Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Go Ahead, "Lean Forward." But Watch Your Back...and Don't Get Taken In.

The videos of the ill-fated OWS street action in Oakland the other day churned my stomach.

I mean, really. So many urgent questions, starting with, Who is training these activists?

Followed fast by, Will any cable TV political chat show hosts take responsibility for having ginned up the OWS-ers, for having worked them up to such a degree that they felt safe enough to face off with cops?

From what I have viewed of the recent Oakland situation, and the Wall Street, pepper-spray incidents of a few weeks ago, there are apparently more protestors concerned with turning cameras on cops than on getting the hell out of the way.

I chalk this up to youthful ignorance -- but also to the influence of partisan cheer-leading found on a multitude of news-ish sites on the Interwebs, and on the 24/7 cable TV news channels.

In particular, MSNBC's prime time programming is to be singled out for its egging on of the OWS-ers coast to coast.

"Lean Forward" is the cable network's marketing "house-ad" message-frame, and the spots (which air daily, across all the cable network's programming) feature hosts Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow, and Ed Schultz, earnestly sharing their (liberal-tinged) thoughts about how America is in a battle between Good and Evil. I am a San Francisco Liberal, and media Old Head, which is to say that I appreciate the ads for their slick ability to convey clearly the high stakes bound up in our present political landscape.

Yet I do worry that the "Lean Forward" ad campaign -- accompanied by a weeknight prime time line up that is vociferously, unapolagetically Left-leaning -- is not serving well the American people. No, I am NOT going neo-con, and I am equally opposed to the Fox News Channel's equally one-sided (Conservative) political bent.

But the Liberal me lives within the same spirit, brain, memory, and body as my Journalist. And I am inherently -- well, from training and experience -- reluctant to let the Liberal in me drive the Journalist unquestioned.

The cops in SF, Oakland and Berkeley are widely known (among natives) for being militarized. This is not news....unless you don't know the history, or have the wherewithal to look it up...or don't care to report it.

The videos of the Oakland "Occupy" protest demonstrated to me foremost that even the best-intentioned among us -- including high-profile Liberal, "activists turned TV news people" -- are ignorant about key aspects of our recent American history. The folks we see in the recent Occupy Oakland videos are not mindless 'bots but I bet you dollars to donuts that they felt emboldened by what they view on MSNBC and what they have heard in the past two weeks on other liberal-leaning broadcasts. They did so at their own peril.

Has anyone in MSNBC's editorial braintrust at 30 Rock in New York watched the KRON TV footage showing how the cops responded during the multitude of protests in the '60s and '70s in the Bay Area? (KRON was the NBC affiliate in SF for many years.) How about footage of the cops' handling of the homeless camps that sprang up around San Francisco City Hall during the 1980s, anybody at MSNBC bother to watch those images? Probably not.

I ask because I know from those situations that cops will brutalize OWS activists; I know this because I have seen them brutalize homeless advocates, ACT-UP members, and the shaggy Food Not Bombs kids. So what I want to know is:

Why wouldn't a responsible "newscaster" in 2011, especially one who flies proudly the flag of "activist," not warn their viewers/followers of this, even as they gin them up with segments and reports clearly designed to spur street activism?

Sure, Frank Rich delivered a sweeping piece in the recent edition of New York magazine on a long-ago showdown between Real People fed up with being left out by the Fat Cats. Rich tells the story of the Bonus Army, those Depression-era, middle and working class Americans who thronged the District of Columbia in protest of income inequality and job losses in the bleak years following an orgy of excess from early corporate titans and Robber Barons.

Rich's piece is instructive, if thin on the role of media back then. The piece does mention a favorite touchstone figure of postmodern Liberal media columnists, Father Coughlin, a "populist" who railed against class inequality on a popular radio program during the '30s.

Well guess what? The speed, vehemence, and utter pervasiveness of media today is even more influential than in Father Coughlin's day, far outstripping what existed in the '30s or in the intervening years. And more acute, too, is the vast income gap that exists between those who hold media perches that have wide reach -- such as cable TV political show hosts, and top editors and writers at the NY Times and the Washington Post -- and the rest of Americans.

David Carr at The NY Times wrote a cute, timely column early this week suggesting that Journalists should consider an "Occupy the Newsroom" movement, spurred by the crazy lucrative exit packages and bonuses received by some media company executives even while their editorial operations are vanishing. I think Carr didn't go far enough: The experienced, trained, well-paid Journalists still hanging on in "legacy" news organizations should protest the disappearance of black, brown, and others from their ranks who are "non-traditional," aka, from working-class families.

Yes, I am pissed off. No, I don't give a crap if you think that All Black Women are Pissed Off. My professional profile is what it is, I am quite accomplished, thank you very much; I am capable of (and spoiling to, frankly) standing up on this. The alleged "thought-leaders" of media today -- whatever the delivery platform -- are either "vets" who helped screw up the old model or "digital natives" who are so clueless about life that they might just screw up whatever comes next.

Much as the Fox News "journalists" ginned up the Tea Partiers in the summer of '09 with their highly-partisan, ill-informed reports, the "journalists" at MSNBC have ginned up the OWS-ers who are now getting their asses kicked on the streets of our cities.

Rachel Maddow, Lawrence, O'Donnell, Bill Maher, and their kin at FOX, ABC, and NBC have not, to my knowledge, ever been street reporters.

They claim to be "truth-tellers," yet the 50-thousand foot altitude of much of their rhetoric is absent a crucial element known to any Old School Journalist who has covered large-scale domestic disturbances in the US during the past half-century: Verify and report. Yes, people, Cops in many cities nationwide are militarized. They have been militarized since the street actions of the '60s.

It doesn't matter if you are politically opposed to this admittedly unfortunate reality. If you are a "news anchor," what matters is that you refrain from presenting reports that are wholly designed to inflame your (politically partisan) viewers to engage in confrontations with these local armies....without letting them also know that the local cops will fuck them up.

The decimation of the ranks of qualified, trained journalists of color is not discussed by Maddow and others, likely because they are the beneficiaries of this development. While we were learning the ways of Corporate Journalism -- whitewashing, downplaying, masking, the grit and resolve that led us to become Journalists in the first place -- these late-coming arrivistes were hanging out in their parents' homes, or attending college or knocking around in activist or entertainment, or corporate environments.

And when the winds of corporate media turned away from "objective, Just the Facts Ma'am" reporting that had been the standard for more than a century, toward a product that is infused with entertainment, the gatekeepers looked not for black and brown trained journalists -- many of whom also have "agendas" -- but to academics and activists who were telegenic, and "familiar," if highly partisan.

If you care about the process of verification (which is what Journalism IS, people, not a big mystery, but not easy to carry out faithfully, day after day), you might ask yourself this:

What will it mean in the future if everyone in the US who calls herself a "Journalist" is really not interested in verifying anything more than what they already think they know?

"Lean Forward," indeed, Dear Viewer.

Just be sure to verify, as much as you trust. And do your best not to blindly fall in.

Monday, October 10, 2011

On True Radicalism: Talk Softly, Wield Big Ideas, Solid Values

Derrick Bell had a very soft voice.

I first learned this during our phone conversations, which began in 1996. That is when I approached him to contribute to a book I was editing.

He lived in New York City, I was in Cambridge, Mass.

In my early 30s at that time, peripatetic and over-confident, I quickly learned to be calm, thoughtful, and focused whenever we spoke by phone. Derrick Bell, an NYU Law School professor, certainly was.

Why did I ask him to contribute to The Farrakhan Factor, a collection of essays by black writers, economists, academics, journalists and activists?

Two reasons:

I consulted with more than a dozen people as I sought to build a pool of 15 contributors for the book. It works like this: You contact people who probably won't write for the book but who in all likelihood can A) cogently brainstorm with you, and B) recommend or steer you to others who will write for the book. In that process, which took nearly six months, everyone I tapped mentioned Derrick Bell.

Second, I had read Bell's book, Faces at the Bottom of the Well, and enjoyed it immensely.....even if I didn't get all of the allegories and metaphoric imagery bound up in Bell's brand of high-minded Critical Race Theory. I did get its main message, though: African-Americans face a host of big systemic obstacles that no single silver bullet will instantly vanquish.

More than a decade later of course, I know that I was very fortunate to have made Derrick Bell's acquaintance. I am fortunate, too, that he made the time and found the energy to contribute to The Farrakhan Factor.

His essay in that book, published by Grove Press in 1998, is titled, "Farrakhan Fever: Defining the Line Between Blacks and Jews."

Given the contemporary discussion over the question of whether President Barack Hussein Obama can count on votes from Jewish Americans in the 2012 presidential race, I suggest you take a look at Bell's essay on Farrakhan's outsized place in the imagination of some Jewish Americans.....back in the mid-1990s. Characteristically, Bell's delivery in that essay was gentle, the literary version of his soft voice in real time. But the intellectual rigor, forceful logic, and compassionate values -- from anyone else, it would have been called "radical" -- is unmistakable.

Nowadays, of course, high-pitched rhetoric and slick presentation are what rises to the top of search engines and (apparently) the public's consciousness, coming from our "leading" black public intellectuals (many who now crowd the cable TV airwaves daily), and from just about anyone else who carries the mantle of "expert" on the Big Four topics of our social discourse -- politics, race, education, the economy.

Derrick Bell, of course, made television appearances in his time, too. In contrast to what we see now, however, he may as well have been sleeping upright during his infrequent on-camera turns. Not long ago, this understated demeanor was valued and appreciated for conveying a sensibility that read as Serious. I am not trying to sound like the cranky Old Gal on the front porch, railing about the Krazy Kids and their Hippity Hop Music but the high volume of what passes for "intellectual discourse" these days really does drive Americans farther apart, I believe.

Derrick Bell, like a few other of the "Old School" black intellectuals that I've been lucky to work with, would not be booked on the "leading" national political talk programs of today....unless he agreed to boil his complex, thoughtful theories about intra-ethnic tensions (blacks v Jews), and Critical Race Theory down into incendiary buzz-words.

I worked closely with Derrick Bell to shape his essay in that Farrakhan collection, and, when the book published, we finally met in person.

I traveled from Massachusetts to New York City via Amtrak along with another of the book's contributors, Rev. Irene Monroe of Cambridge. We two met up with Derrick Bell, and sat down at WNYC with Leonard Lopate; we spoke with Lopate and his audience for an hour about Minister Farrakhan, the state of black leadership, and the ways that blacks' history of oppression in America has influenced the definition of "black leadership."

After, we three repaired to a local eatery -- it was a blue-sky, crisp late-winter day in New York, and for a couple of hours, we drank hot tea and traded stories about our respective families.

Derrick Bell had been, by that time, widely described as "controversial, "mostly because he had quit a tenured position at Harvard Law School a few years hence in protest of that institution's inability to hire more diverse faculty. That word -- "controversial" -- popped up again in some of the obituaries that published last week, after Bell died at age 80. The usage of that word is flat and my ears, it fails to capture the quiet confidence, good humor and inner-calm that I picked up from Derrick Bell in my admittedly limited contact with him.

As I encountered Derrick Bell, he was a gentleman and a scholar, a smart black man from a generation that knew first hand what is required to bring about radical change in the US. Bell succeeded in his brand of quiet radicalism without assistance from non-stop exposure on national cable TV programs, or Tweetable soundbites. I do wonder what he'd make of Herman Cain, and the ceaseless carping from TV noisemakers about President Obama's style and his supposed lack of intestinal fortitude, aka "fight."

I wish I'd checked in with Derrick Bell in recent years. But I am very fortunate to have known him and to have learned from him the power of steady, low-pitched strength.