Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Color Is That Baby???

By BOB HERBERT of The New York Times

I remember as a young deputy city editor at The Daily News attending my first “sked meeting,” a large gathering of editors held every afternoon to consider which stories would go into the next morning’s paper and how they would be played.

I was sitting at the far end of a conference table from the editor who was conducting the meeting. The News had very seldom had a black person at those gatherings. Mine was the only black face in the room.

One of the stories being pitched was about a baby that had been killed on Long Island. The editor running the meeting was completely relaxed. He was sprawled in his chair and was holding a handful of papers. His legs were crossed.

“What color is that baby?” he asked.

A tremendous silence fell over the room. Everyone understood what he meant. If the baby was white, the chances were much better that the story was worth big play. It might be something to get excited about.

Annoyed at not getting a response, the editor repeated himself. Then his eyes caught mine staring down from the other end of the table.

The Daily News has changed radically since those days, and my career flourished there. But that old story came to mind last week as I followed the lavish newspaper and television coverage given to the murder of a 21-year-old Wesleyan University student, allegedly by a man who had attended a summer course with her at N.Y.U. a couple of years ago.

There is no doubt that this was a tragic and compelling and, thus, newsworthy story. And I’ve long argued that we haven’t paid enough attention to the staggering number of murders committed in this country — well over 150,000 every 10 years or so.

But the press is still very color conscious in the way it goes about covering murder. Editors may not be asking, “What color is that victim?” But, on some level, they’re still thinking it.

Which is why we’ve heard so little about an awful story out of Chicago. Some three dozen public school students have been murdered since the school year began, most of them shot to death. These children and teenagers have been killed in a wide variety of settings and situations — while riding a city bus, playing in parks, sitting in the back seats of cars, in gang disputes, in robberies, in the crossfire of sidewalk shootouts.

It’s an immense and continuing tragedy. But these were nearly all African-American or Latino kids, so the coverage has been scant.

In contrast, the news media gave the public enormous amounts of information about the Wesleyan student, Johanna Justin-Jinich, and — in another big story — about Julissa Brisman, the masseuse who had advertised on Craigslist and was killed in a Boston hotel room last month.

It’s a searing double-standard that tells us volumes about the ways in which we view one another, and whose lives are considered to have value in this society and whose are not. Another disturbing aspect of the coverage is the extreme prurient interest that drives it. The press goes wild over stories about murderous attacks on women who are young, attractive and white.

A closer look at how and why the news media covers some of these stories is overdue. I’d like to see more coverage, not less, of murderous violence in the U.S. But I’d like that coverage to be much broader, more meaningful and less sensationalized.

It’s important to give readers and viewers some insight into the real lives of murder victims like Ms. Justin-Jinich, a talented student whose promise was extinguished in an act of madness, because it helps us to understand the absolute horror of murder and why we need to do much more to stop it.

But why overlook the humanity of so many others because of their ethnic background or economic circumstances? Surely the slaughter of dozens of Chicago schoolchildren is worthy of wide national coverage. CNN has covered the story, but there has been precious little coverage elsewhere.

The killings during this school year are an acceleration of the slaughter of previous years. Back in 2007, I got a letter from a woman named Rita Sallie, whose 13-year-old daughter, Schanna Gayden, was shot to death in a Chicago playground by a thug who was aiming at someone else.

“I cannot accept the fact that she is gone,” Ms. Sallie wrote, “or the way that she was taken from me and those who love her. I wish you could have known her.”

I spoke to Ms. Sallie by phone the other night. We talked about the latest round of killings, and about Schanna. “Oh gosh, that kid was funny,” she said. “She was so. ...”

Her voice trailed off and several moments passed before she could stop herself from weeping.

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