By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Race and the media

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.


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8 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Can we please declare a moratorium on “toxic brew,” at least until all the Katrina coverage has, ahem, blown over?Mike_B

  2. Anonymous

    I’m not sure whether the Hannity link says what you want it to. Unless I’m missing something, this was one of those rare occasions when Hannity and Colmes agreed, (that their guest was a race-baiter of the Sharpton variety). More germane, in my opinion, is the fact that Hannity, who rails against the liberal slant of the MSM, liked them just fine when he jumped on their dubious “scoops” about various hellish developments in New Orleans. Not only should he be taken to task, those journos whose unsourced junk he repeated should also be called to account. Where’s the outrage on that?

  3. Anonymous

    I don’t think anything about the N.O. situation should have been accepted as fact. Including the projected death totals. Dreadful as they are, they may be only 5-10% of projections. The two biggest stories continue to be how spending a few billion on leeves could have saved a few hundred billion in storm damage, when N.O. was the most at-risk city in N.America? And, why did Bush appoint Brownie to a post-9/11 position with no credentials, further weakening domestic national security, with a grade-A hack at FEMA?

  4. Steve

    Ignoring Katrina for a second in favor of Boston media, I’m wondering whether the discussion touched on the cases of Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, two Boston Globe writers who were dismissed for journalistic transgressions. Barnicle has been picked up again in print and on the radio(?) locally. Smith has gone out of sight (locally at least).Why the difference in their treatment?

  5. Anonymous

    To Steve…….because Mr Finucane is part opf the “Beautiful People” cliques and is well-connected and is going to be agiven a second and third and many more chances. In my mind, a bigger question is : That guy is so stupid, so boring, so uninteresting, so unisnpiring and now we know, so dishonest, I wonder how a pompous @$$ like him is allowed to be on the air for so long. The Barnicles, Shanugnessys, Kearns-Goodwins -atleast she has a ton of brains- and others will always rebound and nestle nicely from one cozy setup to another. Why is a fascist radio station and moron Matt Mills or even my personal favorite Bob Lobel still harbor this Branicle moron beats me.And why of all the great people we have in this great state and city of ours, do we end up with annoying-sounding-wimpy-sounding-speaking-on-his-nose people like him representing our area on national TV or radio, like PMSNBC or CrankMe I’m Imus???We have enough anoying people from this area like that extremely annoying, overrated, overexposed, overly bitter and incompetent feminist b!@@h called Murphy on national TV.Enough of these characters. Why don’t we get very nice , very smart, very wellspoken and likeable people like emily Rooney to be more visible from this area on a national scale more often. emily would make a great radio host. But she is too classy to put up with commercial crap and I would hate to have her hamstrung on the sedating ‘BUR airwaves.How about Braudy and Rooney, in contrast to that giggling racist bimbo from the Herald.Ahhh, if I could pick, a lot of characters would be cast away….

  6. Anonymous

    Braude and Rooney? If that’s what you call balance, their venue would make ‘BUR look like a video game…..

  7. Anonymous

    I didn’t make any mention of ‘balance’ so don’t go putting words in my mouth.I was thinking of a radio show with two smart, decent and likeable people that have some intersting opinions and non-threatening fake demeanors.The heck with balance. That is a BS concept. In journalism and Law there is only one relevant principle. It is Truth, based on fact and principle. Whether you get it from left or right or downstairs or upstairs, that is all that matters. Putting two different people – woman and man or lefty/righty thing- is just smoke and mirrors.What’s this Fox-initiated obcession with ‘balance’ now plaguing even PBS and NPR. That is just Fox speak for saying that we are not using educated principled journalists who care about justice and truth and what’s best, instead we are putting a lot of bombastic ignorant party hacks. There are a few talented people woking at Fox but they are ALL dishonest. Just the way they frame the issues, approach and describe and hide and skew and defame.Just watch ‘talented’ moron Brit Hume and see the words and corners he uses, promotes, puts down gently with some subtle words and hints after say a President speech or a Democrat speech or a poll/election result. Balance???? Hmmmm…how about BS???Did I say….BS enough????

  8. Anonymous

    Dude, if you’re going to be that angry, hit spellcheck; otherwise people will be distracted and think you’re all, er, BS.

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