Philadelphia Magazine published an article this month titled “Being White in Philly.” Written by Robert Huber, who includes his personal reflections as well as interviews with white Philadelphians, the piece raises troubling and real problems in current U.S. race relations in an open and fearless way that does not usually characterize the media’s handling of the topic. The letters from readers, which you can also read at the link provided above, demonstrate that the article drilled directly into a nerve, and exposed feelings by white citizens, not just in Philadelphia but elsewhere in America, that need to be considered, analyzed, and dealt with whether or not one believes that they are justified or fair. Huber uncovered some of the most stubborn obstacles to a post-racial U.S., and they persist because we remain reluctant to discuss them
It’s an excellent piece of journalism that reminded me of my late roommate in law school, a young, Irish Catholic ex-Marine from the “rough” parts of Philly, who opened my eyes about racial attitudes like no one else I have ever known. He was intelligent, observant, and beyond any question, a racist, and openly admitted it. He also vividly describe the Philadelphia experiences that he felt justified his racism. I could see his handsome smile as I read Huber’s piece. The article itself, however, is not racist in any way.
Mayor Michael Nutter, however, either out of careless reading, racial identification, foolishness or willful blindness, decided to attack the article and the magazine for running it. He wrote a furious letter of protest to Philadelphia Magazine, a letter which, as I will shortly demonstrate, crossed bright lines of ethical reasoning and appropriate conduct by a government official. Philadelphia Magazine’s editor, Tom McGrath responded perfectly:
“I applaud the mayor for asking for an inquiry into the state of racial issues in Philadelphia. The need to have a deeper discussion about race in Philadelphia is exactly why we ran our story in the first place. Like any reader, the mayor is entitled to think and say what he wants about the story. That said, his sophomoric statements about the magazine and mischaracterization of the piece make me wonder if he’s more interested in scoring political points than having a serious conversation about the issues. Furthermore, his call for a “rebuke” of the magazine by the PHRC is rich with irony. This is the same mayor who just yesterday was shouted down by an unruly mob in City Council; now he himself wants shut down conversation about an important issue in our city. In short, the mayor loves the First Amendment–as long as he and the government can control what gets said.”
Now let’s consider, piece by piece, Nutter’s letter to the magazine, and why it deserved McGrath’s criticism, and more. My comments will be in bold.
“This month Philadelphia Magazine has sunk to a new low even for a publication that has long pretended that its suburban readers were the only citizens civically engaged and socially active in the Philadelphia area.” Leaders in the U.S. who attack journalists and news organizations are engaging in media intimidation, and it is wrong. If a news item includes false information, or if a story makes provably false assertions, certainly these should be challenged. Attacking an opinion piece or a feature story is unethical, however, as it risks, or is intentionally designed to, interfere with the legitimate and Constitutionally protected role of the press. Attacks on the media of any kind should be undertaken by an elected leader, if at all, only in the most egregious and unusual circumstances. and only with care.
“It’s March cover piece, “Being White in Philly,” aggregates the disparaging beliefs, the negative stereotypes, the ignorant condemnations typically, and historically ascribed to African-American citizens into one pathetic, uninformed essay quoting Philadelphia residents, many of whose names either the author or the speakers themselves were too cowardly to provide.” Even accepting the Mayor’s apparent presumption that none of the negative accounts in the essay are fair or true, they obviously exist, obviously have an effect of city race relations, and thus obviously are worth of exposure and examination. Not only can’t the Mayor handle the truth, he thinks its wrong for the news media to report on it. Even worse is the hypocrisy of a politician, that class that habitually deals in leaks and off-the-record comments, condemning a journalist for not revealing his sources. Does Nutter really think that a writer on this topic, in this city, with him as mayor, should reveal the name of a citizen who is critical of the city’s black culture, conduct or attitudes? The fact that Nutter reacted so antagonistically and irresponsibly disproves his own assertion that those interviewed were “cowardly,” “Sane” is a better description: they have a mayor whom they know would have painted targets on their backs.
“That the magazine thought a collection of these despicable, over-generalized, mostly anonymous assumptions rose to the level of journalism is unfortunate enough. Worse, some of the residents of the nation’s fifth-largest city who are quoted in the piece seem to have ignored every positive anecdote they might otherwise have shared about a positive experience with African-Americans in favor of negative stories, many of them not even clearly attributable to African-Americans at all, to allow the author to feed his own misguided perception of African-Americans — notwithstanding his own acknowledged daily experience on his own block as an ethnic group that, in its entirety, is lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal.” First of all, the Mayor or his aides need to learn to write: I don’t comprehend the last sentence at all. What does “as an ethnic group that, in its entirety, is lazy, shiftless, irresponsible, and largely criminal” refer to in the previous sentence in the wake of “notwithstanding”? That gobbledygook aside, this is the same criticism that drives me mad when it’s directed at me. “Why are you writing about unethical Democrats, when there are unethical Republicans? Why are you criticizing the bad things X had done without praising the good things?” Why? Because that’s not what I chose to write about, that’s why! Because balance is not an essential part of every opinion piece or news story; sometimes balance dilutes the intended point, as in this case. Why, if Huber’s objective was to reveal the seldom-expressed, underlying distrust and confusion many white Philadelphians feel in their day-to-day interactions with African-Americans, would he spend time and space writing about the Philadelphians who don’t have these negative feelings?
“Moreover, compounding the sin of having allowed this article to be published in the magazine – and as a cover story, no less the magazine cynically and hypocritically distributed its March issue with two different covers : reportedly one, for its subscribers, with the provocative article as the cover story; the other, with an attractive woman of color on its cover, for Philadelphia hotel guests and visitors.” A mayor in a U.S. city abuses his post by calling the publication of a piece of journalism “a sin.” The statement is a veiled endorsement of censorship when the head of a government says it. As for his complaint about the covers: Nutter can run his own magazine as he chooses, once he’s relieved of his position. The editorial choice of which cover story any other magazine should use is none of his business.
“Anyone who reads a newspaper or walks through some of the city’s poorer neighborhoods knows that the “vast and seemingly permanent . . . underclass” is not only black; the poverty rate in the City of Philadelphia is 28.4% and comprises not only African-Americans but Caucasians, Latinos, and members of other ethnic groups as well – ethnic groups that are suspiciously absent from an essay that purports to decry the inability for white Philadelphians to have an “honest” conversation about “race.” More egregiously, the author of this essay, who notes that “[w]hat gets examined publicly about race is generally one-dimensional, looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of people of color,” commits the same sin in reverse, by examining race exclusively from the perspective of, apparently, fifteen white people who have used isolated negative experiences to draw pervasive generalizations that the author then ascribes to the belief system of Philadelphia’s entire white population. Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath defends his decision to publish the story by declaring, first, that it “is a story” merely because it features white Philadelphians, as opposed to Philadelphians of color, talking about race, as if merely saying that an article quoting the random thoughts of a random collection of people in selected areas of the city is worthy of publication makes it so. McGrath’s second contention is that refusing to publish a piece about race would have rendered the problems of the city’s “underclass” theirs, and theirs alone, to fight, as if the city’s African-American population and its underclass are one and the same.” All of this is legitimate “letter to the editor” material. Fine, he disagrees with the article. Just because he disagrees with it doesn’t mean it was wrong to publish it; in fact, a publication that chooses not to publish an article for fear that the mayor would disapprove is in the throes of self-censorship and government intimidation.
Indeed, perhaps McGrath’s description of Bob Huber’s essay as a “story” is accurate. The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines “story” as “1. an account of imaginary . . . events.” Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, American Edition (Oxford University Press, 1997). Ethics foul. Nutter’s staff must have searched high and low to find that definition of “story” in a #1 position. The more common full array of definitions for story, as the mayor should know, is:
1. archaic: history
2. a.an account of incidents or events b. a statement regarding the facts pertinent to a situation in question c. anecdote; especially : an amusing one
3. a. a fictional narrative shorter than a novel; specifically : short story; b. the intrigue or plot of a narrative or dramatic work
4. a widely circulated rumor
5. lie, falsehood
6. legend, romance
7. a news article or broadcast
8. matter, situation
Since the story was a piece of journalism, and that is one of the common definitions of “story,” and everyone knows that in journalism news reports are called “stories,” for Nutter to suggest that the editor was subtly acknowledging a falsehood by using the term is intentionally misleading, as well as laughable. If Nutter is really suggesting that Huber made up the quotes, that is even worse.
“However, trying to deconstruct the article’s many logical fallacies not only is an exercise in futility but offers the piece unearned credibility. Obviously, unless the resident whose chair was stolen or pumpkin smashed actually witnessed these acts of vandalism being committed by an African-American person, an assumption by the victim or the author about the ethnicity of the perpetrator is patently foolish.” Yes. Mayor, as any reader is free to conclude from what was printed.
“Obviously, the many positive, crime-free experiences of the thousands of Temple University students of all ethnic groups, bursting outward on the campus’ ever-expanding footprint that has for decades included fraternity houses and University-owned rental housing, belie the cynical presumptions of a police officer whose job, after all, is to focus attention on the criminals rather than the law-abiding citizens.” This is spin and nonsense. The article is about how many people think, and the mayor is saying that it is wrong to write about how many people think because they should think differently. In other words, don’t tell us the truth, tell us what we want to hear. I know politicians usually regard the truth this way, but journalists are supposed to be the antidote to that, not accomplices.
“Surely Dennis, the math teacher in Kensington, might have used the criticism he received for calling his young male student, “boy,” as a learning experience about the history of the relationship between Caucasians in the United States and African-American males, and identified a different way to discipline or speak sternly to the young man in the future, rather than interpreting it as evidence that “no one at the school could do anything, no matter how badly [the young man] misbehaved.” Is it “possible” that Anna from Moscow just doesn’t know that much about African Americans in America or our country’s complicated racial history than does Dennis’ young student?” Well, yes, your citizens could react to what they see is unfair racial hypersensitivity in ways that make your job easier, Mr. Mayor, but the fact is, not all of them do. Your job is to deal with the policy implications of the problem, not to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, reprimand those who feel the way they do, or excoriate journalists who give you the bad news.
“Rather than raging against the abject ignorance reflected in this uninformed, ill-advised, ill-considered, uninspired, and thoroughly unimaginative lament, I believe we should take the opportunity this essay offers to conduct a more comprehensive, fact-intensive evaluation of the racial issues and attitudes that provide the prism through which not only Philadelphians, but Americans across the country, view the many challenges that confront us as a community and as a nation.” Rather than??? But the mayor, in the sentences above, just has been raging! This is the dishonest device of doing what you say is wrong to do in the process of saying it, as in, “I am too much of a gentleman to point out that the young lady in question is a bitch and a whore.” Nutter’s letter is just about that blatant.
“I therefore request that the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, which is charged by the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter with a mandate, among other duties, to “institute and conduct educational programs to. . . promot[e] . .understanding among persons and groups of different races, colors, religions and national origins,” conduct an inquiry into the state of racial issues, biases, and attitudes within and among the many communities and neighborhoods in the City of Philadelphia. Also, because the performance of its duties the Commission may cooperate with interested citizens and with public and private agencies,” I ask that the Commission take testimony from individual citizens and from organizations including but not limited to community groups, non-profit organizations, community development corporations, law enforcement agencies, and religious organizations — perhaps citizens and organizations representing the ethnic, economic, and social diversity easily found in our great city — for the purpose of submitting to me and our city a report on the state of racial issues in Philadelphia, identifying the racial attitudes, both positive and negative, that pervade our civic interaction and our discourse; the obstacles and opportunities that those attitudes present; and recommendations for the improvement or enhancement of racial interaction and the encouragement and embrace of the diverse culture that Philadelphia enjoys.” Good. That should have been the whole letter.
“Finally, I ask that the Commission consider specifically whether Philadelphia Magazine and the writer, Bob Huber are appropriate for rebuke by the Commission in light of the potentially inflammatory effect and the reckless endangerment to Philadelphia’s racial relations possibly caused by the essay’s unsubstantiated assertions. While I fully recognize that constitutional protections afforded the press are intended to protect the media from censorship by the government, the First Amendment, like other constitutional rights, is not an unfettered right, and notwithstanding the First Amendment, a publisher has a duty to the public to exercise its role in a responsible way.” Terrible. This is a despicable, unethical, censorious attempt to intimidate free press and free speech in Nutter’s city, an abuse of power and authority, and worthy of the harshest condemnation.
“I ask the Commission to evaluate whether the “speech” employed in this essay is not the reckless equivalent of “shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater,” its prejudiced, fact-challenged generalizations an incitement to extreme reaction. Only by debunking myth with fact, and by holding accountable those who seek to confuse the two, can we insure that the prejudices reflected in the essay are accorded the weight they deserve: none at all.” Moronic and incompetent. Shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not protected speech only if there is no fire and the individual crying “Fire!” doesn’t think there’s a fire. This famous and much misused example from the pen of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes doesn’t have any application to journalism, as any high school sophomore should know. Either the mayor didn’t have his lawyers look over his letter, or he needs to fire his lawyers. In either case, it is frightening that any high elected official has such a flawed and ignorant comprehension of the Bill of Rights.