His Non-Civic Duty

It’s an ageless adage and probably true that no one ever reads a newspaper article about himself that doesn’t get something wrong. Wayne Brasler had this experience the other day. He opened Jnews, the alumni newsletter of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, to the headline “Brasler, teaching pioneer, retires.” Most of the information in the story was on the money, such as how he’d launched the journalism program at the University of Chicago Lab School in 1964 and stayed to raise it to a level of distinction unsurpassed anywhere in the nation. How in addition to his several individual awards, his U-High Midway had been named one of the country’s ten best high school newspapers 20 times.

But his retirement was news to Brasler. Which isn’t to say he hadn’t considered it often, especially after his open-heart surgery a year ago. Nor that he hadn’t talked about retiring to the Jnews reporter, even discussing what he intended to do when he did. “Among his plans…is to write a book about the past and present lives of the most popular women of his high school,” reported Jnews, quoting Brasler saying, “I still don’t know if they’ll talk to me.”

But as he explained when I called to wish him well in his dotage, his doctors had advised him that retirement is overrated, especially as experienced by people who abandon careers they love and put themselves out to pasture. In the end Brasler decided he agreed with his doctors.

I’ve known Brasler since we shared a dorm in college. I recall a heart on a sleeve and enthusiasms a little too pure to survive the grinding harshness of a big-city news desk. But Brasler created his own news desk, and he’s been educating teenagers there for nearly 40 years. “The vision of journalism I give my students is so different from the mainstream,” he told me. “I have such a bigger picture of journalism than it’s usually practiced. I think a newspaper in particular isn’t just something that reports the facts. A great newspaper is two publications in one–the publication you see in print and the publication between the lines.

“And the publication between the lines captures what a community is, what it believes about itself, and how the people treat each other–its fantasies, its hopes, its dreams, its faults. It’s much more of a living organism than ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ and ’20 people killed.’ That’s the biggest comment of the judges all the time–‘When we read you we think we visualize your school.'”

A newspaper is a messy thing. The more compulsively an editor tries to clean up that mess the more he scrubs away any whiff of its readers’ world. But a few years ago journalism began dancing with a theory that understands the connection between papers and their communities just well enough to distort it. Unbidden, Brasler brought up this theory.

“On the other hand,” he went on, “I’m pretty crotchety about things like civic journalism, which I see as adding up to people who can’t be adults and can’t treat their readers as adults. ‘Don’t print it unless it’s positive. Don’t print it unless it has a constructive effect on the community.’ It’s caretaking the community through journalism. But that’s not really journalism, and it doesn’t help educate people about making wise decisions in a democracy. We were greatly criticized for not joining that bandwagon.”

The civic-journalism bandwagon?

Yes, he said.

I was surprised to hear that on the high school level there was a bandwagon. I’d imagined civic journalism beginning there, then spreading upward as the daily papers that survived TV and suburbia became monopolies and floundered about seeking some way to feel purposeful–having outgrown the ideological and class niches they were born in, how would they make themselves attractive to everybody?

I reminded Brasler of an incident a few years ago in a town in Michigan. A middle-school principal had spiked a story written for her award-winning paper about a kid accused of shoplifting during a student ski trip. The faculty adviser, who took the side of the student editor, wound up out of a job and in tears. The editor wound up contacting the Student Press Law Center in Virginia and finding himself a pro bono attorney–which is what made the incident very briefly national news.

The superintendent of schools sounded silly in print, prattling on about both “First Amendment rights” and his desire “to put our best foot forward”–as if in a proper school paper (or any paper) these interests went hand in glove. The school board wrote new guidelines that construed the school paper as a “course in Written and Visual Communication” and a “forum to showcase student work and highlight their accomplishments.” Anything that promoted “ideological agendas” was forbidden. No doubt kids trained in this atmosphere could grow up to be excellent civic journalists.

However, one niggling detail of this outrage escaped general notice. The story the principal spiked had no business running as written. It was potentially libelous. The problem could have been fixed in a second, but the idealistic young students hadn’t recognized the problem and neither had their idealistic adviser. Even the administrators didn’t seem to have a clue that the story they killed for the wrong reasons could have ended their careers. Conclusion: Don’t preach ideals to high school students unless you make it clear how dangerous they can be.

But Brasler knows that. “Censorship’s a major issue in high school journal-ism–it’s rampant,” he said. “But the part not told is that with freedom comes maturity and responsibility. I browbeat the students about being fair, accurate. I don’t edit the paper, but if I see libel I say it’s libel–and they take care of it.”

If Nobody Gets It, Is It Still Satire?

The next time you intend to cut to deeper truths by penning a devastating satire, be sure to parade a 20-ton purple alien through the middle of it.

What you don’t want to do is make the mistake Jonathan Swift made when he wrote “A Modest Proposal” in 1729. Swift presented the idea of fighting starvation in Ireland by eating babies as a sensible plan, and as a result not every reader caught on that Swift was kidding. This failure of technique cost Swift the guffaws of indignant imbeciles, but in an advanced, litigious society such as our own the penalty might have been much harsher. A recent legal decision in Texas serves notice that wit is becoming legally perilous when the wrong people don’t get the joke.

Satire comments on reality, which distinguishes it from the various forms of humor–the traditional TV sitcom is one–that comment on unreality and as a result are politically safe, if rarely funny. The reality at the root of the Texas situation was an incident in October 1999 in the town of Ponder. Christopher Beamon, a seventh grader assigned to write a Halloween paper, produced a riveting horror story that had him opening fire and shooting a couple of students and his teacher. The same teacher gave him an A and asked him to read the story aloud in class. Then he was arrested and, on the authority of district attorney Bruce Isaacks of Denton County and county judge Darlene Whitten, held five days in a juvenile facility.

Rose Farley, a writer for the weekly Dallas Observer, decided this was a matter worth commenting on. She produced an article about Cindy Bradley, a “diminutive 6-year-old” arrested during “story-time” at Ponder Elementary because of her troubling book report on Where the Wild Things Are. In Farley’s account, which ran in the Observer under the headline “Stop the Madness,” the little girl appears before Judge Whitten “dressed in blue jeans, a Pokemon T-shirt, handcuffs and ankle shackles.”

Farley had the judge speaking sternly to the girl. “Any implication of violence in a school situation, even if it was just contained in a first-grader’s book report, is reason enough for panic and overreaction,” the judge says. “It’s time for you to grow up, young lady, and it’s time for us to stop treating kids like children.”

I admire that last line of Farley’s–though not enough to go to prison over it. Whitten and Isaacks sued the Observer for defamation. They complained that the paper had falsely accused them of official oppression, false arrest and imprisonment, child abuse, assault, and civil rights violations. That the whole article was a joke made no difference, the judge and district attorney argued, if a “reasonable person” wouldn’t get the joke.

A trial judge twice denied the Observer’s motions for summary judgment, and the paper then appealed to the state’s appellate court. On to trial, said that court.

What the court was looking for but didn’t find was the wink or playful elbow in the ribs that accompanies so much good-natured joshing. It was all a joke, but the Observer failed to signal clearly enough that it was all a joke. There was a serious lack of what the court called “obvious clues.” Farley’s piece appeared in the news section “with no disclaimer”; she used real names, put fictional statements in quotes, and wove in real-life details from the Christopher Beamon incident that inspired her satire. There was even a photograph of a little girl.

“Indeed,” wrote the court, “there is evidence that readers actually thought the article was true….By its own admission, the Dallas Observer received telephone calls and e-mails from readers who thought that the article’s fictional account was true. Local media sources even addressed the story as a news article.”

This sort of misunderstanding can seem pretty funny when it happens somewhere else. For instance, nobody felt bad for the Beijing Evening News this June when it picked up a story from the Onion about congressional leaders demanding a new Capitol with a retractable dome and threatening to move to another city if they didn’t get it. “Don’t get us wrong: We love the drafty old building,” House Speaker Dennis Hastert was quoted as saying. “But the hard reality is, it’s no longer suitable for a world-class legislative branch.”

But they didn’t laugh in Ponder, Texas. To make matters worse, this wasn’t a lighthearted prank that went awry. This was hostile. The appellate decision noted: “Farley admitted the article was intended to hold Isaacks and Whitten up to public ridicule. Her ideas came from published accounts of the Beamon matter. She thought the public officials overreacted to the Beamon matter and believed that Beamon should never have been detained.”

Farley made various admissions that in a traditional libel suit would be deadly. Though she was commenting on the Beamon case, she didn’t investigate it. She didn’t interview Whitten or Isaacks. She made up quotes. She denied her account was false but allowed it was “fictional.” In short, at every turn Farley failed to act like a responsible journalist developing a story–though she did fit the classic profile of a satirist.

Should reckless journalists be allowed to play fast and loose with the facts and then label their inaccuracies satire if they get caught? Of course not. How to tell the difference between satire and news? The answer out of Texas appears to be that it’s up to the public to say, not a judge.

“There is evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact that the Dallas Observer knew or recklessly disregarded that the article could be misleading to the average reader,” wrote the appellate court. “Therefore, there is evidence that the Dallas Observer knew or strongly suspected that when they published the article it was false and defamatory.”

All the court was deciding was whether the judge and DA’s suit deserved to be considered at trial, so its thinking here is by no means the ultimate legal word on satire. But it’s safe to say this much: various Dallas Observer staffers took a hand in punching up Farley’s satire to make it as funny as it could possibly be. Their paper’s legal position would be more comfortable if one of them had persuaded the others to make tiny Cindy Bradley a 20-ton purple alien.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.