Racism and gun culture? Gotta be time for Bob in the Heights

The reasons why vary from topic to topic, but I don’t always have something worthwhile to say on every hot story du jour while it’s driving the cable news echo chamber nutty; the shooting of Trayvon Martin is one example.  But my friend Bob Eddy has something worthwhile to say about that, and related issues to which it gives rise, and I asked him to say it here; the comments button is right up there:

Watching, and listening, to the continuing story of the Trayvon Martin shooting—which after a good run in the media is already being pushed aside by our latest multiple shooting, in Oakland—I think beyond the hoodies and other nonsensical side stories basically lie two societal issues that continue to plague America today: racism and our gun culture. And I might add, a tip of the hat to today’s rabid media, which remain so ready to leap before looking. As soon as this story became hot (oddly, almost a month after the event) sides were taken. When did it all slide from investigative reporting of known facts toward conjecture and opinion? I’m guessing somewhere around the start of the 24/7 TV news cycle, which also gave birth to the polished and primped Ken and Barbie bobble heads passing for journalists today. Somewhere, Water Cronkite is crying in his grave.

No, I’m not accusing George Zimmerman of being a racist, but much like the Rodney King beating at the hands of the L.A. police and the O.J. Simpson trial, America’s visceral divide has suddenly become exposed and naked to the sun like the sensitive underbelly of a turtle tipped onto its back. Why is it that our country is so reluctant to talk about race—is it painful? Still too touchy a subject even 50 years past the civil rights movement of the 60s? That’s half a century, folks. Healing starts with self-awareness, not denial. The truth sets you free and allows you to move on. These thoughts were recently provoked by an excellent opinion piecein the Houston Chronicle.

Yes, the days of the Jim Crow laws are long gone, and we have a black president (even some black pro football coaches!), but this doesn’t negate the statistical facts (rate of unemployment and incarceration, to name two) that prove racism’s more subtle vestiges remain, revealing a less than level playing field in America today. Using the tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin as an easy example, I challenge anyone to look at me with a straight face and convince me that had the “colors” been reversed, the outcome would have been the same. Yes, I’m talking about a Twilight Zone world where an armed black man trolling the streets of a gated community follows a “suspicious looking” young white man—11 years younger and 20 pounds lighter than he, I might add—ignores the pleas of the 911 dispatcher to stay in his vehicle, and instead challenges, and then shoots the other man dead in a scuffle, declares self-defense, and after a brief trip to the station is set free with no charges filed.  “Well Mr. Washington, everything seems to be in order, just a couple of things to sign here…poor son of a bitch…now you be more careful next time, hear?”

Back on planet Earth, any black man cruising an affluent neighborhood in America today is much more likely (again, check the statistics for racial profiling) to experience only one thing: being pulled over and questioned, and if he’s lucky, that’s all. Ask Robbie Tolan, a [Houston area] 23 year old black male (and son of an ex-professional baseball player) who on New Years Eve 2008 was shot at three times (fortunately only wounded) by the local police after pulling into his parents’ driveway—in front of his hysterical and pleading mom! As a matter of fact, it was the cop’s manhandling of his mother that provoked Tolan, who was already lying on the ground as instructed, to protest. You see, unfortunately mom and dad lived in Bellaire, a predominately white and affluent city tucked inside of Houston, and, well, it was 2:00 in the morning, and there was the (inaccurate) report of a stolen vehicle…

To me, the bottom line is George Zimmerman in all probability wasn’t necessarily a bad guy; evidently, to many, he was even likable and would fall outside the definition, if there is such a quantifiable thing, of a racist. But on that day, against the advice of a 911 dispatcher and contrary to his training as a neighborhood watch person, he provoked a common misunderstanding, it quickly went south, and he chose to defuse the situation with a gun—sentencing Trayvon’s parents to an empty life of grief and unfulfilled dreams. For this he should be held accountable.

For those of you interested in a, granted, lengthy, but reasonable and balanced account of events leading up to this tragic shooting, I encourage reading this story in Sunday’s Times.

Which leads to our second national topic, and an important question I think America needs to ask itself today: are we, as a society, ready to accept armed neighborhood watchdogs? If yes, well, all I’ve got to say is get ready for a lot more of this. Does anyone really feel any safer? Certainly not Trayvon Martin. He’s dead. Welcome to the utopian world of the NRA, where roughly 30,000 Americans a year lose their lives to bullets, and every American—thanks to our permissive own and carry gun laws and under the protection of the “stand your ground” ruling (currently upheld in 27 states)—can legally find themselves judge, jury, and executioner in a split, life-changing second. Ask Joe Horn, of Pasadena, Texas, who in 2007 also chose to ignore the repeated advice of the 911 dispatcher he called, and while still on the line, shotgunned in the back two unarmed Hispanic burglars as they fled his neighbor’s house—and got acquitted of any charges. What a civic hero!

The fact that the latest gun rampage in Oakland is already relegated to “ho-hum,” on page five in my local paper, speaks volumes about our unique American culture. Oh, I know, I can hear the outcry now, as it did after the Virginia Tech massacre: “If only one of those students had a gun!!” Yes, any logical person can see that the answer to easy gun access is, well, more guns. Recently, 22-year-old Trey Sesler of Waller County, Texas had more guns—six, to be exact—and he used them to kill his parents and brother. Ho hum…

Who do we have to blame for this? No one but ourselves and the gutless politicians of both parties who bow down before arguably the most powerful lobbying organization in Washington today. After all, even after the nearly-successful assassination attempt on one of their own, Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, America watched as Congress, and this Administration, stood united in their silence. I mean, come on, when is the last time the NRA got slapped down on anything? Almost comically, these patriotic defenders of our Second Amendment recently became so imaginative in their quest to stay on a roll that they dreamed up muscling state legislation through in Missouri, Alabama, and Tennessee to protect gun owners from the scourge of discrimination. Say what!? Oh, the oppression and shame!

I guess my biggest puzzlement is I just don’t get the frothing, rampant paranoia of suppression—have you seen this recent “interview” of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre? Short of mail-ordering a howitzer from the back of a comic book, exactly what can’t your average gun enthusiast today do—hunt with a Gatling gun? Has Obama even mentioned the words “gun control” once since becoming president? Yet gun sales continue to skyrocket, because we all know “He’s going to take away our guns!!” Like the screwball prophets predicting the end of time, it’s coming any day now! Ironically, Barack Obama is the best thing that ever happened to gun shop owners.

Well, enough said…this horse got out of the barn a long time ago, and I can’t imagine what it would take to get it back in. But remember, citizens: stay vigilant! Guns don’t kill people—hoodies do.

Bob in the Heights

[One update: this week the police officers in the Robbie Tolan case, previously acquitted on the criminal charges, were dropped as defendants from Tolan’s civil suit by the federal judge hearing the case. PR]

Judging news judgment

I boarded this train of thought reading  Ted Koppel’s op/ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post in which he eloquently denounces the cable networks’ proliferation of opinion-as-news programming.  I mostly agree with his complaint that Fox News and MSNBC have given up any pretense of being objective in favor of creating an “idealized reality.”

They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.

In this essay Koppel seems to put a lot of the blame on the desire to turn a profit; I find that disturbing.  No one in this argument should be against the idea of the Koppel_11_25companies turning a profit, and Koppel himself has proudly noted in the past that Nightline made a pile of money for ABC, although he says they did so with high standards.  I see that Koppel, in the end, is lamenting the death of any effort at real reporting, the loss of any non-partisan effort to uncover facts that can illuminate the truth.

So last night on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann did what he does: protest perhaps a bit too much about being the subject of criticism and spend a lot of valuable minutes proving points that were never called into question.  Mostly though, he gratuitously blasted Koppel for not having done on “Nightline” what Olbermann believes he does on his program—seek for truth, particularly about the war in Iraq.  (Click on the picture to see the whole commentary; runs something over 12:00.)

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Credit where I think credit is due: Olbermann did his damnedest to get America to see the ugly truth about the Bush Administration and the Iraq war, in the spirit of Murrow’s takedown of Joseph McCarthy.  But as he himself has admitted, in a previous incarnation Olbermann squandered an inordinate amount of precious airtime on the Monica Lewinsky “story.”  Nobody’s perfect.

The important issue here is news judgment.  In Olbermann’s examples of Murrow’s reports from London, and when Cronkite made clear the fiasco of Vietnam and the importance of Watergate, their reports were  the result of a collective decision within their organization about what was news: what was important, what had lasting value, what did the audience need to know about.  In Koppel’s examples of the shouting heads on today’s cable network programs, the reports are the result of a collective decision within those organizations about what will grab attention: what is current, what has flash, what does the audience want to hear.

Koppel’s complaints focus on cable programs, not the broadcast networks and their news programs.  I don’t think those guys have any room to crow when it comes to news judgment when you consider their response to news from London of a wedding within the royal family: leading with the story as “breaking news,” dispatching armies of troops immediately to London, and planning major special reports.

Really?  Is there really anything more pointless, or with less real substance or import to our future, than the wedding of British royalty?  What does it say about our news media when we see them drool on themselves at this news?  Personally, I laughed at the headline Unemployed English girl to wed solider from welfare family, but that’s just me.

I’m not completely pessimistic about the future of journalism; I believe there will always be some place to get an honest recitation of what’s gone on, along with some perspective to help me make sense of my world.  But I know that it will not be from the Tribune Company’s TV station here in Houston.

KIAH-TV is moving ahead with a plan developed by the ousted corporate boss Lee Abrams to do away with traditional newscasts altogether.  They need “preditors” to run this new paradigm, and there’s no pretense: the ad says clearly that they aren’t interested in experience or credentials, they value the ability to make noise and grab attention; heat, not light…flash, not value.

And that’s fine, too—it’s their station and they can put whatever they want on their air.  But when it’s about news judgment, we all need to think about who we want to trust.

(Note: the spell-check dictionary didn’t like the word “Olbermann’s”; it recommended “Doberman’s”…I’m just saying.)

(Would you look at that: a post with Prince William, royal wedding, and Monica Lewinsky tags…I should be ashamed.)