Thursday, August 18, 2011

All Racism is Stupid, but Not All Stupidity is Racist

Journalistic failing comes in many flavors, ranging from general incompetence to cowardice to advancing a political agenda in allegedly unbiased reportage. Somewhere between cravenness and politically motivated fabrication on the slime-o-meter is the conscious manipulation of the facts of a case simply to make the story “sexier,” often with little regard for the consequences to innocent people. This isn’t quite the level of offense against the profession that, say, Andrew Breitbart’s malicious and mendacious editing is (not that any sane person thinks Breitbart is really the “journalist” he claims to be), but it’s close.

A prime example of this phenomenon occurred a few weeks ago, when Chicago TV station WBBM played a small segment of an interview with a 4-year-old boy who apparently happened to be a witness to a shooting in which two teenagers were wounded on the same night a 16-year-old was killed in another part of the city. The reporter on the scene unquestionably violated the standards of his profession by asking questions of the boy at all, especially since he appears to have done so without parental permission. He also, it turns out, uttered a mild expletive in the course of the interview. Still, unlike the news editor who subsequently mangled the piece beyond recognition, he at least seemed interested in hearing what the boy really had to say.

But what actually showed up on the air was this:
Boy: I’m not scared of nothin’.
Reporter: When you get older, you gonna stay away from all these guns?
Boy: No.
Reporter: No?
Boy: Noooooo.
Reporter: What do you want to do when you get older?
Boy: I’m gonna have me a gun.
And then we cut back to the insipid anchors (apologies for redundancy) clucking about how “that is very scary indeed” and generally acting sanctimonious.

Now, even if the entirety of the interview had been included in the broadcast tape, there was no reason to air it, no reason to be surprised that a 4-year-old wouldn’t have an entirely mature response to the horrific events he had seen and heard, no reason to find it newsworthy that little boys like guns, no reason to be at all disturbed that a child that young would find a defense mechanism to cope with the trauma he’d just endured: it was the fact of what the boy had witnessed, not his apparently unguarded statement, that deserved to be described as “very scary indeed.”

But, in fact, the breach of journalistic ethics is even more outrageous than simply conducting and broadcasting an interview with a 4-year-old crime witness. It turns out that the reason for the boy’s desire for a gun—“I’m gonna be the police”—was edited out of the tape before it was aired. For this, someone ought to join the ranks of the unemployed: this was a purely intentional deception.

The aftermath of the incident was entirely predictable: 1). the idiots at WBBM got caught, 2). there was a furor, 3). the station hierarchy issued an entirely pro forma apology, “[taking] responsibility” for the “mistake”(and, of course, making a false claim that the segment had aired only once), 4). no one, apparently, was fired, censured, or even subjected to reproachful glances. One can hardly be surprised that WBBM management did nothing substantive either to truly atone for their egregious unprofessionalism or to take steps to prevent a recurrence. After all, these are the responsibility-challenged yahoos who thought conducting the interview was OK, airing the interview was OK, willfully distorting a little boy’s intent was OK, and having their talking heads, undoubtedly chosen for their jobs on the basis of their vapidity, bemoan the fate of the world based on the [intentionally distorted] testimony of a boy too young for kindergarten was OK.

The only thing not OK in their book was getting busted. I shed no tears for the fate of anyone associated with this sordid little incident: except, of course, for the boy, who, in this age of YouTube, will never outlive his moment of unsought celebrity (not to mention that the poor kid seems to be suffering from some pretty execrable parenting—why else would he have been even available to be interviewed?). But from the I Shoulda Known shelf comes this more recent revelation: there are some folks who are claiming that the garden-variety incompetence demonstrated by WBBM was linked to race: the boy, you see, is African-American.

The Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, who, to their credit, seem largely responsible for bringing this story to light (but how did they get a copy of the unedited tape?), are also hand-wringing about “We have long been worried about the ways in which the media helps perpetuate negative stereotypes of boys and men of color, but this appears to be overtly criminalizing a preschooler.” So quoth Dori J. Maynard, President of the Maynard Institute. Kathy Y. Times, former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, is quoted by Bob Butler (current NABJ VP) in an article entitled “A Prime Case for Newsroom Diversity,” as saying “I have to believe, had there been somebody of color in management, that video would not have aired.”

In the same article, Renee Ferguson, communications director for Congressman Bobby Rush, also puts a decidedly racial spin on the matter:
This station is licensed to broadcast in the public interest, and I know that no FCC… licenses have been taken away in a long time. But the whole idea that you’re licensed in the public interest to really serve the public interest, how can you do that if you don’t have diversity in your news management?
What is disturbing here is the reflexive assumption that somehow everything would have been better if there’d only been a couple of black managers around. They, of course, aren’t inspired by the same crass, tabloid-style, stupidity that prefers edgy to accurate. They aren’t too lazy to view the entire minute-long tape instead of pulling something from the first 40 seconds. They aren’t motivated by the same first-is-best, if-it-bleeds-it-leads mentality that plagues white journalists. All WBBM needs to fix their obviously inept news bureau is a couple of darkly-complected folks.

Give. Me. A. Damned. Break.

Incompetence is incompetence. No race, religion, gender, or nationality has a monopoly; none is exempt. This isn’t about making a black kid look bad while proclaiming moral superiority while demonstrating its opposite. It’s about making a kid (who happens to be African American) look bad for the sake of ratings or sanctimony or whatever the hell motivated those morons. It is remotely conceivable that an otherwise equally inept black editor would have behaved differently from the cretinous white one responsible for this debacle. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

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