Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘race

The Thin Black Line

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Thin Black Line

Today, I did a story about protestors marching on a library at Portland State University.  They were representing the “Don’t Shoot” PDX movement (PDX is the nickname Portlanders use for themselves in many cases.  PDX is the designation the FAA gives Portland’s international airport).  While capturing natural sound of the protestors, now inside the library, talking about why they were part of the march, one young white student named Ryan Miller said he is marching because he is afraid that eventually, the police will treat him in the same way as some say they have already unjustly treated people of color.

It was one of those moments of pure honesty that people say they seek, yet are still hard to hear.  As a journalist, for me it was pure gold.  And as a storyteller, I assembled the story and sent it off for airing.  But for a moment, I almost slipped into what I consider to be a bad place journalistically.

Listening to Ryan talk about his fears of being targeted by the police, it was clear to me that he was afraid that the privileged status of being white might one day not be enough to protect even him from police abuse.  And that reminded me of the poem, “First They Came” by 20th century pastor Martin Niemoller.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

According to Wikipedia, “Niemöller was an anti-communist and supported Adolf Hitler’s rise to power at first. But when Hitler insisted on the supremacy of the state over religion, Niemöller became disillusioned. His poem, is well-known, frequently quoted, and is a popular model for describing the dangers of political apathy.”  The labels may be different as they apply to Niemoller’s day, but the context seems sadly timeless.

Listening to Ryan, I had the brilliant idea of using Niemoller’s poem in the story.  And I did.  But it suddenly hit me that the poem would be equating the Portland Police to Nazis.  And although there may be many people who feel that way, I realized it is not my job to editorialize.  So I undid what I did and then I sent it for air.

The police often talk about how they represent a thin blue line that officers say is the barrier between ordered society and chaos.  I think it’s also the line cops try to not cross, lest they become the thing they say they are fighting against.  I think in journalism, there is a thin black line, which might symbolically represent the ink.  This side is as credible and balanced as is humanly possible according to the highest and best ethical standards.  And that side is soapboxing, muck-racking, yellow journalism and all of the worst aspects of the quill.  Sometimes, as we’ve seen in the change of fortunes from Dan Rather to Peter Jennings, the self-serving slide from one side to the other can be almost imperceptible.

I don’t like what’s been happening across the country for my own reasons.  But I don’t think it’s my job to turn my stories into weapons.  By contrast, the listeners will hear them, judge me, my story, the events I describe and make their own decisions.  That is how it should be.

Last few interviews

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I have really been enjoying talking to these folks I’ve had the good fortune to interview, especially recently.

Dar Williams is sweet and petite, but she’s been making music for 20 years, so she may look like Strawberry Shortcake, but I’m sure she’s tough as nails to be in the music business.  And her music is wonderful.

Caroline Miller is a free spirit in a jet pack.  At 76, she is simply one of the most fearlessly thinking people I have ever met.  She cried at retelling a story from WWII, and practically squealed with delight when we started talking about fractals.  I loved it.

Irma McClaurin is brainy and beautiful and an inspiration not only to young African men and women who might be seeking to point themselves in multiple directions, but an inspiration to me.  I’ve always felt blessed whenever I’ve met someone that made me think, “I could be better.”  She did and I’ll be looking for more and newer ways to make old behaviors less inefficient and new behaviors more nurturing.  Thanks, Irma.

Russell Hitchcock, who is 1/2 of the group “Air Supply” was a very gentle and friendly person to talk to.  He was open about his passions for his craft and his professional relationship with co-member Graham Russell, which by the way, is as good as it has always been.  He says they’ll be making music for a long time, but they each are free to make their own music.  He has made a great CD called “Russell Hitchcock Tennessee” which has a wonderful single on it called “How far is far enough away from Colorado?”  Air Supply doing country?  But, it sounds great.  And Graham Russell’s website is, as this is written, in the process of being built.  So, they both are very vibrant.

Finally, Charles Murray…. he and I had a conversation on the terrace of the Library of Congress about 20 years ago.  He was there for a speaking engagement related to his last book, “The Bell Curve.”  As a black man, I felt like, “I have to talk to this person to understand why he hates us so much.”  Of course now, looking back, that might’ve been me buying totally into the hyperbole against him of the time.  We had, as I remember, a civil and even interesting chat, but I could’nt help thinking, “I wonder if he is looking at me thinking, ‘Hmmm, this is a smart one.'”  Talking to him again recently and reading his book, I wondered if the backlash from the Bell Curve either directly or indirectly contributed to one use of the word “Negro” and almost no uses of the words “Black” or “African American” in the 417 pages of his newest book, “Coming Apart.”  I wondered if the backlash against his research and scholarship was so intense and vitriolic at the time that it might’ve somewhat burned him.  Then again, it’s probably much more likely that because the new book is only about problems he sees with white culture, blacks and other non dominant culture groups simply weren’t his focus.

He called this book his valedictory.  Valedictory, mean final.  And as he mentioned both in the interview and in his book, he is 68.  But in the interview, he wasn’t saying he was through writing as much as he feels he’s said all he can say about intelligence and race.  I respect Mr. Murray for having the courage of his convictions.  We all must.