly.

“There’s been a lot of controversy because we don’t subscribe to the direct democracy model,” Pollok said. Nationally, he added, “we don’t think it works.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, “we would not be here but for Occupy.”

Pollok insists this event will happen — that the Pennsylvania Convention Center is booked, that 504 delegates already have registered to run for an online election on June 1, and that the “convention” will come up with a petition that the delegates will bring to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where it will be read. It may sound a little slick by Occupy standards, but these United States are pretty big to amplify a general assembly message without a megaphone, as past Occupy rallies have done.

Minor political parties have come and gone throughout American history. Whether this one will take shape, let alone field a muscular counterweight to the right’s Tea Party — and Pollok insists it will be nonpartisan — remains to be seen.

But I suspect the evolution of Occupy and its cousins — if indeed there is an evolution — could well rest with this July convention. It should prove an interesting event.

This blog appeared at The Huffington Post.

 

Posted in Occupy Boston, Occupy Movement, Occupy Wall Street, the 99% declaration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Mitt Romney: Dogged by that pet on the roof

So how did the story of Mitt Romney’s dog go from being an asterisk in this campaign to one of the hottest stories in American political journalism?

The tale of Seamus, the Irish setter, is hardly new. On June 27, 2007, The Boston Globe reported that in 1983 the Romney family strapped the dog in a crate on the roof of the family station wagon and drove 12 hours from Boston to a lake house in Ontario. Somewhere along the way, poor Seamus soiled the crate and the car’s back window. As The Globe reported it, Romney stopped at a gas station, hosed down Seamus and the car, put the dog back into the wind-protected kennel and drove on. It was a small, but telling, anecdote in a multipart profile of the candidate.

Back then, the story did cause some stir. Three days later, Globe reporter Michael Levenson wrote that “Time.com’s swampland blog has been flooded with more than 300 comments from readers complaining of animal cruelty.”

But the event, which just this week was dubbed “Crate Gate” by Patch.com, has been one more blip in the blogosphere of politics in the four plus years since. It’s true. New York Times columnist Gail Collins made what she acknowledged was “a kind of game” of mentioning Seamus every time she wrote a column about the former Massachusetts governor. Still, her columns are often humorous, and her zings seemed largely light-hearted needling in a year of truly loony Republican politics.

No longer. Suddenly all hell is breaking loose around Seamus’ seemingly tortured journey. But why?

Surely, the New Yorker‘s March 12 cover, titled “State by State,” helped a bit. It shows a smiling Romney driving down the road in a red car with Rick Santorum in a doghouse strapped to the roof.

Perhaps even more telling is that Santorum campaign is starting to feed the flames itself. As the Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney blogged Sunday, Santorum’s top advisor twice last week reminded voters that “Romney once drove to Canada with the family dog, Seamus, in a crate fastened to the roof of the car.” And Santorum himself, he noted, on Sunday suggested on ABC’s This Week that this dog story could be a matter of character.

Clearly the public is tuning in. Delaney’s post cornered 5,214 comments in its first seven hours and Patch.com threw up a poll, asking readers: “Does It Matter That Romney Put His Dog on the Car’s Roof?”

Over at Political Wire, under a headline “Seamus story dogs Romney,” blogmaster Taegan Goddard linked to a Wall Street Journal article that noted the story had dominated political headlines this month.

Wrote the Journal, “Seamus the Irish Setter’s ride on the Romney’s station wagon roof is the story that wouldn’t die, even though the dog itself did decades ago.”

It’s remarkable that the story could smolder for years before bursting into flames. But it also makes sense.

For one thing, we Americans love our dogs. I’ve had three golden retrievers myself and never once strapped any of them to to the roof. It would, in fact, never have entered my mind. But whether Romney’s actions were an example of his “emotion-free crisis management,” as that initial Globe story suggested, or something far crueler sort of demands the answer to a few questions. Did Seamus have a nice soft bed in the crate? Did he have his favorite chew toy? And did the screen Romney fashioned to mute the winds whipping over the roof work?

Still, the idea of cleaning up Seamus after his accident and sticking him back on the roof seems, at best, a little cold-hearted. And that’s why Romney will never leave this story behind. It plays to his perceived weaknesses in his character. It resonates with voters leery of a candidate who already seems a bit too cool, a bit too calculating. He’s shifted his positions on any number of issues to suit the Republican Right. He paid 13.9 percent in taxes on an income of $21.7 million in 2010, a rate “lower than that of a person earning $50,000,” The Huffington Post reported. He told one Detroit gathering that his wife Ann drives“two Cadillacs.” And he referred to nearly $375,000 in speaker’s fees as “not very much.”

In the end, Mitt Romney comes across as too distant, too rich and too out-of-touch. This is the reason why a 29-year-old story about a dog with a wonderful St. Patrick’s Day name has him on the ropes. Even if he really does love those grits (and I doubt he does), you’ve got wonder whether he ever loved his dogs — and what that might say about his ability to connect with the American people should he become their president.

This blog appeared at Huffington Post

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Civics lessons from the nation’s monuments

WASHINGTON, D.C.– Amid the first flowers of spring, Kathy and I circled the Capital’s Tidal Basin this weekend, visiting the monuments dedicated to our country’s greatest leaders, reading their words.

Some contemporary leaders might benefit from a similar walk through time.

For those who call, for example, for the narrowest and most limited interpretation of the Constitution, the words of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and a man often identified as a strict Constitutional constructionist, might surprise. Among those inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial are these:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in law and Constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.

That doesn’t sound to me like a man who would have viewed the Constitution in the 21st century through an 18th century lens.

For the proponents of tax cuts in perpetuity for the rich and trickle down for the rest, the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt ring out.

The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.

Just last week, the University of Michigan’s National Poverty Center reported that the number of American children living on less than $2 a day, a standard applied by The World Bank to measure poverty in developing nations, doubled from 1.4 million to 2.8 million between 1996 and 2011, The Nation reports.

For those too quick to forget the carnage in Iraq or our decade-long-and-counting war in Afghanistan — those who are lobbying to bomb Syria and take out Iran’s uncertain capacity to develop nuclear weapons — consider this number: 58,272. That’s the number of Americans killed between 1959 and 1975 in a place called Vietnam, fighting bravely for a cause that even today eludes us. Every one of their names is inscribed on the polished black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The causes of most wars, it seems, are so much clearer going in than coming out. Let’s not so quickly forget that. Let’s not deceive ourselves again.

The newest memorial that graces Washington’s Tidal Basin honors the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His words, inscribed on a granite wall behind the main memorial sculpture, speak as much to today’s younger generations, and to the domestic and international schisms that divide today’s world, as they did to those living a half century ago. Like Jefferson’s words, like Roosevelt’s, King’s words are timeless and universal.

If we are to have peace on earth …our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means that we must develop a world perspective.

When, I wonder, will we as a nation truly listen to the words of our greatest leaders rather than merely posting them on memorial walls for posterity?

This blog appeared first on the Huffington Post website.

Posted in civics, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr., Thomas Jefferson, Uncategorized, Washington monuments | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

It’s time to push back against the bullies and bigots

This is reprinted from my new Huffington Post blog.

The firestorm of rebuke that met Rush Limbaugh’s crude characterization of a Georgetown law student who dared to speak in favor of free contraception flashed across the headlines, the blogosphere and Facebook Friday. Such contempt — he called her a “slut” and a “prostitute” — appears to have crossed the threshold of what most Americans will tolerate.

But I can’t say Limbaugh’s words shocked me. This kind of remark is all too familiar in this political season — or perhaps century — of dissing and disregard for fact.

It is, after all, less than two weeks since an ESPN producer posted the headline “Chink in the Armor” on the sports network’s mobile user platform after Chinese-American basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin played his first bad game for the New York Knicks.  It’s only a month since CNN political commentator Roland Martin tweeted anti-gay “jokes” during the Super Bowl.

And the Limbaugh brouhaha broke on the same day my morning Boston Globe told of a new round of fraternity hazing at Dartmouth University so crude and degrading that it led Theatre Professor Peter Hackett to ask the paper, “Why do we have a social system that is from the 19th century?”

Yes, why? The answer, perhaps, is that the hazing and Limbaugh incidents are just the latest sign that if we don’t live in the 19th century,  plenty of people still appear to long for a time when white males from the right families ruled supreme and everyone else could just damn well get used to it.

One doesn’t have to look much past the abuse heaped on our first African-American president to realize that. Barack Obama has been called a socialist (repeatedly), a closet Kenyan Muslim (where’s the birth certificate, huh?),  a liar (before the joint houses of Congress) and lots more.

Wrote Andrew Rosenthal in a New York Times commentary, “There has been a racist undertone to many of the Republican attacks leveled against President Obama for the last three years, and in this dawning presidential campaign.”

Still, the issue posed here is larger than the president and more wide-ranging than the issue of race alone. At least Barack Obama chose to run for office. Sandra Fluke, the third-year law student Limbaugh savaged, merely had the temerity to speak her mind, to support the Obama Administration’s call for greater access to insurance-covered birth control for women.  She might think twice before she speaks out again.

What perhaps offers some hope is the response to Limbaugh not only from Democrats but from some members of his own party.

Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown, was quoted by the Los Angeles Times as saying “Rush Limbaugh’s comments are reprehensible.” (Yes, Brown is up for re-election in a largely blue state, but still.)  House Speaker John Boehner’s office trotted out a spokesman, who, the LA Times reported, said the speaker “obviously believes the use of those words was inappropriate.” And even arch social conservative Rick Santorum reportedly managed to say that Limbaugh was being “absurd.”

Incivility is too nice a name for incidents like this and others in recent weeks. They are bullying. They are bigotry. And they will continue to stretch at the country’s fragile fabric as long as Americans in positions to say and do something stand back and stay quiet.

In his book Integrity, Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter wrote that an integral person can’t stand pat after discerning right from wrong. Integrity means owning up to what we believe to be right — acting on it and then speaking up to explain our actions.

Scrolling the headlines, I’d say on most days we have a way to go before living up to Carter’s standard. ESPN fired the producer of that racist headline about Lin and CNN suspended Roland Martin. But neither network said much more about the incidents. It took Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney until Friday night to say anything about Rush Limbaugh’s vitriol, and then he managed only “I’ll just say… it’s not the language I would have used.” And Dartmouth President Jim Kim seems to be trying to thread a needle on the hazing incident, suggesting, according to the Globe, that any effort to ban the Greek system at the college would merely push the problem underground and off-campus, where drinking and driving would pose greater dangers to students.

Perhaps. But at least the college’s message would be clear and the new risks would be to the bulliers, not the bullied.

Bullies, like those hazers, like Limbaugh, can only thrive when others stay mute. Silence tells the haters and hecklers they’ve got a green light. So let’s make some noise.

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Saga of a lost tugboat: Part II

“Ada, I have an idea of how we can find your lost tugboat.”

It was 7:30 Saturday morning, pre-coffee, and this was the first sentence to come from the back seat. I’d just picked up our 4-year-old granddaughter Devon for a visit and she was problem-solving, figuring out how to find the red tugboat I had told her about on the same drive last weekend. Forget the fact that said tugboat slipped away decades ago during an ill-fated ride on the State Island ferry. She had a plan.

“The two of us can get hang-gliders and look for it,” she said.

“Well, we could try,” I told her.

“But Ada. I don’t know how to fly.  I’m scared.”

Hmm.

“Don’t worry,  Devon. Remember, I lost my tugboat 59 years ago. It would be hard to find it anyway. Do you see me crying?”

“But Ada, this could be our last chance.”

It took some hard work but we managed a deal.  We’d keep an eye out in stores for a new red tugboat.  There was only one wrinkle left.

“But it won’t have a string,” Devon said (the rope tied to my old one broke when it was trailing behind the ferry).

“I bet we could tie one on,” I reassured her.

“If we find one,” Devon asked. “Do you want to keep it. Or can you give it to me?”

“I’ll give it to you,” I said.

“Ada, you’re the best,” she said.

Make my day.

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‘President Evil’ captures hyperbole of GOP presidential politics

Presidential candidates of all stripes routinely promise more than they can deliver and cast their opponents’ policies in the worst possible light.  But the demonization of the opposing candidate seems largely a specialty market of the Republican Party.

Jon Stewart captured that last night in a Daily Show segment called President Evil that looks  back at the 2008 presidential campaign.  Here is that link, compliments of politicalwire.com.

Notice any similarities to 2012?

CORRECTION: An earlier version had an “h” in Jon. There is none.

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