Last night Mark Jurkowitz of the Boston Phoenix I helped lead a discussion about a play that is built around a toxic brew of race and the media. As it happened, it took place within the context of a different real-life public controversy over race and the media taking place in and around New Orleans. But first, the play.
“The Story,” written by Tracey Scott Wilson, is based on the downfall of Janet Cooke, the young African-American reporter for the Washington Post who was forced to return her Pulitzer Prize in 1981 after it was revealed that the 8-year-old heroin addict she had heart-breakingly portrayed didn’t really exist. “The Story” is built around a young African-American reporter named Yvonne (played in the Zeitgeist Stage production by Nydia Calón), whose journalistic lapses are more morally ambiguous than Cooke’s, but who nevertheless finds herself in a world of trouble because of those lapses.
For good measure, “The Story” also draws on the Charles Stuart spectacle. In 1989, Stuart and his pregnant wife, Carol DiMaiti Stuart, were found shot in their car in a black neighborhood of Boston after having attended a childbirth class at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Carol was dead; Charles, seriously injured, claimed they were attacked by a black man. Boston’s black neighborhoods were turned upside-down for weeks before Charles – who had in fact murdered his wife for insurance money – leapt from the Tobin Bridge.
More than anything, what leads Yvonne and her white editor/boyfriend, Jeff (Gabriel Field), to ruin is their naivete about some serious racial realities – the same naivete we’ve seen on display in New Orleans, as credulous news people, virtually all white, have gone ballistic over the mostly black looters, rapists and murderers who have supposedly run wild in the path of Hurricane Katrina.
Of course there have been some looters, although many of them – stranded by officialdom – were simply helping themselves to life’s necessities, mainly food and water. But the idea that there was a complete breakdown of the social order in New Orleans is now giving way to actual evidence.
The Boston Globe yesterday published an important story by Christopher Shea on what really happened in New Orleans. Shea wrote:
[A]s journalists like Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune and Matt Welch of Reason magazine, have pointed out, many widely reported rumors have proved false or are at least unconfirmed.
”We don’t have any substantiated rapes,” the New Orleans Police superintendent Edwin Compass told the British newspaper The Guardian, speaking of the situation at the Superdome. Nor have any bodies of victims of foul play turned up there. The Federal Aviation Administration and military officials have cast doubt on the story of the rescue helicopter that came under fire outside Kenner Memorial Hospital on Aug. 31.
And television reporters’ tales of refugees from New Orleans hijacking cars at gunpoint in Baton Rouge or rioting in shelters there, Witt wrote, turned out to be groundless too. The Baton Rouge police told The Washington Post that crime levels had not risen noticeably in that city. There were clearly armed thugs on the street in New Orleans – and there are five murders there a week in ”normal” times, among the highest per capita rates in the country – but something not unlike the fog of war has so far kept us from determining just how many.
For the likes of Sean Hannity, the notion that New Orleans was taken over by black criminals is a comfortable trope. The truth, though, appears to be that the looting was grotesquely exaggerated, and the murders and rapes remain unproven rumors.
There’s not much in common between “The Story” and New Orleans except that a ghettoized newsroom, with few African-Americans in a position of power and influence, can lead to a complete misunderstanding on the part of white editors of what’s going on in the community. “The Story,” of course, is fiction (even though it’s based on real-life events). The consequences in New Orleans are quite a bit more serious.
By the way, “The Story” is terrific. It’s playing at the Boston Center for the Arts, in the South End, through Sept. 24.
After deadline: One of the anonymous folks who left comments to this message is right in suggesting that I could have found a better Hannity link. Here’s one.