Saturday, May 07, 2005

Recognizing and writing about proxies

Perhaps the most valuable realization I ever had while running the local news operation came in the 1990s during the "Where Are My Glasses?" scandal. Given the right set of circumstances, a story can become a proxy for a complex set of emotions and grievances.

When that happens, you've really got two stories, not one. And you should act accordingly.

The "Where are my glasses?" story in a nutshell:

The setup
A black kindergartener with poor eyesight returned home one day from school with the words "Where are my glasses?" written on her face in marker by her white teacher. The child's mother called a local TV station, which came down and recorded her complaint about the "racist" teacher. She said the marker was permanent and that the act of writing on her child's face was akin to the branding of slaves -- a sensitive subject in Charleston, the port of entry for the ancestors of 70 percent of today's African Americans.

The background
The white teacher, in her first year of teaching, had a history of writing on children's faces as they left school at the end of the day. The messages were usually supportive and upbeat, and the children reportedly enjoyed the attention. The white teacher team-taught with a black teacher who said there was no pattern of treating white and black children differently when it came to writing on them. The writing was in watercolor marker. The administration knew about the practice. No parent had ever complained before. The teacher had reminded the girl to bring her glasses to school previously, and had spoken to the mother about making sure the child wore them. The girl could not see the board without them on.

The deep background
Charleston has a complex racial history and its schools remain largely segregated to this day. Black Charlestonians who attended public schools have deep resentments about the second-class treatment they received. The city's only downtown high school was 100 percent black the year this story broke, and it was in need of replacement or repair. Numerous county schools were in terrible disrepair, and predominantly black schools were generally in the worst shape. School board politics were divided along racial lines. School board spending on black schools was considerably higher, per capita, than on predominantly white schools, but the desegregated schools were also better able to raise funds for activities through other means (PTA, etc.).

Black Charlestonians lined up behind the mother, with little public dissent. They wanted the superintendent to fire the teacher. Fellow teachers, black and white, lined up behind the teacher. The board split.

The more we covered the story, the more apparent it became that the facts of the incident showed really weak judgment, but nothing like the racism that black people seemed to attach to them. The more we covered it, the angrier they became.

Somewhere in all of this, it occurred to me that there were two things going on. There was the individual case, with all its relevant facts, and then there was the larger story of racism in Charleston, particularly in its public schools. The reason we couldn't "get" the story right was because the event had become a proxy for generations of mistreatment and institutional racism.

Once I made the connection and explained it to the reporting staff, our coverage improved and the climate warmed considerably. We wrote about the case and pointed out the facts, which tended to support the teacher and not the mother, but we also assigned and published stories that dealt with the frustration many black adults felt with the school system. By disconnecting the two, we were able to address the real concerns of our readers without crucifying the teacher as a racist.

Ultimately, the white superintendent fired the teacher. The move did not save him: He was later run off, and for a variety of good reasons.

Our "proxy-savvy" coverage didn't change the outcome. Nor did it "fix" all the problems. But I think it made things better -- not only in the community, but in the newsroom. The community was tense, but so were we. We needed to be able to understand what was really going on in order to formulate a coverage plan that felt right ethically.

Political leaders of all stripes understand proxy issues. They understand that symbols can be manipulated to create emotion and mobilize their constituencies. The modern example is the Terri Schiavo case: GOP operatives and leaders hyped the case for what they believed would be their own political gain. I think they made a mistake, but that's neither here nor there. The point is, Schiavo was one case. But people were energized by the story because it was a proxy for deep-seated anxieties and resentments.

Does that mean that people didn't feel strongly and sincerely about Schiavo? Of course not. But it does argue that much of the intensity of emotion stirred by the story was actually an expression of simmering anger about abortion, about judges overturning popular laws, about the separation of church and state. Terri Schiavo was a tragedy. The Schiavo story was a proxy.

Such analysis fell out of favor at my paper as we went through various editor changes, and it's not something that we do routinely these days. However, I still recommend it to anyone who wants to do journalism that does justice to the individuals involved in a high-profile case while also giving voice to the underlying frustrations and passions that are struggling to be heard.