IN THESE (THERAPEUTIC) TIMES: The Times writes the great southern novel!

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21, 2011

Part 4—Whites (and blacks) left behind: Sometimes, the New York Times even provides real journalism.

Often, though, the famous newspaper provides other services. Consider Campbell Robertson’s front-page report on October 4—his or her news report about the alleged effects of Alabama’s new immigration law.

In part, this piece was journalistic; it provided some real information about a recent event. But largely, Robertson crafted a novel. His dateline said “ALBERTVILLE, Ala.” This is the way he began:
ROBERTSON (10/4/11): The vanishing began Wednesday night, the most frightened families packing up their cars as soon as they heard the news.
“The vanishing” began that night? Is that a journalistic term? As he continued, Robertson reported the way some Hispanics were leaving Alabama in response to the state’s new law.

But was Robertson mainly involved in journalism? Or was he serving other functions? In part, he was plainly writing a novel. Before too long, he had acknowledged his novel’s rather obvious template:
ROBERTSON: The vanishing began Wednesday night, the most frightened families packing up their cars as soon as they heard the news.

They left behind mobile homes, sold fully furnished for a thousand dollars or even less. Or they just closed up and, in a gesture of optimism, left the keys with a neighbor. Dogs were fed one last time; if no home could be found, they were simply unleashed.

Two, 5, 10 years of living here, and then gone in a matter of days, to Tennessee, Illinois, Oregon, Florida, Arkansas, Mexico—who knows? Anywhere but Alabama.

The exodus of Hispanic immigrants began just hours after a federal judge in Birmingham upheld most provisions of the state’s far-reaching immigration enforcement law.

[...]

John Weathers, an Albertville businessman who rents and has sold houses to many Hispanic residents, said his occupancy had suddenly dropped by a quarter and might drop further, depending on what happens in the next week. Two people who had paid off their mortgages called him asking if they could sell back their homes, Mr. Weathers said.

Grocery stores and restaurants were noticeably less busy, which in some cases may be just as well, because some employees stopped showing up. In certain neighborhoods the streets are uncommonly quiet, like the aftermath of some sort of rapture.
Robertson’s template was The Rapture, in which a whole population disappears from the earth. And make no mistake—the scribe was writing a novel. On whose authority did he say that “certain neighborhoods” in Albertville were “uncommonly quiet” this day? (Whatever that was supposed to mean.) Robertson cited no source for this claim. Does he know how quiet it normally is in this town’s different neighborhoods? Or was he just enjoying the liberties which go to those who type novels?

When Robertson did attempt journalism, his effort sometimes seemed peculiar. At one point, he pretended to buttress a major point by giving us a statistic:
ROBERTSON: When Judge Blackburn was finished, Alabama was left with what the governor called “the strongest immigration law in this country.” It went into effect immediately, though her ruling is being appealed by the Justice Department and a coalition of civil rights groups.

In the days since, school superintendents have reassured parents—one even did so on television in Spanish—that nothing had changed for children who were already enrolled. Wary police departments around the state said they were, for now, awaiting instructions on how to carry out the law.

For many immigrants, however, waiting seemed just too dangerous. By Monday afternoon, 123 students had withdrawn from the schools in this small town in the northern hills, leaving behind teary and confused classmates. Scores more were absent. Statewide, 1,988 Hispanic students were absent on Friday, about 5 percent of the entire Hispanic population of the school system.
Throughout this putative news report, we receive heart-rending descriptions of “teary and confused classmates” and the like. In these ways, a novelist lets us spot his novel’s heroes. But look what happened when Robertson decided to throw in a fact! Five percent of the state’s Hispanic students were absent? (Sorry—five percent “of the entire Hispanic population of the school system” This sounds more sweeping.) This masqueraded as evidence of “the vanishing”—of the rapture, the exodus. But:

Is five percent a high absentee rate? It didn’t sound real high to us. And sure enough: On October 15, Robertson filed a shorter report which seemed to say that the normal attendance rate for the state’s Hispanic students would be perhaps two points higher than it was on this earlier day, the day that was said to be part of the rapture. On a normal day, the attendance rate would be 97 percent. After the rapture—after the vanishing—it stood at 95.

Whatever this Times employee was doing, it wasn’t exactly journalism. In part, he was plainly writing a novel, providing his readers with the pleasures long derived from that form. But in part, he was providing a type of therapy—a type of therapy which is quite common at the slick, amoral Times. Robertson was letting his readers know that they are the better class of people—the class of people who don’t discriminate against Hispanics, the group which was cast as the innocent victims in Robertson’s novelized tale.

To state the obvious, people shouldn’t discriminate against Hispanics. They certainly shouldn’t discriminate against beautiful children who are living in Alabama only because their parents brought them there. (To see a few of their beautiful faces, click here. Obviously, those beautiful children have done nothing wrong.) To Robertson’s credit, when he quoted an unemployed Alabaman, the scribe was decent enough to say that this person didn’t seem to have a “problem” with the Hispanic workers themselves. (“Mr. Lolling’s problem seemed to be with the system that had brought the illegal-immigrant workers here, not with the workers themselves.”)

But quite plainly, Robertson’s novel made heroes of the one group—and it paid little attention to several others. Elsewhere in the New York Times, those other groups really did vanish—disappear.

Soon, the editors began to thunder and roar about this “shameful” new state law. As they did, the therapy services were ratcheted up—and the editors treated their readers to the kind of conduct which, in some other setting, might be seen as a form of soft bigotry in and of itself.

Robertson’s novel featured Alabama’s Hispanics. It paid little attention to other groups—although, to Robertson’s credit, he at least mentioned those other groups’ possible problems. He briefly mentioned prison inmates who may be losing job placements due to the presence of undocumented Hispanics. When he quoted that unemployed Alabaman, the Alabaman said that people like him were losing employment because of illegal immigration. But Robertson made little attempt to determine if those complaints were valid—and when the editors started to type, they ignored these other groups completely. Let us tell you a dirty secret about the New York Times’ lords and ladies: They simply don’t care for southern whites—especially for the ratty, working-class people they saw portrayed, some years ago, in films like In the Heat of the Night. The editors are older and more self-impressed now, but they formed their group preferences long ago. Being largely dumb and uncaring, they maintain their preferences right to this day. If you read the Robertson news report and the subsequent editorials, you had a chance to observe a fact about those at the Times:

The people who run this insular paper like certain groups a great deal—and they don’t care for certain others. Robertson’s novelized “news report” soon gave way to those editorials, which completely kicked native-born whites to the curb. In the process, the editors ignored native-born blacks who may need work in Alabama too. But these editors know who they like—and they know who they look down on.

It’s southern whites whom these editors scorn. But they’re willing to kick southern blacks to the curb as part of their dumb, ugly preference.

As such, we’re forced to note a strain of novelized near-bigotry in the work the editors have been producing. In their dunderhead editorials, Hispanics are the very good people—and native-born Alabamans are not. The native-borns are “xenophobes,” of course, though that isn't what their reporter said. (The editors love to throw bombs all around.) And to the extent that they may need jobs, these chimps don’t exist at all. Just read what the editors wrote about the way no one could possibly gain from the new state law (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/20/11).

Sorry, but there’s a strain of near-bigotry in such work. If you can’t see that from the editors’ scribbles, you may be a redneck too!

It’s hard to have sufficient contempt for the work of these insular, upper-class “editors.” They wear their prejudices on their sleeve—and these prejudices align with those of many Times readers. Robertson made little attempt to explore the claim that native-born, working-class Alabamans are being harmed by the influx of undocumented workers; the editors made no attempt to consider these people’s interests. Neither did your darling Rachel Maddow when she told you, by inference, that those native-born working-class people murdered four children in 1963, back on Birmingham Sunday. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/18/11. Remember when liberals used to complain about guilt by association?) Neither did Judy Woodruff, when she pretended to conduct a discussion of this law on the NewsHour.

Are native-born Alabamans, white and black, being harmed by the inflow of illegal immigrants? We don’t know, but we have an excuse: We read the New York Times, and we watch Woodruff and Maddow! In the upper-class (northern) cultural precincts patrolled by these tribunes, working-class Alabamans don’t count—unless they came from somewhere else. By way of contrast, working-class residents are showered with sympathy—as long as they aren’t native-born.

People! Divide and conquer!

That said, the Times presents a lot of novels—and it offers a lot of therapy, from the school called “moral superiorism.” In the past few weeks, it has handed you a front-page report which helped you see that you’re morally better than a teacher who would discriminate against a student who stutters. It has offered a front-page report which let you see that you’re morally better than people who would stare at a mixed-race family. In each case, the journalistic content of the report was virtually non-existent; these putative “news reports” were more like novels (or memoirs), novels designed to offer you therapy. We’ll have to say we have a somewhat similar reaction to Nicholas Kristof’s frequent columns about sexual assaults in the third world. These columns describe the world’s most disgraceful misconduct—but we’ll have to say that the purpose they serve strikes us as therapeutic. They connect to little other journalistic or political work. But when we read them in their endless number, they help us see how lofty our own values are.

In fact, they help us see how lofty we are even when we don't bother to read them.

Can we talk? There is little evidence that New York Times readers are better people than anyone else. But the paper routinely offers a service. In these therapeutic offerings, readers are told that they’re good enough and they’re smart enough and that, doggone it, people should like them. They care about Hispanics in Alabama—and this means that they’re good people. In the process of being pampered this way, they may not notice that they don’t give a flying fig about several other groups.

No one should discriminate against Hispanics—certainly not against innocent children brought to Albertville by their hard-working parents. But which groups really experienced a “vanishing” in that New York Times “news report,” in those editorials? In the report in which Rachel rode the backs of four dead children—just so she could help Our Tribe see how good and moral We are? As compared to those people?

Robertson wrote about one preferred group. When their school attendance dropped two points, this was described as “the vanishing.”

But which groups really disappeared in the Times? Funny you shouldn’t ask!

10 comments:

  1. It's interesting to compare the advertisements against the content in both the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. Both magazines have a tone that favors the poor and downtrodden, yet both are filled with ads that could only appeal to the upper-middle class and upper-class. Perhas that illustrates one of Bob's points -- that there is a class of wealthy cosmopolitan people who like to view themselves as heroic benefactors of the lower classes.

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  2. David in Cal:

    I subscribe to the New Yorker, but I can't afford most of the stuff advertised there (same for Harpers, except for some whisky). Most people who subscribe to them are probably better-off and cosmopolitan, but that doesn't mean that they can't genuinely care about the less well off in America...

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  3. Let's do some quick math here since that seems to be one of the main bones of contention in this posting.

    There are 39,760 hispanic students statewide. On a normal day 1193 (3%) are absent. After the law went into effect 1988 (5%) were absent. That's an increase of 66%, 795 students.

    Does this mean a "vanishing" or "rapture has occurred?

    I'd say that's being a little melodramatic but obviously the law has had a dramatic effect on school attendance among hispanics.

    If you saw a 66% increase in absences due to some other cause, say the flu, what would your reaction be?

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  4. I dunno, how much does the average fluctuate? Is 2% a weird fluctuation? You may want to look at this web page http://bit.ly/mUeRJ0 for some context about statistics.

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  5. "hardindr said...
    I dunno, how much does the average fluctuate? Is 2% a weird fluctuation?"

    It's 66% above the average before the law.

    You may want to look at this web page http://bit.ly/mUeRJ0 for some context about statistics.

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  6. hardindr, Admirably, you tried. You even admitted you don't know something. "Anonymous" knows all. Anonymous knows the average doesn't fluctuate -- it's 3% of attendance on every "normal day." Statistics, shmatistics. He throws what he's decided is the bone of contention back in your face.

    Q "I dunno, how much does the average fluctuate? Is 2% a weird fluctuation?"

    A "It's 66% above the average before the law."

    Anyone else might have confessed" "I too don't know if that's a particularly weird fluctuation."

    I don't know either. Anonymous hasn't helped me find out.

    He or she also of course hasn't really done anything to undermine Somerby's point about the hideous "journalism" on display at NYT, which point hardly relies on the law having no measurable effect on attendance anyway.

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  7. Anon above:

    Okay, 66% is the relative increase, while 2% is the absolute increase. The two are different, and can mean very different things, depending on the context. Often, large relative increases can mean very little, if the absolute increase is small. I'm not saying that is the case in school absenteeism in this case, but it something you have to be careful about, hence my link. I think it would have been helpful if someone would explain if this is the case.

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  8. Nona Nym said...

    "He throws what he's decided is the bone of contention back in your face."

    It's Mr. Somerby who raised the question about the reporter's use of the terms "vanishing" and "rapture" and its germane to his opinion that the reporter is trying to get us to believe we're better than "them."

    Nona Nym said...

    "Anyone else might have confessed" "I too don't know if that's a particularly weird fluctuation."

    I don't know either. Anonymous hasn't helped me find out."

    But Mr. Somerby has. He linked to another article in the Times which says 1,200 absences is NEAR NORMAL.

    Whether you want to use the term "weird fluctuation" or not, 66% above near normal is a substantial increase. A reasonable person might conclude reaction to the law created an ABNORMAL number of absences. In fact absences among Hispanic students hit a daily high of 5,300 compared to the near normal of 1,200 when the entire law was in effect.

    From the Times: " School superintendents appeared on television and at meetings urging parents to keep their children in school and telling them that the provision would not apply to them or their children."

    That alone should tell you lives are being disrupted in a major way which was the goal of the law and that's what the reporter was writing about.

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  9. Sounds like Campbell Brown is trying to be a modern day sob sister.

    a “sob sister,” [is] a stock figure that is more than a century old and is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “a journalist, especially a woman, employed as a writer or an editor of sob stories.”

    A sob story is a form of emotional pornography, “a tale of personal hardship or misfortune intended to arouse pity.” The audience for the sob story has traditionally been female...


    http://www.poynter.org/how-tos/newsgathering-storytelling/writing-tools/138056/how-nancy-grace-has-reinvented-journalisms-sob-sister/

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