Thursday, July 28, 2011

22 Minutes of Your Life You’ll Never Get Back. Nightly.

Prior to founding my own firm, I used to travel frequently on business. Each morning in the hotel room, I’d turn on the TV to catch the local news. I was appalled. Not only was I trapped in look-alike airports and look-alike hotel rooms, the local news programs were also look-alike/sound-alike. Dallas. Cleveland. Minneapolis. Perky airheads gleefully bringing us the latest murders, uncritically reporting on whatever some local politician said, making sure the reporters’ faces were on camera as much as the persons being interviewed. With that description, I am compelled to add Indianapolis to the list.

Soon, I had to give it up. I wanted to be a good sport and learn something about the city I was in. But, after trying to scream and brush my teeth at the same time. I had to skip Trixie and Skippy on Local News Watch (not exactly) and turn on CNN when, in its pre-Nancy Grease-Lou Dobbs-Glenn Beck days, it provided at least a modicum of real news.

Being old enough to remember decades’ worth of people, events, and causes and effects could be considered good news/bad news. It’s good in that it earns one perspective; it’s bad news in that it is even more reason to yell at TV reporters and anchors who do not share my passions: a sense of history and a sense of perspective.

Local TV news wasn’t always bad. It’s only been that way for the past 40 years.

While, to be fair, I can recall the incredibly rare reporter or anchor who startled you with his/her adherence to news coverage, I am more likely to remember the 15-minute nightly TV news shows on the Ft. Wayne stations that featured people who were not selected for their perfect haircuts or Botoxed smiles. The old guys (and they were all guys) not only read the news, sometimes looking down at the typewritten pages in front of them, they actually understood the content of what they were reading and could have, if asked, been able to hold a lengthy discussion on where that particular news story fit into the spectrum of events. We shared a passion for news.

They understood that history and the reporting of it (after all, “breaking news” is merely today’s tiny footnote to “history”) is on a continuum. The story of the night might well be part of a trend, the effect of some causes from days or decades or ages ago, and the same stories were likely to come around again and again before their careers were over. And the newscasters understood that.

Often, there were editorials, where one of the staff read a statement, giving the TV station’s opinion on a topic of local, state, national, or even international interest. Sometimes, the station lost advertisers. It wasn’t necessarily bold or brave, but it did take a stand, after an investigation of the facts. And, I don’t ever recall seeing a retraction. It had been investigated, it was determined that this would be the side chosen, and on the air it went.

While murders, fires, accidents, and other human tragedies were reported, they did not consume the news. Other more important stories and their impact on us all – actual news – lead off most broadcasts.

Today, those old newscasters would not recognize the local news. First of all, nobody loves a murder like a TV reporter, anchor, or news director. Easy reporting. Nothing incisive, nothing investigative, just standing breathlessly at the edge of the police tape, interviewing those who want their 15 seconds of fame, unable to resist the vulgar, “How does that make you feel?” If I walk into the room when the newscast has already begun on one of our local stations, I know it’s some delicious tragedy, by the stance of a particular reporter. Bent over, his shoulders curved inwards, his hands held reverently, barely able to grasp his microphone, he assumes the position of a supplicant returning to his pew from the communion rail.

One huge elephant in the room, as we like to say these days: Guns. No one questions the use of guns, even though guns made the murders possible. No one asks “Why?” It’s as if guns were some benign, some innocent catalyst in the process, not at all aiding and abetting the killing of family members or random multiple murders at a public place.

No time for such analysis, but too frequently on the short newscast we get the banal, scripted, and rehearsed “ad lib” comments between anchors, weather reporters, and sports reporters. And the head shaking and unwanted, unnecessary comments by the anchor after the bloody story has been reported. (“What a tragedy” or “Terrible, isn’t it, Skippy”) Just once, as long as we’re getting their opinion, could we hear, “We gotta get rid of guns.”

We need TV reporters, editors, newscasters, and anchors who are educated. They need to know history. Trends. What causes effects. Basic stuff. Critical stuff. Then, they need to be objective, determined to bring us real news, digging into a story to find out what really happened, not use only a politician’s press release or be carried away by a horrible vehicle accident or shooting, feeding on misery, giving over most of every broadcast to a litany of tragedies, avoiding the job of covering the need-to-know, unreported stuff that is – drum roll here -- news.

When an elected or appointed official makes a statement, wouldn’t it be nice if the news team would put it in perspective, report on what’s bound to happen, based on what’s happened in the past, along with a healthy dose of common sense. The anchors should read copy that is the result of the reporter asking a lot of hard questions. And follow-up questions. And, if the question was ignored, the reporter would have said, “Let me ask you that again, since you didn’t answer it.” Explore, learn, and then share with us the underlying causes, not the veneer that does not inform.

I want the TV anchors and other on-air “personalities” to stop being personalities. I want them to stop being cover stories in local publications, emcees at community events, guests of honor. They think they are the story. Their predecessors knew they were the messengers. We didn’t cover this in my Journalism and Ethics class. Because, with barely an exception, it didn’t exist.

On the other hand, have you ever seen a local TV newscaster appear on a public panel to discuss important issues of the day? That’s what we want. But, I’m afraid it won’t happen, as they don’t know the background, those cause-and-effect factors, the history. Speaking about complex economic, political, social issues is so damned hard. Murders, fires, car wrecks? Not so much.

Trying to get coverage for a deserving event a few years ago, I asked the TV assignment editor, “Do you want a body?” He laughed. I didn't. I went on, “Well, I know if I could guarantee you a body, you’d send someone.” Of course, no one came. But, I’m sure blood and guts from somewhere else in Indy flew off the Teleprompter that night.

If I were in charge, I’d hire majors in history, psychology, human behavior, geography, political science. And take them on a rugged training course in investigating, doggedly pursuing the story, putting it in perspective, resulting in an objective reporting of events. Then, in the remainder of that 22 minutes or so, subtracting time for we’re-all-going-to-die! weather reporting and much more sports than necessary, I’d squeeze in a recitation of the latest tragedies, if they could be somehow proven newsworthy, followed by an announcement of that day’s body count in Indianapolis from guns and the total, to date, for the year. Then, most nights, an editorial on something not necessarily related to that day’s coverage.

And they wouldn’t come on the air two or three times earlier in the evening, teasing us with some top stories, but not telling us what the story is – “Learn what top state official has been fired by the governor. And why. Stayed tuned for the eleven o’clock news.” No! Give me the name now. Will learning the name at 9 p.m. mean I won’t bother to watch at 11?

Let it start in Indianapolis. And let it spread across the land. And, business travelers and tourists can, once again, turn on the local TV news and brush their teeth at the same time.

News. A great concept. It could, once again, be a great practice.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Racist reporting in The New York Times: Deliberate. Frequent. Repugnant.

The New York Times is a racist newspaper.

I am writing these introductory paragraphs of this blog post on July 4, 2011. One reason for my delay in posting this – I had intended to have it up, oh, a month ago - is that I have been too busy writing The Times to complain, again and again, about its reporting on Africa. So far this month alone, the paper has had an almost-daily barrage of racist reporting about Africans (and occasionally about other non-white peoples of the world).

Yesterday’s paper (July 3) has examples; so does this morning’s paper. From two different reporters. One, Jeffrey Gettleman, who appears, sadly and unfortunately, to be the chief reporter on African affairs, seemingly has a compulsion to use words and terms that denigrate the people he is writing about. It is frequent. It is deliberate. And it will not stop, in spite of years of complaining by me.

I hope you will join me in demanding that the paper cease the vulgar use of pejorative terms that, in and of themselves may not always be repugnant, but, as used by The Times, they represent a racist mindset. I am providing some Times e-mails further down in this post, if you choose to write.

Several reporters (whose writings are left uncorrected by their equally-guilty, equally-racist editors) cannot seem to compose a single news story about Africa without using words like “natives” or “huts,“often expanded to “mud-walled huts” and “thatched-roof huts,” and, in one story, a reporter astonishingly wrote “mud-walled, thatched-roofed huts.” Damn.

Add “village” – sometimes used incessantly in a single article (is nine times in a recent article on the Masai “tribesmen” who shockingly use bicycles and cell phones – start the presses! - incessant?) – and “jungle” and various forms of “tribe” and we have a predictable litany of terms that remain – after all, this morning’s paper is about as current as we can get – even though my earliest complaint to The New York Times was sent in 1996. The travel editor printed my letter pointing out the amazingly 19th-centuryish use of “natives” when speaking of Africans. (That year marked the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Africa, the same year I began to fire off – if one can “fire” using a manual typewriter – my first complaints about coverage of Africa in American media.)

The printing of that letter to the travel section (as bad, if not worse, than the foreign news section) seemed, ever so briefly, a sign of hope. Ha! A month later, another letter to the travel editor complained that I didn’t understand what a “native” was, even though I had pointed out the vast difference between being “a native of Indiana” and “the natives” used to describe citizens of countries inhabited by darker-skinned people. “I watched the natives of Kenya dancing…” is quite acceptable to The Times. “I watched the natives of Ohio dancing…” would be laughed out of the newsroom – and edited out.

It angered me that the letter-writer was so stupid. But, it angered me so much more that The Times knew she was wrong, but printed it anyway. And they did not print my rebuttal to her “rebuttal.”

If the word “natives” in the pejorative sense, reserved deliberately for certain types of people, shows up in articles on predominately white countries such as Australia or New Zealand, you can be assured that it will be used only with the “tribal” people who were living there when the whites arrived only a few centuries ago, and not to describe the whites themselves. Same is true for Norway, Sweden, Finland, and portions of Russia where the Lapps, not the whites, are the “natives.”

I have told the paper, in e-mail after e-mail, with increasing amounts of sarcasm and anger, the following:

1. Africans live in houses. They have homes. (I’ve lived and traveled for nearly eight years in urban and rural areas of several African countries and have yet to see a hut.)

2. The construction material, earthen walls and roofs composed of layers of palm fronds and similar materials, tightly and thickly layered, are wisely chosen for the cost-effectiveness, availability, and suitability for the climate. (When living in Santa Fe, we admired, but could never afford, the mud-walled homes – known as “adobe”-- of movie stars and the local rich residents. These expensive huts were flat-roofed, so thatch was not an issue, but, had it been used, you can be sure The Times would find these dwellings quaint and cute and chic, not words to be used when making snide put-downs of African’s residences.)

3. In rural areas, Africans very often live in towns. Many do, indeed, live in villages, but a word-search in a travel article about the countryside of any U.S. state would be unlikely to pull up “village” even one time.

4. If one uses some form of “tribe” to describe people of Nigeria or Afghanistan, why don’t we use it to describe the residents of France or Latvia? Yes, some groups call themselves tribes (some of my students in Santa Fe would have described themselves as belonging to the Navajo tribe), but it was not intended to be self-demeaning, as in the way The New York Times selectively uses it.

5. Why is “civilization” reserved for European culture, in at least one recent Times travel article, in contrast to what one finds in Africa? (My class of Nigerian fifth-formers – about 11th or 12th grade in the U.S. – bemoaned that their country was not “civilized,” and so I talked with them about the great achievements in science, literature, music, and other areas by Germans over many centuries, and concluded by discussing Dachau, at that time closed for only 21 years, and asked if that fit in with a “civilized” people. Point made. Point taken.)

Once upon a time, in a journalism department not terribly far away, this na├»ve student dreamed of the day he would be a foreign correspondent for the newspaper I now write to constantly, denouncing its lack of depth in reporting foreign affairs – shallow commentary is often all we get, something we’d expect from a Rupert Murdoch publication, but not the once-thought-venerable Times. After graduation, I went out into that world – to Africa -- where I quickly fell in love – and remain in love -- with the people and lands where I lived.

When I cut-and-pasted the string of e-mailed complaints to The Times, from 2009 to July 2011, into a Word document,it came to more than 20 pages, single-spaced. You are relieved, I’m sure, that I chose not to share that correspondence with you, but, if you really want to see it, I’ll send it – you’ll find a fair amount of redundancy in my comments, and I get really snarky, but never swear at them (but, is it tempting!), responding to the sad, ever-present use of the pejorative use of words and phrases I’ve mentioned above.

Africa is demeaned the most, although the occasional South American or Asian country gets hit, too (but, generally only the “tribal” people). Have you noticed that such writers call the heads of these groups “tribal chieftains.” Never “leader” or “commander” or other such words. And never chief, but chieftain. Got me. Don’t know why.

I am appalled at the arrogance of it. They know better. They don’t care and they are deeply involved in an us/them policy. Good versus bad. White versus black. House versus hut. And so on.

I have asked a number of times, when referring to the offenders, “Is this the best you can do? How did they (or you) get jobs at The Times? Seriously, how did you get hired?” You may have already figured out why they don’t respond any more often than they do – but, at least, they should share my valid concerns with the reporters I am complaining about. If they do, it hasn’t made a bit of difference.

Defenders of this blatant racist reporting and cooperative, like-minded editors include Acting Senior Editor Joan P. Nassivera (Senioreditor@nytimes.com) and Joseph Burgess (public@nytimes.com) of the Public Editor’s staff – I asked both of them to stop responding to me, as their defense was more upsetting – absolute refusal to acknowledge anything wrong with the reporters’ and editors’ work – than the articles themselves.

Other e-mails that go to departments that publish offensive material or who are responsible for those departments include the following: nytnews@nytimes.com,executive-editor@nytimes.com, managing-editor@nytimes.com, foreign@nytimes.com, travelmail@nytimes.com and obits@nytimes.com. Yes, even the obits often jar one with the use of “natives” or “villagers” or “huts” when referring to Africans or other non-white people.

If you’re still with me, thanks for letting me rant to you about such a discouraging state of affairs. Now, I have to get back to writing to the newspaper in question about two more articles. I may be tired of this – oh, I’m so weary – but, as I mentioned in one e-mail to The Times, referring to my persistence, like Churchill, “I will never never never never give up.”

But, goddamn it, I would love to. If only The New York Times were to become what I, for one, once thought it was: a publication with a fair-and-balanced, culturally sensitive worldview. It, I now know, never was. But it could be.