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Journalistic Unfairness

Isn’t journalism supposed to value fairness above all? Not in the short run. The press can slight one side today and give it its say later on. What journalism really values is raising hell.

Last spring Catalyst raised hell. Catalyst is the magazine/newsletter founded in 1989 by the Community Renewal Society to chronicle and advance school reform in Chicago. A controversial article in the May issue beat up on the two whites most closely identified with school reform: Donald Moore, executive director of Designs for Change, and G. Alfred Hess Jr., executive director of the Chicago Panel on Public School Policy and Finance.

Reporter Alex Poinsett tapped a pool of buried rancor and let it gush. He began his piece genially enough in Fred Hess’s Loop office, where he found Hess quoting Sartre and reflecting on the new generation of grass-roots black leadership the reform movement has spawned. Hess mentioned one example–James Deanes, a local-school-council chairman who previously headed Mayor Washington’s Parent/Community Council.

Cut from Hess. And now that his back is turned, so to speak, Poinsett immediately belittles Hess’s testimony as “outsider analysis of inner-city dynamics.” We’re told that “some” black leaders dismiss Hess as “at best, a dilettante in African American ethnography,” and that “others” dismiss Hess’s “new leaders” as “inadvertent pawns” of Chicago Panel, of a “self-serving business community,” and of Designs for Change, which Poinsett introduces as “a prominent downtown educational research group that loudly espouses concern for the education of black children. Designs, in particular, is distrusted by a large group of black community leaders.”

Cut to James Deanes. “Fred Hess can’t speak for blacks. He isn’t black,” snaps Deanes. “He can’t describe black leadership. What he’s talking about is what he heard somebody say. He cannot choose our leaders. We choose our leaders!”

We hear from two black legislators, the 2 who happened to vote against school reform in 1988 (the other 17 supported it). We are encouraged to wonder if school reform is but one more example of a paternal white elite telling blacks what’s good for them. The piece ends on a note that we’ll call paranoia. Poinsett writes, “Some black activists fear that current events in the $2.9 billion Chicago school industry may be part of a larger scenario to rid the city of any vestiges of black political power.” (These activists construe decentralization as a scheme to fire black bureaucrats on Pershing Road.)

Was all this fair? Of course not. Then it was irresponsible? Well no, it wasn’t that either.

Editor Linda Lenz had thought it was time for Catalyst to run an article examining “the impact of school reform on black leadership, and vice versa,” and she assigned Poinsett, an experienced black free-lancer who’s a contributing editor of Ebony, to write it. Poinsett by his own admission knew little about school reform, but Lenz helped get him started. Poinsett worked on his assignment for about a month. “It was no quick and dirty job by any means,” says Lenz.

Hess, an early interview, rubbed Poinsett the wrong way. “He talked about the new generation of black leaders,” Poinsett told us, “and I thought this was premature. Many of them were elected [to local school councils] with just 30 or 40 votes.”

You were offended? we asked Poinsett.

“I wasn’t so much offended by it as I was disappointed by the presumptuousness of that stand,” Poinsett said. “How are you going to dismiss the hundreds of black ministers who are among the traditional leaders of the black community? How are you going to dismiss the politicians? How are you going to dismiss the civil rights leaders? How are you going to dismiss and set aside the traditional leadership?”

Poinsett wrote two drafts, the first impersonal and academic–a failure, in other words. In draft two, Poinsett let ‘er rip. He talked to his share of black moderates; to partisans of Hess and Moore, such as Earl Durham, the vice chairman of Designs for Change; and to conciliators, former school board member Warren Bacon prominent among them. But the critics gave him the best quotes–“James Deanes, quite frankly, had much more to say than Warren Bacon”–and their attitude took over his report.

Poinsett has the impression that the story he turned in is the one Lenz was looking for. Certainly Lenz was not shocked by his manuscript. “It clearly had a point of view,” she says. “I thought it was one that had not received any sort of official recognition. I’ve heard complaints from the black community–from people that even Fred Hess and Don Moore would be surprised about. . . . There is a significant belief in the black community that it is not part of shaping what happens. . . . They see the school organizations that do have money being able to shape things, by going down to Springfield full-time, by getting their message into the media . . .”

The reaction to Poinsett’s article was almost entirely positive, says Lenz, with two pointed exceptions. One was a private letter from the chairman of Chicago Panel to the chairman of the Community Renewal Society, the other a scathing reply from the chairman and vice chairman (both black) of Designs for Change. It thundered: “A blatantly inaccurate history of Chicago school reform and the role of African-Americans in it, basic distortions about our organization . . . and racial slurs.” Racial slurs? One singled out by Designs had Deanes telling Poinsett: “The white boys are making millions of dollars on the backs of our children. That troubles me.”

When she read that in the manuscript, Lenz called up Don Moore for the response that Poinsett hadn’t bothered to get. (“I’d already talked to Durham,” says Poinsett.) Moore told Lenz, “Our staff people work 60 hours a week. If we were primarily motivated by making money, there are a lot easier ways to do it,” and Lenz plugged this riposte into Poinsett’s article.

“Alex used several loaded words,” Lenz tells us, “and we thought about that–whether that was permissible–and came down, rightly or wrongly, that it’s permissible for writers to have a point of view as long as there is some balance and as long as there is enough information out there for people to make their own decision about what is being presented.”

Some balance? Don Moore thinks not. When Lenz told Moore that the piece Catalyst was about to run wouldn’t be kind to Designs, Moore asked for space to reply in the same issue. Lenz said no, and Moore was as upset by that as by anything. “We’re not trying to keep anyone from expressing a point of view,” he tells us, “but when such extreme statements are published we should have had a chance to respond at the time.”

Moore’s request might strike you as reasonable, but the fact is that not one editor in a hundred would have agreed to it. “It’s not part of my way of working to take a piece by a journalist and show it to the people criticized and let them write a separate rebuttal before it’s published,” says Lenz.

As Catalyst does not publish over the summer, Designs’ critique failed to see the light of day until the September issue came out a week or so ago. And now, with this critique finally on its way to the public, Linda Lenz answered it. In a letter, she reminded Designs’ chairman and vice chairman of Catalyst’s mission “to stimulate debate,” discharged in this instance by airing “the festering antagonism” that threatens “the progress of school improvement.” She said that until the larger truth of school reform, “which may well be on your side,” becomes clearer, “Catalyst can only print the varying interpretations, taking care not to trample on the facts that emerge. . . . Inflammatory comments,” Lenz went on, “when espoused by leaders . . . are part of the story.”

She added, inevitably, “I welcome continuing contributions and critiques.”

Does that strike you as sanctimonious? It’s journalism. When debate rages over time, a magazine is transformed from sheets of paper into an organism. Editors don’t long for fairness. Their quest is for a state of dynamic disequilibrium.

Unprepared for War

An indifferent boy during America’s first postwar war, in Korea, we came of age in the throes of the second, in Vietnam, and expect any day now a war we can share with our children. No two wars are alike; and one of the curious ways in which war with Iraq will differ from every other war of our lifetime–indeed, from every other war of this century–is that this will be a Republican war, bringing to a boil ten consecutive, popular, selectively prosperous years of Republican administration.

Once again, America rages against a symbol of Total Evil who used to be our man and played us for fools. So far as we can see, the ten years did not prepare America especially well for this precarious moment. Despite the largest peacetime military buildup in history, the nation’s military prowess is suspect, with billions of dollars spent on strategic weapons that won’t be used. And as everyone noticed at once, 17 years after its first oil crisis our nation has no energy policy and is more dependent on foreign oil than ever. Making matters worse, America was already teetering on the edge of a recession. The U.S. has ridden out past recessions by spending beyond its income to prime the economic pump, but today’s massive deficit makes this traditional remedy unthinkable. The free world’s backbone is broke.

When our children ask whether anyone they know is going to die once the war starts, we’ll be able to say no. The next war will be fought entirely by volunteers, largely drawn from the masses Republican prosperity did not bless. They will be dying, as the president said, to preserve the American way of life.

We wonder if in America a neglected moral impulse is about to flicker again and catch fire, especially among the self-involved, unbloodied generation that came of age in the past ten years. There will be no stampede to the recruiter. But the knowledge that others are dying in our place, to defend our indulgences, is apt to trigger a spasm of self-examination.

Of course, that’s begun already. The ironies were too blatant to be ignored. The mere shadow of war was enough to call our way of life to account. Come what may on the battlefield, George Bush–if he wants to be–is out from under the spell of his predecessor. The era of Ronald Reagan is over.

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