Sunday, August 12, 2007

That's news?

ABC7 photo

The metro section of the San Francisco Chronicle is the first, and often the only, section of the paper I read. It's where all the juicy local morsels that aren't quite worthy of front page coverage land. On Saturday, I was a little surprised to see bold black letters spread across the top of the page: "Dellums' difficult dealings with the media". That's news?

"Dellums" refers to the present mayor of the city of Oakland, former Congressman Ron Dellums. Christopher Heredia's article begins:

Ron Dellums' relations with the media, which have been strained over the years, hit a low point this week, when the Oakland mayor told reporters they were "cynical" for asking him to detail his plans to fight crime in the city.

The Thursday news conference at City Hall -- where the mayor was to announce his new anti-crime initiative -- had the appearance of a pep rally, with city staffers outnumbering journalists. Dellums allowed reporters only five or six questions after giving what sounded like a sermon about crime and violence at the national level and the need for journalists to not fan violence with sensational reporting.

Dellums told reporters they need "to move beyond 'if it bleeds, it leads.' "

The reporter then quotes three reporters and a journalism professor on the deficiencies of Dellums' media relations. Nothing in the article explains the context in which Dellums was speaking: his very African-American city is traumatized by the broad daylight, execution-style murder of a prominent African-American reporter who was investigating a corrupt, but well-known, African-American community institution. Here's a thoughtful and vivid account of how that trauma is felt by one Oakland resident.

Okay -- I'm willing to believe Heredia and the other reporters that Dellums is hard to get a statement from. He wasn’t very accessible to constituent opinions when in Congress -- I wouldn’t be surprised if he resents the cacaphony of citizen demands now that he is mayor. He should make sure he has an efficient, responsive press office. But at least he's speaking to the real mood of his city, not writing myopic, self-centered commentary.

I am sorry if the press don't like being reminded of it, but their outlets do thrive on stories and images of mayhem and murder. And it is not unfair to point out that those accounts fit neatly into dispiriting racial stereotyping of the Bay Area's largest Black enclave. No wonder Dellums gets pissy with the media -- the pervasive frame in which Oakland events are pigeon-holed makes his task harder.

Here's what Dellums wanted to get across in the offending press conference -- these points were the last paragraphs of Heredia's article:

The mayor said he is trying to educate the media about the impact reporters have with what they write and put on television and radio.

Constant images of violence hurt the community, Dellums said, and he wants reporters to realize that.

"This is life-and-death stuff," Dellums said. "Journalists need to be part of the solution."

"My point is cynicism breeds apathy and hopelessness at a time when we don't need that," the mayor said. "It's the enemy of people being activated and mobilized. ... I'm not anti- the press. I'm trying to be a thoughtful person. I'm trying to challenge people to think beyond boilerplate responses."

I don't think those are unreasonable thoughts to put to an audience of media workers.

I get a preponderance of my news from the internet and national newspapers. A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press presents a quantitative finding that people who use these sources are the persons most likely to be critical of media bias. Interesting stuff.


V Smoothe said...

I don't think the Chronicle article was quite able to convey Dellums's hostile attitude toward the press. He refuses to answer any questions, and in fact, gets angry with reporters when they ask him probing questions about his policies.

I have transcribed one such exchange here, and I think that if you read it, you'll have a better idea about the way Dellums deals with the press. A reporter asked the Mayor directly how the plan he announced last week was any different than the plan he announced five months ago, and his response was to ignore the question and tell her that "cynicism is crippling our community."

Dellums's message at the press conference was loud and clear. Don't ask questions, trust him, and the solution to our murder problem is for them to stop reporting murders. I can't believe that any engaged citizen would not find that disturbing.

janinsanfran said...

To v smoothe: I know Dellums can be an arrogant jerk.

But then I read something like this from a Bob Herbert column this morning: It has been almost six years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the nation’s consciousness of terror was yanked to new heights. In those six years, nearly 100,000 people — an incredible number — have been murdered in the United States.

No heightening of consciousness has accompanied this slaughter, which had nothing to do with terrorism. The news media and most politicians have hardly bothered to notice.

At the same time that we’re diligently confiscating water and toothpaste from air travelers, we’re handing over guns and bullets by the trainload to yahoos bent on blowing others into eternity in armed robberies, drug-dealing, gang violence, domestic assaults and other criminal acts.
NYT sub wall, so no link.

A city mayor honestly can't do much. We choose, repeatedly, to follow a morass of policies that make this a murder society. The media has a lot to answer for when "it bleeds; it leads" makes for the bulk of its reporting.

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