Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Latent Obamaism Detected in America's Newsrooms---Again!

The Chronicle's reader representative (again, the Slampo's Place Stylebook dictates that we lower-case this job title) has raised the question of whether the newspaper's policy on identifying crime suspects by race (and ethnicity, we presume) is outmoded, given the alternate sources of information now readily available---sources whose producers (including the cops and readers who append comments to online stories) aren't as squeamish as the daily newspaper's brain trust about including the world's recognized No. 1 identification marker in its descriptions of Our Town's wanted men and women. This amounts to another astute admission by Re-Rep II that the daily newspaper is no longer the be-all and end-all of all things newsy. The policy in question, he reports, is as follows:

Race should not be used in a police description that is too skimpy to identify a suspect, such as "a black man in his 20s." But a complete description (several
elements, such as height, weight and personal characteristics) should always
include race.
(Which makes sense, except in any given week the paper seems to be all over the place in its application.)

We're not sure whether this marks a recent or long-past change of policy at the Chronicle. We do recall that the paper's previous ombuds-fellow---Re-Rep I---explained that the paper generally avoided fingering crime suspects by race because that amounted to "racial scorekeeping," a sentiment that we believe he once attributed to the paper's exceutive editor, although we can no longer find evidence of that in the Chronicle archives (maybe we imagined it). This stank to us of something that we lacked the vocabulary to name at the time but which we will henceforth call Obamaism*---the keen ability to discern the true motive/cause behind the failings of your social inferiors, coupled with the overwhelming compulsion to lecture them on how they might cure themselves of their frailties. We believe that what was meant by the dismissive "racial scorekeeping" was this: We are trained professionals with college degrees and many years of experience in our field and it is our duty to protect our feeble-minded readers from themselves. You may cling to your racial scorekeeping, most likely because you are bitter, about something, but there will be no racial scorekeeping** on our watch (except, of course, when it comes to filling newsroom jobs).

The current Re-Rep---who we know to be a smart guy with probably the best news sense/judgment of any higher-up at that newspaper***---explained that the "theory" behind the current policy is that
the limited description of "a black man in his 20s" is so vague as to be meaningless. At the same time, it tends to promote the stereotype that young black men are likely to be involved in criminal activity.
We're down with the "so vague to be meaningless" explanation, if the result is that no published description at all is offered beyond "a man," although a "black man in his 20s" does narrow the possible pool of all suspects down a notch or two (it eliminates us, for instance and most importantly). But we have to wonder about the notion that such a description "tends to promote a stereotype." Is it the task of a supposedly objective, even-handed newspaper to do whatever is the opposite of promoting stereotypes (debunking stereotypes?) any more than it is to promote stereotypes?

We think this explanation, like that of editor's deployment of the racial scorekeeping pejorative, reflects an overinflated notion of the power and influence of the media to direct the thinking of their customers. Humans were stereotyping other humans, both inside and outside their tribes, centuries before there were any media, mass or otherwise, and have continued to do right up until 11:39 this evening, despite the local newspaper's circumspection with racial IDs. Stereotyping---or profiling, if you will---used to be a survival mechanism, now it's material for 1001 bad Comedy Central comedians, as well as a survival mechanism. Everyone does it (including you). It's part of the complex calculus of existence. (Our recent favorite episode of flagrant public stereotyping came courtesy of light heavyweight champ/chump Bernard Hopkins, who prior to his bout with Caucasian [a limey to boot!] Joe Calzaghe repeatedly proclaimed that he would "never lose to a white boy," then proceeded to have his ass royally kicked by the whitey.) Intelligent people of all hues recognize their prejudices and learn to work around them, usually by simply taking people as they come and without censorious moral instruction from the media.

Still, we think the Chronicle should hold off on any change in policy and simply await the glorious post-racial, post-ethnic and possibly post-gender future to be ushered in by President Obama.

*An exlcusive coinage of Slampo's Place Ltd., copyright 2008, unauhtorized use prohibited.

**"Racial Scorekeeping"---a great title/subject for a new blog: "Jews continued to hold a commanding lead today in the number of theoretical physicists, while Eastern Europeans made further inroads into NBA line-ups and African Americans stayed away from bowling alleys in droves ... "

***If favorable comment from this quarter might cause this individual any problems with his superiors, please substitute "roaring asshole" for "smart guy with best new sense, etc."


Kevin Whited said...

** The current Re-Rep---who we know to be a smart guy with probably the best news sense/judgment of any higher-up at that newspaper **

That's really hard to square with this.

While you're evaluating Chronsters.... what's your opinion on Tony Freemantle? The metro/state news coverage seems to have improved under his watch.

Slampo said...

Kevin, I based that casual judgment on personal experience, observation, gossip, hearsay, etc. I have no idea how that squares with the item you mention. I'd probably say the same thing if forced to defend what he's defending, although obviously the Chronicle could and should do much better in that regard, given its resources.